Russia vs Ukraine: Flaws in Western Grey Zone Theories

Russian tanks take part in an exercise in Crimea in March 2021. Courtesy of Sergei Malgavko / Alamy Stock Photo

Russia’s deployment of troops to the border with Ukraine shows that the West has focused on the wrong aspects of its deterrence policy, and fundamentally misread Russia’s intentions.

For the second time this year, Russian ground forces are building up on the borders of Ukraine. And, according to reports citing US intelligence officials, these may be preparations for an invasion of Ukraine this winter. The Kremlin has denied any wrongdoing and takes pains to point out that it is well within its rights to move its forces around its own territory, while simultaneously pointing to the various NATO exercises in the Black Sea and Europe as reasonable grounds for a military response.

To all intents and purposes, the Western powers appear to be unwilling to stop Russia if Moscow decides to invade Ukraine. Fundamentally, Ukraine has a much higher value to Russia than it does to the West, and the response to Russian forces gathering on Ukraine’s border shows this. US President Joe Biden is reportedly considering sending military advisers and additional weapons, but no concrete guarantees like those offered to the Baltic states. President Vladimir Putin is likely aware of this, and so the Kremlin has the initiative in any escalatory actions taken over Ukraine.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Russian force build-ups in 2021 is that they show the true nature of the way in which Russia guarantees its own security and the threat that it potentially poses if not properly addressed. The most dangerous threat to NATO’s borders is not a handful of Russian soldiers without insignias, nor is it a coordinated cyber attack. It is a conventional military escalation led by the Russian Ground Forces. The events on Ukraine’s borders show that the public discourse around hybrid warfare has outgrown its utility as a tool for understanding Russia. It has never been a strategy that Russian theorists have identified as uniquely Russian, attributing it instead to the West. Because of this, greater focus must be placed on the role of conventional deterrence and coercion within Russian foreign policy to gain an improved understanding of how events on NATO’s borders would be likely to evolve in the event of a conflict.

Hybrid in the Eyes of the Beholder

Russian military theorists and senior staff do not recognise hybrid warfare as a tool of their own. Instead, since he discussed the notion in 2013, General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, has repeatedly attributed the concept to the US and its partners. The charge, broadly speaking, is that the US uses non-governmental forces, governmental coercion in the form of international sanctions and collective punishment, as well as cyber attacks and information campaigns that are all supported by the threat of conventional force, to influence outcomes in its favour. As far as Russia is concerned, these techniques have been used to unleash the 2011 series of popular revolts in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring, as well as ‘regime change’ campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. Russia’s response to this has been to incorporate some of these tools in its own foreign policy. However, Moscow’s primary goal has remained guaranteeing security through conventional deterrence.

From 2008, the Russian armed forces embarked on an ambitious and lengthy reform and modernisation process under Minister of Defence and Chief of the General Staff Anatoly Serdyukov. According to Michael Kofman, a research fellow at the Center for Naval Analyses, Serdyukov was realising the intellectual heritage of the Chief of the Soviet General Staff, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, who had envisaged a technologically advanced army capable of defeating NATO’s emerging network-centric warfare. The goal of the modernisation was to revolutionise the Russian model of warfare, enabling it to fight in a conventional war with NATO, without necessarily having to rely upon its nuclear deterrent. Doing so improves Russia’s feeling of security, and the outward representation of this is the largely successful intervention in Syria, where Russia has managed to prevent what it sees as the Western-orchestrated overthrow of a friendly regime.

Public discourse on the threat posed by Russia has tended to emphasise the risks posed by grey zone tactics above those of conventional warfare

The modernisation programme has led to the ‘kalibrisation’ of Russia’s surface fleet, enabling it to strike targets at sea and on land throughout Europe from the safety of Russian waters. Long-range precision strike assets such as Iskander-M are now found throughout Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, enabling them to hold at risk vast tranches of NATO’s borders, including civil and military infrastructure. This has all been accompanied by a modernisation of Russia’s air defence assets and its ground forces, leading to an erosion of NATO’s technological superiority. The greater distribution of cruise missiles and other precision effects, combined with what is arguably the world’s most advanced and lethal layered air defence system, means that Russia’s conventional forces represent a credible deterrent, against which the outcomes of any military action would be uncertain at best.

Dangers of the Hybrid Label

Still, Russia’s actions in the seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent involvement in the war in Ukraine set the pattern for what has been viewed in the West as hybrid warfare, in which a combination of non-state actors, cyber attacks, special forces and electronic warfare, backed up with the threat and occasional use of conventional force, were used to wrest control of the Crimean peninsula and destabilise Ukraine by drawing its armed forces into a prolonged and bloody conflict.

This has led Western analysts, armed with their hybrid warfare ‘hammer’, to see nails everywhere. Any appearance of the infamous Wagner mercenaries immediately becomes an outward sign of Russia’s ‘grey zone tactics’, as opposed to a private organisation seeking financial gain. Russia’s cyber attacks fall into a similar niche: the 2020 SolarWinds attacks, for instance, have been branded as cyber espionage and therefore an element of Russia’s grey zone tactics, instead of simple espionage. Equally, the migrant crisis on the border between Belarus and Poland – blamed partly on Putin – has been labelled as a possible prelude to ‘something much worse’.

The outcome of this is that public discourse on the threat posed by Russia has tended to emphasise the risks posed by grey zone tactics, seemingly above those of conventional warfare. While serving as the UK’s Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter warned in 2018 that cyber attacks on military and civilian infrastructure were one of the biggest threats posed by Russia and other hostile states. And more recently, in August 2021, Edgars Rinkevics, the Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs, told the Financial Times that Russian and Belarusian weaponisation of migration risked an unintended escalation. NATO has developed and adopted a counter-hybrid strategy of which conventional deterrence is apparently a part. However, much of the Alliance’s media instead focuses on how to counter the hybrid threat.

The unconventional elements of Russia’s approach to its relations with NATO and the rest of the world arguably represent the most significant threat that the country poses. However, there also needs to be a public discourse on the very real conventional threat, which would be used to target military and civilian infrastructure in the event of war. While NATO might not have the appetite for a conventional military response to events in Ukraine, it is time for a greater debate around what conventional threats and deterrence in the Russian context would mean for European citizens. For example, how would NATO control the escalation arising from Russia targeting a power station with kinetic or cyber effects in a bid to compel the host state to alter its course of action?

Cross-Domain Coercion

Nonetheless, it is apparent that Russia has adopted an attitude that encourages cross-domain coercion as part of day-to-day politics, and that Russia perceives itself to be in a constant state of competition with the West. This has been well-documented by Kofman and Dmitry Adamsky, among others, and Russia is certainly trying to garner favour in other countries through the use of mercenaries and military advisers – a strategy that was standard for the Soviet Union.

However, Western militaries and governments have concerned themselves with countering this threat at the expense of understanding Russia’s intentions.

For all of the bold words promising ‘grave consequences’ should Russian troops enter Ukraine, there is little sign that NATO actually possesses the will or the means to rebuff a Russian incursion

Russia wants what it has always wanted: security along its borders against a bloc of countries that have invaded it and caused horrific trauma on multiple occasions. It does not view NATO as a benign collection of militaries with similar political systems, but as a military alliance with the express purpose of prosecuting a war against Russia and its interests. The answer to this has been a conventional force build-up as the primary guarantor of Russian security. Cyber attacks, mercenary deployments and threats of energy restriction are all tools designed to shape the operating environment, but the ultimate security guarantee falls on the shoulders of Russia’s armed forces. They provide the kind of security that cyber attacks and ‘little green men’ cannot achieve.

A Very Conventional Build-Up

The build-up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border for the second time in 12 months exposes this flaw in the Western way of thinking. For all of the bold words promising ‘grave consequences’ should Russian troops enter Ukraine, there is little sign that NATO actually possesses the will or the means to rebuff a Russian incursion.

Equally, NATO has not credibly communicated the risks attached to any action against Ukraine and has chosen to remain vague about its attitude. All of this means that at a very simple level, Russia may have calculated that the potential benefits of a new campaign in Ukraine likely outweigh the risks, and that the campaign would ultimately prove successful.

If we are to take Russia seriously as a threat, there needs to be an understanding that deterrence will require adaptations to risk appetites and expected outcomes. Russia’s actions around Ukraine indicate that it might be seeking to compel either Ukraine or NATO to agree to a change in the status quo in Europe, by accepting a new division of the continent into spheres of influence.

And if Moscow chooses to do this, it is unlikely to be accomplished with soldiers in unmarked uniforms, or cyber attacks led by Russia’s intelligence agencies. It will be achieved through the artillery tubes and targeting systems of the 1st Guards Tank Army, or some other formation that is well-placed to conduct conventional operations. It stands to reason that NATO should prioritise the latter outcome of Russian foreign policy in its public discourse before it countenances the nuisance tactics that are at the centre of current hybrid warfare theories.

The latter are certainly more likely, but the conversations that have been held around these unconventional threats mean that they are relatively well-understood, and there are systems in place to minimise their impact. In addition, by moving away from siloed discussions of hybrid warfare, the West will gain a better understanding of the way in which Russia actually seeks security when it is threatened. Lessons from the build-up on Ukraine’s borders can therefore inform the way in which NATO attends to the security of its own members.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Sam Cranny-Evans

Associate Fellow

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