If Putin Pursues ‘Grey Zone’ Tactics in Ukraine, He’ll Be Tough to Stop
David Rothkopf – February 18, 2022
President Joe Biden has stated he believes Vladimir Putin has made the decision to invade Ukraine. Now comes the hard part.
The Biden administration and Western allies have done exemplary work, thus far, in their response to the unprecedented threat to Ukrainian and European security posed by Russia.
It has required multiple levels of diplomacy, from the leader-to-leader exchanges like the one between President Joe Biden and key allies on Friday to the active roles played by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, senior State Department officials, top officials from the Pentagon, the National Security Council, and the intelligence community. It has taken weeks to orchestrate a unified, forceful response to Russia’s menacing of its neighbor, and also to work on a constructive dialogue with Moscow.
It is not to be minimized. Indeed, in and of itself, it has been a remarkable display of statecraft. But what comes next will be even more challenging.
What Happens to Ukraine Matters to Every American
Right now, Vladimir Putin seems to have boxed himself in. In the view of senior U.S. government officials as of Friday, the Russian leader—perhaps fearful of looking weak after being faced down by Western leadership he clearly underestimated—is committed to a massive invasion of Ukraine.
In the event an invasion is launched, sweeping sanctions against Russia will be triggered that very instant. Significant civilian casualties will likely cast Putin as a war criminal in the eyes of most of the planet. And he will need to quickly withdraw or risk being bogged down in a protracted and costly guerilla war—as he undoubtedly remembers the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan was both horribly unpopular and hastened the USSR’s demise.
That’s why many analysts expect Putin to seek a path that limits its downside while delivering enough upside so that he can claim “victory.”
In the event of a full invasion, that means getting out as swiftly as possible. One way that could play out is he invades, seizes the two regions for which “separatists” have been fighting for the past eight years, and perhaps also the “land bridge” that would connect Crimea to Russia. If he can destroy or severely weaken Ukraine’s army during this rapidly unfolding scenario, all the better for the Kremlin. Similarly, if he’s able to trigger a change in the Ukrainian government that was seen as more pro-Russian, it would be a clean sweep of his core objectives.
If Putin could move tidily in and out of Ukraine very quickly, in just a few days, it would put a strain on the Western alliance. That’s because key European countries, like Germany, do not want to endure the protracted economic costs to their own countries that would be directly tied to sanctions against Russia.
Then there are other paths available to Putin that might well produce even lower-cost gains for him, options that would be very difficult for the Western alliance to manage. To borrow a phrase often used with regard to China’s activities in the South China Sea, many of these paths lead into what can be called “The Grey Zone.”
China’s Grey Zone involves extending its claimed boundaries in coastal waters, using everything from extended naval patrols to fishing fleets to building artificial islands. As cited by the Lowy Institute, Australia’s 2020 Defense Strategic Update described the activities as “military and non-military forms of assertiveness and coercion aimed at achieving strategic goals without provoking military conflict.”
This is not a new concept to the Russians, of course. Their initial invasion of Ukraine involved so-called “active measures” and “hybrid warfare” including deploying troops without insignias on their uniforms—“little green men,” who could fight Russia’s fight without being directly associated with the Kremlin. Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Wright has said Russia’s already using “all measures short of war,” including cyberattacks, disinformation, and murdering dissidents on both domestic and foreign soil.
The price of modern warfare has grown so great that few want to incur it, making the thresholds by which opponents can be provoked into conflict pushed higher and higher. Even a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine was seen as insufficient to provoke a military response from NATO for just these reasons. That’s why our counter-measures also fall into the category of measures short of war.
Putin is a master of the Grey Zone, his comfort zone. Were he to stop short of invasion, or only conduct a very limited one, he might be able to forestall the worst of the West’s countermeasures while still being able to make additional gains.
He and Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko have indicated they will collaborate more closely in the future. That could include positioning not just Russian troops in Belarus but perhaps Russian nukes. Putin could also launch cyberattacks or increase hybrid warfare or other covert measures in Ukraine without actually crossing the West’s “red lines” that will trigger the big sanctions. He could further stick his thumb in the eye of the U.S. with new efforts to cooperate in our hemisphere, perhaps, for example, with Venezuela.
Similarly, Putin could withdraw a number of the troops he has positioned around Ukraine but still keep a substantial force there and explain it is a counterpoint to NATO redeployments.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Russia, Ukraine, and NATO’s Rebirth
Senior American officials with whom I have spoken say they’ve considered these scenarios. They recognize them as particularly thorny. While they are confident they can maintain the cohesiveness of the Western alliance in the face of them, they also acknowledge it won’t be easy. It will be difficult to maintain sanctions or instability that produces rising energy prices—or any economic hardship—in Europe or the U.S.
In almost every imaginable scenario—a massive invasion, or something smaller, or a withdrawal accompanied by substantial activities in the Grey Zone—the diplomacy required of the U.S. and other leaders within the Western alliance will only become more difficult in the weeks and months ahead.
The active, high-level interaction with allies that the State Department has practiced will have to remain a top priority. After three decades adrift, NATO is once again clear about its purpose. And following a period of missteps, hesitation, and worse, the U.S. has once again established itself as the leader within the alliance.
But the challenges posed by Putin are unlikely to end with whatever military action he does or does not launch in the days ahead. The alliance is going to have to be better prepared to deal with not just traditional threats and provocations, but those that will likely escalate in the Grey Zone—where most future global rivalries will present themselves.