Russia and the Catalan secessionist crisis. A strategic campaign in the 'gray zone’

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Mosaic Blog

The concept of 'gray zone' refers to the space within the spectrum of the conflict that separates the politics as usual, respectful of the legal limits, (white) and the open armed confrontation (black).

Strategic actors competing in the gray zone try to achieve political objectives that would hardly be accomplished through a bona fide political and legal practice. At the same time they don’t want armed confrontation, with prohibitive costs and uncertain consequences. Instead of this they opt for long-term approach, gradualist and wrapped in the mist of ambiguity.

The conflict in the gray zone can include different strategic action lines:

  • Political subversion, supporting certain political opposition groups to generate confusion, to widen divisions and to complicate decision-making processes. The support to far-right anti-EU parties by Moscow media is an example.
  • Economic coercion, through commercial practices that reinforce political pressure. For instance, China temporarily suspended sales of rare earths to Japan in 2010 after the arrest of Chinese fishermen in a dispute over territorial waters. Pekin also delayed through inspections the purchase of bananas from the Philippines until they rotted on the docks in order to put pressure on his government in the dispute over Scarborough Reef in the South China Sea.
  • Influence operations, creating a framework that delegitimizes the adversary and feeding the narrative with biased information or with misinformation. This effort can be amplified in social networks by the synergy with individuals and groups that share a common adversary or a similar cause.
  • Cyber-attacks against public and private entities that, in addition to intimidating, visualize the vulnerability of the adversary state. It can be cyber-attacks of different level: from temporary denial of service on institutional websites that entails a slight annoyance, to actions of greater importance such as cyber-attacks suffered by Estonia in 2007. The difficulty of confirming the authorship of this type of episodes fits comfortably to ‘gray zone’ strategies, characterized by their ambiguity.
  • Sliced ​​salami tactics, obtaining gradual gains that hinder a severe reaction on the part of the adversary. The construction of artificial islands with military installations by Beijing in the South China Sea is another example.
  • Faits accomplis, that poses a challenge to the adversary’s deterrence. The counterpart is in an awkward position if he not reacts immediately. The Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 is a clear exponent.
  • Coercive military deterrence, intimidating through shows of force such as large-scale military exercises near the border, or violating repeatedly the maritime or air space of neighbors (as Russia repeatedly does in the Baltic).
  • Proxy wars, where a government supports a proxy (other start or an armed non-state actor) against a strategic rival. Currently, the United States and Russia are waging a proxy war in Ukraine, where both are militarily backing opposing contenders. The same thing has happened in the context of Syria's civil war between various regional and extra-regional powers. And even earlier in the confrontation of Iran against Israel through proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Strategies in the gray zone are attractive tools in an international context characterized by what Walter Russell Mead calls the return of geopolitics: a distribution of relative power encourages major powers such as Russia and China to try to alter the status quo built by the United States and to try to reaffirm their respective spheres of influence in neighboring regions. In fact, the conflict in the gray zone is not new at all. During the Cold War the hostility between the United States and the USSR was channeled through such strategies.

Russia is waging its particular conflict in the gray zone against the European Union. In addition to concrete motivations - such as avoiding the enlargement of the eastern borders of NATO and the EU, and ending the sanctions related with the conflict in Ukraine - there is a fundamental structural reason: to prevent the consolidation of a powerful geopolitical actor in West. The distribution of GDP in this decade and the forecasts of long-term economic growth reflected in the following map help to understand Moscow's misgivings about a cohesive and effective EU in terms of foreign policy.

Source: Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre (2014), Strategic Trends Programme Global Strategic Trends - Out to 2045, UK Ministry of Defence, p. 7.

This framework helps to understand the strategic opportunism of Russia in the Catalonia’s secessionist crisis. And the ambiguous nature of the means employed: favorable coverage by RT news channel and other pro-Russian websites, and use of bots in social networks to multiply the impact of news (including fake news) and messages favorable to secessionism.

This explains that the four main influencers on Twitter on the Catalan independence issue have been the accounts of Julian Assange, RT, Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. At the same time the Kremlin has avoided to support the secessionists, considering the crisis an internal affair. This ambivalence is congruent with the ambiguity of the gray zone.

The Catalan secessionist crisis logically has its own origins. But, at the same time, it has attractive ingredients to Moscow calculations. It distracts the attention of the European Parliament and Brussels’s decision-makers, it fuels tensions between the Member States, it fosters social and political polarization, and it invokes the most dangerous ghost in the history of 20th century Europe: nationalism.

Javier Jordan is Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the International Security Studies Group in the University of Granada, Spain.