Chronology of Possible Russian Gray Area and Hybrid Warfare Operations
December 8, 2020
Anthony H. Cordesman with the assistance of Grace Hwang
This chronology explores the full range of Russian competition with the United States. It focuses on the need to address all of the key aspects of this competition, including Russia’s “gray area,” hybrid warfare, and multi-domain/joint combined-domain operations.
It takes a different approach to defining such operations from those used in a number of official sources and other reports. As is discussed later in this chronology, the official and other open source reporting now available have serious limits.
As a result, this chronology is designed to illustrate key patterns in Russian activity that compete directly and indirectly with the United States, and it serves as a starting point for a more comprehensive analysis. It highlights the need to look beyond the boundaries of the current definitions of “gray area,” hybrid warfare, and multi-domain operations, as well as beyond the narrow focus on direct competition between the U.S. and Russia that excludes indirect competition involving other countries and non-state actors as well as Russia’s increasing cooperation with China.
It stresses the need to give the civil side of competition the same priority as the military and war fighting aspects of U.S. and Russian competition – and to do so on a global basis that stresses the fact that the most successful form of competition may be in the lower-level gray areas where there is little or no direct use of force in combat.
Many Russian low-level operations, cyber espionage, and political acts are only reported as serving commercial interests, reflecting local claims or interests, or supporting Russia’s broader security needs rather than as acts directed towards competition with the United States.
Many others are covert or involve indirect action, compete through the support of unofficial disinformation campaigns, use supposedly private business and NGO activities, or operate with the support of foreign state and non-state actors.
At the same time, this is also a working document that can only cover a limited number of the events involved in any given area of competition and that only highlights part of the major areas of competition – or campaigns – where Russia now competes. It is, however, being revised and expanded over time, and the authors will be grateful for any suggested revisions and additions. Please send these to Anthony H. Cordesman, Burke Chair in Strategy, at email@example.com.
Finally, it is a supplement to a much broader analysis of U.S. strategic competition with both Russia and China that addresses the wider aspects of the changing military balance and the impact of broad areas of civil competition. This analysis is entitled U.S. Competition with China and Russia: The Crisis-Driven Need to Change U.S. Strategy. It is available on the CSIS website here.
Organizing the Chronology by Campaign
The following portions of this chronology address these issues by organizing the broad range of Russian gray zone and multi-domain civil and military operations into geographical regions where Russia is attempting to assert its influence and compete with the United States. No attempt is made to address every case.
The chronology also provides a map that color coordinates these operations into specific campaigns. These campaigns can represent either positive or negative gray zone operations. It is to be noted that countries which have a brighter and more vivid hue of a campaign’s color signify a strong positive economic, military, or civil relationship with Russia. These include, but are not limited to, arms sales, access to natural resources, military alliances, and joint civil development projects.
For the purposes of this analysis, countries that remain gray demonstrate either a neutral relationship with Russia or a relationship that does not share significant – whether it be positive or negative – statecraft with Russia. However, that does not negate the fact that Russia may be attempting to further develop its relationship with these countries.
The following map includes the Active Measures campaign, the Nuclear campaign, the Broader West/EU campaign, the U.S.-Russian Bering Strait Air and Maritime Campaign, the Southeastern Europe/Western Balkans campaign, the Western Border campaign, the Near Abroad campaign, the Syrian campaign, the Middle East campaign, the Sino-Relations campaign, the Africa campaign, the Latin America campaign, the Southeast Asia/India campaign, and the Arctic campaign.
Key Russian Gray Area, Hybrid, and Multidomain “Campaigns”
The chronology flags illustrative recent examples of Russian action in the following major areas of Russian competition:
- The Active Measures campaign is a broad influence campaign specifically against the United States. These gray zone operations range from espionage to cyber-attacks to election meddling.
- The Nuclear Campaign is Russia’s attempt to maintain a strategic advantage against the United States with its nuclear arsenal.
- The Broader West/EU campaign is similar to the Active Measures campaign, but it targets mainland Europe, and more specifically NATO. Gray zone operations also include espionage, cyber-attacks, and meddling, but they also heavily use trade coercion and military demonstrations near NATO sites.
- The U.S.-Russian Bering Strait Air and Maritime Campaign is a passive military campaign which engages U.S. forces by challenging the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone and the Bering Strait maritime border.
- The Southeastern Europe/Western Balkans campaign is a more targeted campaign towards the geographical and cultural region that can be coerced to sharing favorable relations with Russia. Many of these countries either already have membership to the European Union and NATO or they have attempted to join, but these countries also have the opportunity to be influenced more heavily by Russia.
- The Western Border campaign includes the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia. These countries are more favorable toward the West and hostile toward Russia. This campaign is more specific than the Near Abroad campaign because although these countries are also post-Soviet states, Russia uses more aggressive and negative gray zone operations, specifically the threat of territorial occupation.
- The Near Abroad campaign uses gray zone operations on states of the former Soviet Union (FSU) including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Moldova. Many of these operations involve positive trade unions and diplomatic relations.
- The Syrian campaign reflects Russia’s military efforts in the Syrian Civil War, which also involves Russia’s relations with Turkey.
- The Middle East campaign reflects Russia’s attempt to expand its influence in the Middle East with the Gulf States, Israel and the Levant. There has been limited progress in this campaign, but it is still notable to track with Russia’s presence in Syria.
- The Sino-relations campaign shows the history of the Russia’s attempts to develop a stronger relationship with China.
- The Africa campaign has recently received high levels of attention by the Kremlin to expand its influence on the African continent. This campaign includes debt forgiveness, Russian access to natural resource, military training, and a practice ground for Russian private military companies (PMCs).
- The Latin America campaign reflects Russia’s expanding influence in the backyard of the United States. Although Russia has very novel relationship with most countries in Central America and South America, it has already developed notable relations with Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
- The Southeast Asia/India campaign is a campaign that expands Russia’s relationship in the region. However, due to China’s strong presence, Russia has only formed initial relationship although they do include some arms sales.
- The Arctic campaign focuses on Russian gray zone operations to stake a claim to the natural resources and strategic military position in the Arctic.
This report entitled, Chronology of Possible Russian Gray Area and Hybrid Warfare Operations, is available for download at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/200702_Burke_Chair_Russian_Chronology.pdf
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.