Gray Zones: How Countries Are Fighting Wars Under Our Noses

In the past decades, countries have begun operating a middle ground between peace and war to pursue their militaristic ambitions without international scrutiny.


US DOD / Army Staff Sgt. William Howard

US Army Green Berets operate at night in Syria – a country that has become a battleground for insurgent groups and government-backed militias.

Last month, the Department of Defense announced the authorization of a Presidential Drawdown which granted Ukraine $500 million dollars in military aid – the thirty-fifth of such authorizations since April 2021 and the latest move in America’s involvement in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict. This marked the most recent contribution to a total of $36 billion dollars worth of aid sent by the U.S to Ukraine since February of last year, which has included nearly all military assets available short of landing American troops in Ukraine, ranging from ammunition, air-defense systems, tanks, and drones.

President Biden’s move shouldn’t come as a surprise if you understand America’s tendency to get involved in foreign wars, even if it has no intention to join the war itself. Since 2001, America has spent roughly $8 trillion dollars on combat-related expenses, despite the fact it hasn’t declared war on another country since WWII. This phenomenon isn’t unique to the U.S.; in recent years, many countries such as England, France, Iran, and China have followed this pattern of militarily intervening in foreign countries without formally declaring war. Most notably, Russia still hasn’t formally recognized their campaign in Ukraine as a war, with Russian President Putin referring to it as “a special military operation,” and only recently admitting the involvement of Russian troops in the Ukrainian region. While the invasion of Ukraine itself is a direct attack, Russia has used tactics to avoid accountability of some actions within the conflict, like their use of mercenary units to avoid repercussions for war crimes

This trend has signified a greater shift in how countries wage war in the modern age. Many nations have realized they can achieve their militaristic ambitions without declaring war, and often, it’s better if they don’t. Without being directly involved in a war with another nation, they can often avoid the scrutiny of the international community and gain plausible deniability for any actions committed during a conflict.

Powerful coalitions such as the United Nations and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), along with strict international laws, have forced countries to find loopholes. Some of these loopholes are to operate in areas known as “gray zones” – a limbo between conventional warfare and peace. Some experts have highlighted how activity in these zones effectively allow countries to avoid international persecution.

“Russia’s [recent] attack on Ukraine … is more like blatant, classic aggression. Russia’s previous support for separatists in Donbas since 2014 was more like gray-zone warfare,” explained Michael E. O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. “You see the benefits. Ukraine was destabilized,…Russia wasn’t severely punished economically, and Russia didn’t suffer many casualties.”

Other than the fact that aggressors get away relatively unscathed, gray zones have pushed countries closer to full-scale conflict than anything since the Cold War. Just last January, Chinese spy balloons were shot down throughout North America, and the Pentagon suspects that China launched similar operations throughout the globe. Although initial calls for retaliation on Capitol Hill eventually died down with Biden stating that the spy balloons weren’t linked to a Chinese spy program, it stirred the pot in already wavering U.S-China relations. Of course, China isn’t the only entity engaging in such activities. Recently leaked Pentagon documents revealed that the U.S. has been monitoring Russian and Chinese movements, as well as allies such as Britain and France, within their own borders and internationally, causing shockwaves within the international community.

Although gray zones have created a new way that militaries interact, it might seem as if nations have done this for centuries; one country goes too far in trying to gain an upper hand against a rival country and the country retaliates, causing a pendulum effect. Only now, almost everything that defines conventional warfare is blurred. Labels like “war” or “act of aggression” can’t apply to a situation where no country takes responsibility for their actions and blames them on entities separate from their government. This can be seen in Iran and China, where their governments have used private hacker contractors to infiltrate American data and in Saudi Arabia where private military contractors are used to deny ties to war crimes in Yemen. In doing this, the provocation-retaliation dynamic which has been played throughout history fails since there is no  clear aggressor, but the end result can still be devastating. 

“Some gray zone activity has a relatively modest effect; others, more so. A lot depends on what tools are being used, who they are being used against and when they are employed, so it’s hard to generalize,” said Raphael S. Cohen, director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE, and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. “The central argument is that Russian disinformation consists of throwing a lot of different narratives out there, many of which will fail and seeing what sticks.  A lot of other gray zone tactics work the same way, a lot fail but you only need a few to succeed to have a big effect.”

This dynamic exists between China and India in the Himalayas, where an ongoing border dispute in the Doklam Plateau has caused heightened tension and militarization in the region. While both countries claim sovereignty to the region, neither has used excessive force to prevent an outright conflict. Instead, the countries have opted to use intimidation, which has only led to more escalation. Both nations understand that if one were to incite a war with the other, the international repercussions would be devastating, especially since both countries’ economies rely heavily on exports. As a result, China has acted in the gray zone, aggressively taking action while hiding direct ties to their government, as in the Galwan Valley clash where Chinese troops wearing unmarked uniforms attacked and killed Indian troops.

Ever since its creation, warfare has constantly evolved, adapting to changes in human behavior, environment, and technological advances. However, only one thing remains constant — accountability. Now, gray zones and ambiguous laws regarding cyberwarfare allow countries or any entity to act with impunity and without fear of repercussions. Even further, international laws regarding warfare could slowly become rendered obsolete as actors find ways to circumvent them using separate organizations. 

Countries are finding ways to do just as much damage operating in gray zones as they would at war, making the overarching principle that “war is illegal” that has maintained relative global peace for decades, become irrelevant. As more countries turn to this new method of confrontation, believing they can avoid anti-aggression peacetime policies by using plausible deniability, the world could see another era of heightened aggression.

“The main reason states prefer operating in the gray zone is … plausible deniability,” said Major Ben Griffin, Chief of the Military History Division at West Point University. “A state can invest relatively little to achieve strategic gains and by working through proxies … without too great a cost. It also gives rival states a reason not to escalate when more brazen actions might force their hand… The Cold War’s proxy wars are an excellent example of previous employment of this. … In [this] instance, superpowers forced their rivals to expend large amounts of resources on relatively minor engagements.”

The first mention of the term “gray zone” occurred during the Cold War and was used to describe nations using all means at their disposal, short of waging war, to achieve their objective. Both the U.S. and the Soviets understood what an outright conflict would mean – a nuclear war with no winners – so they took deliberate steps to avoid it. Still, the two countries came up with ways to legally combat each other in ways that couldn’t incriminate them, but would disadvantage the other. 

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, proxy wars emerged across the globe where communist and democratic forces battled each other for control of another country. However, the forces were actually supported, in one way or another, by the U.S. or the Soviets, rendering the proxy states as mere middlemen for the bidding of the superpowers. 

After the end of the Cold War, nations who wanted to pursue their international ambitions without triggering a response from the global community still found uses for gray zones. North Korea became infamous for its use of close-proximity nuclear testing to intimidate neighbor rivals such as South Korea and Japan. Just recently, North Korea panicked Asian nations by conducting a nuclear test over Japan as a reminder of their capabilities, but it wasn’t enough to warrant retaliation. In this instance, North Korea wasn’t in direct violation of any law because it has signed very few nuclear-restricting agreements and has vetoed its declaration of denuclearization with South Korea in 2013. However, it was viewed by Japan and much of the international community as threatening and escalatory. 

Although countries have adopted gray-zone warfare, other non-government organizations (NGOs) have increasingly applied it in their tactics too – understanding that in doing so, they can carry out their goals without counteraction. Many NGOs doing this are backed by government entities and usually emphasize online campaigns, but even individual actors have started operating in the gray zone. Even a single person on a computer can spread misinformation on social media platforms, hack databases, or even pilot remote devices. ISIS was one of the first to exploit cyber-warfare to recruit new members and fly drones from miles away. Other terrorist groups and NGOs have also resorted to using the internet to further their cause, taking advantage of the fact it is increasingly difficult to incriminate hackers and laws surrounding cyber-warfare remain murky. 

“[Russia’s] efforts to hack Estonia following the removal of a statue in 2007, interfere in U.S. elections, and assassinate political dissidents throughout Europe are … good examples,” continued Major Griffin. “In the first two cases, they utilized criminal groups or non-state actors as carve outs to do the cyber-attacks and, in the latter, they used FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service) but while outrageous, they knew the actions were unlikely to trigger a military response.”

Barely any action is being taken to prevent the proliferation of gray zone uses, in part due to the fact the concept itself allows actors within to remain elusive and hard to implicate, but also because almost every modern-day country has engaged in gray zone activities themselves. While entities are using it to avoid all-out confrontations, gray zones are becoming a factor bringing countries closer to war. US-China and US-Russia relations are at a dangerous low as a result of recent microaggressions on both sides, like the U.S. militarizing the Taiwan Strait and confrontations between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria in the last decade.

“States like the flexibility operating in the gray zone allows them and while they dislike rivals doing the same; it is part of the cost of doing business in the present international system. As the variety of tools usable in these conflicts increase due to greater cyber and space capabilities, more powerful criminal networks [appear], and [there is] greater dissemination of military technology I would expect [gray zone warfare] to expand over the near term,” Major Griffin concluded. 

As always, countries will find new ways to fight, regardless of whatever laws are implemented. Right now, the world’s policy making decisions are severely lagging behind its technological progression, which has allowed international transgressions to go unchecked. Gaps in laws pertaining to cyber, drone, and other gray zone warfare tactics have allowed countries to become emboldened to act aggressively. Until the world catches up, a cascading effect of escalation will ensue, threatening to disrupt nations’ integrity on every scale, from data breaches on their citizens’ electronic devices to full-scale invasions of their own countries.

“States like the flexibility operating in the gray zone allows them and while they dislike rivals doing the same; it is part of the cost of doing business in the present international system. As the variety of tools usable in these conflicts increase due to greater cyber and space capabilities, more powerful criminal networks [appear], and [there is] greater dissemination of military technology I would expect [gray zone warfare] to expand over the near term,” said Major Ben Griffin, Chief of the Military History Division at West Point University.