It is not a new Cold War: they are ‘gray zone’ conflicts

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Mosaic Blog

In a previous article on Russia and the Catalonian secessionism I mentioned the ‘gray zone’: that intermediate space in the spectrum of conflict that separates the conventional political competition (white) from armed conflict (black). Although the term is relatively new its content is old: the Cold War was in great measure a gray zone conflict.

Currently a major activity in the gray zone is observed. Some talk about a new Cold War but it is an imperfect comparison. We have not come back to a bipolar World with two blocks, ideologies and political-economic systems (capitalism and communism) confronted.

What exist is a growing rivalry between great powers that very likely will persist and even will intensify in the coming years. The assertiveness of Moscow marking its sphere of influence (Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Transnistria…) or sowing confusion –and distraction– within its rivals (USA and European elections, including the conflict in Catalonia) is an indication of that. China’s actions in disputed islands and international waters in the South China Sea are also framed in the gray zone conflict.

This trend is due to two evident reasons: 1) the return of multipolarity; with regional powers trying to subvert the international order led by the United States; and 2) the clear idea that an armed conflict between great powers would have catastrophic and unpredictable consequences. War between states in order to alter the status quo lost strategic sense long time ago. But other strategic alternatives exist to obtain substantial gains without crossing the threshold of the armed conflict. 

In addition to these two obvious reasons, choosing the gray zone conflict offers several advantages:

  • Gray zone conflict permits to achieve goals in the long term. It is possible to advance little by little, in a gradual way. This helps to: a) generate ambiguity and b) to keep the initiative. In the spectrum of conflict the difference between war (black) and gray is easy to establish. The true difficulty lies in other side of the scale: to distinguish the gray from politics ‘as usual’, bona fide competition, etc… The difference between the gray zone conflict and the international politics according to widely accepted norms is in many cases unavoidably subjective. And here lies precisely one of the great advantages of this strategic option: its ambiguity. This intended ambiguity difficult the detection of and the responses to hybrid activities in the gray zone. For the opponent is difficult to determine when the gray zone conflict has begun and that interval is exploited by the aggressor.
  • The strategies employed in the gray zone conflict are multidimensional (also known as hybrid). Military supremacy is not necessary to achieve gains in this spectrum of conflict. Hybrid strategies entail the use intended, multidimensional and comprehensive of different tools of power: political, economic, social, informational, diplomatic and also military. The peculiarity of the military tool in these strategies is in many cases its symbolic character with a coercive purpose. The military assets are employed to signal, to intimidate and/or to delimitate spheres of influence. Exceptionally the military assets are used to support third actors in a proxy war in a dyad of conflict different to that of the gray zone. The war in Syria is a clear example of proxy war where regional (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel) and extra-regional powers (USA and Russia) compete in the gray zone.
  • As part of the gradualism, the aggressor carries out in certain circumstances ‘faits acompli’; some of them particularly striking (Crimea for example). It is a more dangerous strategic option but entails some advantages. It permits to obtain valuable gains in one step and at the same time it puts the opponent in an uncomfortable dilemma: to admit the new status quo or to react and revert a new reality. Another possibility is the use of ‘salami tactics’ in order to get low profile accumulative gains and to avoid a severe reaction by the opponent. The small entity of any gain does not justify the use of military force and leaves space to a diplomatic arrangement. They are erosion tactics that generate profits and degrade the credibility of opponent’s deterrence.
  • The non-democratic character of some regional powers (for example, Russia and China) streamlines its decision-making process and offers greater margin of maneuver in order to trespass international legality. The decision-making of these countries is highly personalized, is more centralized and is less constrained by institutional checks and balances. This supposes a competitive advantage in dealing with democracies, which require a greater level of consensus prior to respond. The situation is even worse if the decision must be taken at a multinational level (NATO, EU): in that case their decision cycle is overly surpassed by the gray zone aggressor as it happened during the Ukraine crisis in 2014.
  • Information and communication technology advances and the empowerment of individuals and groups thanks to them –especially in democratic systems– offer numerous opportunities in the implementation of gray zone strategies. They facilitate influence operations creating biased interpretative frameworks which are complemented with fake news, conspiracy theories, disqualifying rival sources, etc. Influence operations take advantage of the interest coincidence with some social groups in adversary society (it is interesting to observe the sympathy of Western radical right and radical left towards Putin or the news channel RT). Sometimes influence operations use transnational organizations or global influencers like Wikileaks and Julian Assange. All this contributes to intensify ambiguity, to sow division in the opponent society and to complicate the decision-making process of the geopolitical rival still further.

All this advantages favor the strategic option for the gray zone conflict currently and very likely in the decades ahead.

A more detailed analysis on gray zone conflict can be found in this article (in Spanish) of the author

Javier Jordan is Associate Professor of Political Science and member of GESI at the University of Granada, Spain | Twitter: @JavierJordanE