Historical Reflections On The ‘Grey Zone’

Geraint Hughes

Following Anna Karenina’s suicide in Tolstoy’s eponymous novel, her lover Count Vronsky enlists to fight for the Serbs against the Turks. Vronsky’s decision reflected the contemporary reality of Russian volunteers taking up arms against the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan crises that preceded the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, and it provides a reminder that the phenomenon of the ‘foreign fighter’ is not a new one, but that the current and contested concept of ‘grey zone’ warfare is not unprecedented either.

‘War in the grey zone’ has become a common phrase in defence circles on both sides of the Atlantic. It is defined as ‘competitive interactions among and within state and non-state actors that fall between the traditional war and peace duality’, which are also ‘characterized by ambiguity about the nature of the conflict, opacity of the parties involved, or uncertainty about the relevant policy and legal frameworks’. The essence of ‘grey zone’ warfare is that it involves disguised aggression that conceals attribution and enables a state to achieve its objectives either by incremental means (as per China’s pursuit of its maritime territorial claims against its South-East Asian neighbours) or a sudden coup de main (notably the takeover of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia’s ‘little green men’ in February-March 2014).

Like its predecessor ‘hybrid war’ the concept of the ‘grey zone’ has been criticised as incoherent, and also because its all-encompassing nature is conceptually dangerous, potentially leading Western powers to over-react to phantom provocations and established practices of state power rivalry. My own examination of this theory – which has just been published in Survival – explores its historical precedents, arguing that undeclared warfare, indirect military action below the threshold of armed conflict, and strategies of ‘advancing without attacking’ have been a consistent feature of statecraft for democratic as well as authoritarian and totalitarian states. A specific focus on the 19th Century era of great power rivalries and imperialism also raises three further issues which still remain relevant, namely the challenges of attribution, the myth of monolithic foreign policy-making, and the potential impact of what might be termed paramilitary entrepreneurship.

Attribution is considered a key challenge with ‘grey zone’ warfare – how can you prove that the paramilitary militiamen who suddenly emerge in (say) a territorial dispute are actually agents provocateurs raised and instigated by a hostile power? William Walker, the notorious American filibuster who tried to conquer Nicaragua in the 1850s, was not backed by the US government, although his adventurism caused friction with Great Britain. In turn the British sailors involved in blockade-running to the South during the US Civil War (1861-1865) were also motivated by commercial concerns, but their activities had an impact on wider Anglo-American relations, due the tensions between the USA and Britain which threatened to erupt into war, and US resentment over pro-Confederacy sentiment within the British political elite.

A second point concerns the supposed coherence and strategic clarity that an authoritarian state has in the conduct of external policy, whereas in reality it can be hampered by bureaucratic rivalry and competing elite interests. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 appeared to British Russophobes to be proof of plotting by St Petersburg to dismantle to Ottoman Empire and conquer its territories, particularly the Balkans and the Straits. In reality, Tsar Alexander II’s policy-making was affected by a struggle for influence between the Foreign Minister, Prince Gorchakov, and ‘pan-Slav’ ideologues such as Count Ignatiev, the Ambassador to Constantinople. Much the same was true in the run-up to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), one of the key causes of which was Japan’s fear that Russia was bent on annexing Korea and North-Eastern China, and its decision to wage a preventive war. In reality, Russian policy in North East Asia was being driven by an adventurer called Alexander Bezobrazov who had dreams of creating his own equivalent of the East India Company, and who had the ear of the Viceroy of the Far East, Admiral Yevgeny Alexeyev. In both cases, Russia’s adversaries confused intra-elite politicking with aggressive expansionism, contributing to a major international crisis in the first instance and a war in the second.

The era of colonialism was also one in which local actors – rather than metropolitan governments – were often the driving force behind imperial expansion, as was the case with the Scramble for Africa. The Anglo-Zulu war of 1879 was provoked by the annexationist policies of Britain’s High Commissioner for Southern Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, who was eventually censured by William Gladstone’s government for his actions. One of the contributory causes of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) was the Jameson Raid into Transvaal on 29th December 1895, a botched attempt to provoke a rebellion in Transvaal that was sponsored by Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. Three years later, France had its own imperial scandal with the Chad expedition of 1898-1899, which ended ignominiously when its commanders – Captain Paul Voulet and Lieutenant Julien Chanoine – went rogue. Voulet and Chanoine led their force on a rampage, massacring thousands of civilians and eventually murdering a superior office, Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Francois Klobb, who had been sent to rein them in.

We can be seduced into believing that apparently ‘new ways of war’ are devoid of historical precedents, and at face value the examples noted above do not appear that relevant to the early 21st Century world. However, with characters like Erik Prince and Yevgeny Prigozhin (the Russian oligarch with alleged links to the Wagner Private Military Company), and with what Mark Galeotti refers to as the adhocracy that surrounds the Russian President Vladimir Putin, scholars of international security and contemporary conflict face the challenge of determining where state instigation ends and private initiative begins, and one potential problem with ‘grey zone’ theories is that the two can be easily conflated.

Featured Image – Russian and Bulgarian troops defend the Shipka Pass against the Turkish Army, August 1877, during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878

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