In the West security is something we take for granted. Domestically we believe we live in peace, but this is said to be far from the truth. Our security is constantly under threat, economically, politically and socially. This is taking place within what is being called the ‘grey zone’ of conflict. A form of conflict that sits in between what is traditionally viewed as either war or peace. Tactics are not traditional forms of conflict and so the lines of international law are blurred, actions and attribution are ambiguous, and the activities are often not recognised as formal acts of aggressions so do not warrant a response.
The information we see, the politicians we elect and the technology we use are all targets. The use of disinformation, economic manipulation, cyber-attacks and proxies are all tools used to disrupt to civil society. Imagine the power one would have if you controlled what information people saw, who they voted for and what technology they used. With this power you could make people think a certain way, vote a certain way or even control their cars and mobile phones. You could control a nation without a single boot on the ground. The division in the US over the past 4-5 years is no coincidence and has been spurred on by the examples above.
Cyber tools, disinformation, financial corruption and organised crime are used to divide and weaken a nation from within. The risk of not acting is that opponents could find a way to unravel democracies from within. Democratic freedoms and way of life will be undermined without anyone knowing. This is not limited to state actors; big businesses, criminal gangs and terrorist networks are all using these methods for their gains, big or small. Regardless, everyone is a target of the carefully crafted lies or political influence.
As well as the slow burning societal effects, grey zone warfare has many physical dimensions. At the sharp end are assassinations and proxy military forces. The poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury is a perfect example of Russia flexing its muscles within the grey zone. The use of proxy forces is another textbook tactic. Again, Russia leading from the front with their use of the Wagner Group in Ukraine and across Africa.
Energy is a factor being used as a weapon in the grey zone. Resource rich countries can use this to pressure and influence those who rely on their exports. Water politics in the Jordan river basin is an example. Damming along the river has resulted in a shortage of water for Israel. The reduced flow in the Jordan river basin is realistically a happy ‘accident’ and politically advantageous result for Israel’s enemies.
The corporate world can also be utilised. Huawei and its proposed stake in the UK’s 5G network is potentially one such example. If relations were to turn sour between the two nations, China could sabotage the operations of the firm or incorporate spyware into its services.
There is of course the risk that miscalculations could lead to full scale military conflict. Actions within the grey zone could be misunderstood or escalated. It is a fine line that must not be crossed, the tactics mentioned above are not going unnoticed by governments and an escalation is not unforeseeable. Those moments of miscalculation are not hard to find in history and have had disastrous effects. However, it is worth noting that the ever-widening list of actions viewed as belligerent only increases the likelihood of escalation. Many argue that the grey zone is within the bracket of peace, not war.
But how would this dismantle a democracy? It is a slow burning effect that creates a distrust within the political system and the establishment, undoing confidence in the economy and causing discontent among the population. The events in the United States are perhaps a perfect example of all these factors coming together to divide a nation. The whole point is to cause harm without those being targeted realising, divide from within and conquer.