Iran Is Using Russian ‘Gray Zone’ Tactics, in Echoes of Ukraine War

KYIV, Ukraine—The recent military
tension between the U.S. and Iran underscores a new era of conflict, some
military officials and analysts say, in which a country’s power on the world
stage is no longer measured solely by economic clout, military force, or even
diplomatic sway. 

Rather, the audacious use of misinformation to shape public
opinion at home and abroad allows countries like Iran and Russia to punch well
above their hard and soft power weight classes in shaping world events. 

To that end, experts say Iran has put into practice lessons in hybrid warfare that Moscow field-tested on the battlefields of Ukraine and later unleashed against Western democracies.

“Iran’s attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf
resemble, in their intent, Russia’s hybrid warfare operations that we have seen
in Ukraine and elsewhere,” said Nataliya Bugayova, Russia research fellow at
the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank.

“Russia and Iran use hybrid warfare operations to
advance their broader aims while trying to obfuscate reality on the ground and
prevent the West from taking action to defend its interests,” Bugayova said,
adding that Iran “has a history of learning from Russia on the battlefield.”

In this new era of hybrid warfare, adversaries are able to
threaten American security interests and undermine the U.S.-led democratic
world without resorting to direct military action. 

Instead, by shifting the burden of conflict escalation onto the
U.S., practitioners of hybrid warfare test whether American leaders are willing
to retaliate against nonlethal, “gray zone” activities with lethal military
force.

“Future confrontations between major powers may most often occur below the level of armed conflict. In this environment, economic competition, influence campaigns, paramilitary actions, cyber intrusions, and political warfare will likely become more prevalent,” Navy Rear Adm. Jeffrey Czerewko, deputy director for global operations at the Joint Staff, writes in the Pentagon’s recently released, unclassified assessment of Russia’s strategic intentions.

Since 2014, Russia has used Ukraine as a testing ground for both
its modern conventional and hybrid warfare doctrines, providing a case study
for the new kinds of security threats the U.S. and its Western allies can
anticipate from their adversaries. 

Iran, too, has turned to gray zone tactics to
offset its own inferiority to the U.S. in terms of conventional military
power. 

Tehran’s recent docket of gray zone activities
include unconventional attacks by proxies, as well as nonlethal acts of
aggression like the sabotage of oil tankers and pipelines. 

At every turn, Iran masks its operations behind the veil of barely plausible propaganda yarns—a key tenet of Russian hybrid warfare. So, too, is the concept of victim playing—the appropriation of false victimhood to justify one’s own bad behavior—which Russia has frequently invoked to justify its global hybrid warfare offensive as a legitimate counterbalance against alleged American imperialism.

U.S. warplanes launch from the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier off the coast of Syria, headed to destroy Islamic State targets. (Photos: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

“There are certainly parallels between Iran’s activities in the
Persian Gulf and Russia’s activities in Ukraine, in the sense that they are
both using clandestine operations as part of a broader conflict,” said Eugene
Chausovsky, a geopolitical analyst who specializes in the former Soviet Union
for the U.S.-based security think tank Stratfor.

Both U.S. and Iranian leaders say they don’t want war, but the
prospect of an accidental conflict is increasing, experts warn. 

That prognosis nearly came to fruition on June 20 when Iran shot
down a U.S. RQ-4A Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle with a surface-to-air
missile. U.S. officials protested, saying the surveillance drone was operating
in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz. 

President Donald Trump authorized retaliatory airstrikes but
reportedly called them off with only 10 minutes to spare. Ultimately, the U.S.
opted for a retaliatory cyberattack, instead. 

On Wednesday, tensions flared again as Iranian
gunboats reportedly attacked a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf.

“Such types of unconventional and clandestine operations are
likely only to increase,” Chausovsky said.

‘Deep Battle’

In 2014, the United States and the European Union levied punitive
economic sanctions on Moscow for its aggression in Ukraine. Since then,
relations between Russia and the West have hit a post-Cold War nadir. 

Using cyberwarfare and an empire of weaponized propaganda, Russia
has embarked on a hybrid war blitz against Western democracies. Looking back,
it’s clear that Ukraine was the opening salvo of Russia’s ongoing war against
that American-led, democratic world order. 

“Russian leadership sees itself as at war with the U.S. and the West as a whole,” notes Nicole Peterson, a security analyst, in the Pentagon white paper on Russia’s strategic intentions.

The war in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 as a hybrid conflict—today it is a conventional war.

“From a Russian perspective, this war is not total, but rather, it
is fundamental—a type of ‘war’ that is at odds with the general U.S.
understanding of warfare,” she added.

Hybrid warfare is the Kremlin’s contemporary take
on a Soviet military doctrine called “deep battle,” in which front-line combat
operations are supported with other actions meant to spread chaos and confusion
within the enemy’s territory.

An evolving threat that spans every combat domain, hybrid warfare
combines conventional military force with other so-called gray zone activities,
such as cyberattacks and propaganda, both on the battlefield and deep behind
the front lines. 

One of hybrid warfare’s most dangerous attributes is that it
weaponizes many staples of everyday life, including smartphones, social media
networks, commercially available computer software—and journalism.

“I think we’re generally moving toward a reality in which hybrid
warfare will be the preferred modus operandi of states like Russia, China,
Iran, over and above conventional warfare,” Aleksandra Gadzala, and independent
security consultant and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The Daily
Signal.

“The way in which Moscow wages hybrid warfare has evolved and
expanded rather significantly since the Euromaidan—ditto Chinese tactics since
[Chinese President Xi Jinping] took office. Iran is no different,” Gadzala
said, referring to Ukraine’s pro-Western 2014 revolution.

‘Poor Man’s War’

America’s military dwarfs Russia’s. U.S. defense
spending in 2018 reached $649 billion, compared with Russia’s $61
billion that year, according to an April report from the Stockholm
International Peace Research Institute. 

Economically, too, Russia is far from America’s
peer. Russia’s nominal gross domestic product is about half that of
California’s—roughly on par with South Korea. 

With that in mind, Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy is basically
“a poor man’s war,” according to a June report from the Institute for the Study
of War.

“[Russian President Vladimir Putin] is sufficiently in contact
with reality to know that he will fail if he attempts to regain anything
approaching conventional military parity with the West,” note the report’s
authors. “Putin has every reason to believe that outright confrontation with
the American military will end badly for him.” 

Despite Russia’s conventional weaknesses, however, the country is
a hybrid superpower with an unparalleled ability to control the world’s
attention economy.

Russia has weaponized information by deploying its state-run media organizations to undermine Western societies and democratic institutions. 

A U.S. F-16 fighter in Poland as part of a training operation intended, in part, to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.

Taking advantage of Americans’ historically low levels of
confidence in journalism, Russia’s information warfare is precision-targeted on
the American people through the internet and social media. These activities
manipulate and inflame divisions within American society—often turning
Americans against each other.

“Shaping the information space is the primary effort to which
Russian military operations, even conventional military operations, are
frequently subordinated in this way of war,” according to the Institute for the
Study of War report. “Russia obfuscates its activities and confuses the
discussion so that many people throw up their hands and say simply, ‘Who knows
if the Russians really did that? Who knows if it was legal?’—thus paralyzing
the West’s responses.”

On June 19—the day prior to Iran’s attack on the U.S.
drone—international investigators charged three Russians and a Ukrainian for
murder for their role in using a Russian Buk surface-to-air missile to shoot
down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014, killing all 298 passengers and
crew on board. 

The missile was fired from within territory controlled by
pro-Russian separatists, and its mobile launch vehicle belonged to Russia’s
53rd Air Defense Brigade and was sent back to Russia the next day, the report
noted.

Putin dismissed the charges, telling journalists, “There is no evidence of Russia’s blame for the downing
of MH17.”

“Russia has its own explanation of the crash of
MH17, but no one is listening to us,” Putin reportedly said.

‘Be Careful’

The U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement
with Iran in May 2018. Since then, renewed American sanctions have targeted
Tehran’s financial and industrial sectors, dealing the country’s economy a
devastating body blow.

With oil exports down by 90%, Tehran is quickly
running out of cash while inflation skyrockets. The International Monetary Fund
predicts Iran’s economy will shrink by about 6% this year—an abrupt reversal
from the Islamic Republic’s 4.6% growth rate in the previous fiscal year. 

Under pressure from U.S. sanctions, analysts say Iran has purposefully ratcheted up its gray zone activities to
scare European leaders into making concessions on sanctions.

July 6 was the end of a 60-day deadline imposed
by Iran on European nations to somehow ease the pressure of U.S. sanctions.
With no help forthcoming from Europe, Iran announced July 7 that it was moving
forward on uranium enrichment, violating the 2015 nuclear deal’s terms. In
turn, U.S. officials are now mulling additional sanctions on Iran.

“Iran better be careful,” President Donald Trump
reportedly said of the recent developments.

In 2015, Iran and Russia signed a military defense pact, underscoring a closer military relationship intended to counter U.S. influence in the Middle East. 

So far, the war in eastern Ukraine has killed about 13,000 people.

Russia supplies Iran with military hardware, including advanced
surface-to-air missile systems. Russia has also helped to build some of Iran’s
nuclear reactors.

It’s clear, some experts say, that Russia has also allied itself with Iran in the information war to paint the U.S. as a global aggressor. 

Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem on June 25,
Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council and a close aide to
Putin, said Russia had intelligence to prove the downed U.S. drone was flying
in Iranian airspace. 

Patrushev went on to dismiss U.S. intelligence
proving that Iran was responsible for a recent series of attacks on oil tankers
in the Middle East. 

“Russia and Iran are closely
aligned and work to enable and shield one another’s efforts. In this instance,
the Kremlin has been front and center with a broader information campaign
supporting the Iranian regime’s false narrative that Iran is the victim and not
the aggressor,” said Bugayova, the Institute for the Study of War fellow.

A Hybrid Failure

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014. The
following April, Russian intelligence agents and special operations forces
orchestrated a separatist uprising in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, spawning
two breakaway republics.

The Kremlin said its 2014 seizure of Crimea and the ensuing
conflict in the Donbas were both spurred by grassroots uprisings created and
led by disaffected Russian-speaking Ukrainians who believed the new government
in Kyiv was illegitimate—the product of a CIA-orchestrated putsch to install a
fascist, neo-Nazi, pro-American government in Kyiv.

Moscow had planned its Donbas operation for years, and many pieces
were already in place before Ukraine’s 2014 revolution. Consequently, in its
early months, Russia’s hybrid offensive was on the march, leapfrogging across
the Donbas, taking town after town.

At that time, Ukraine’s regular army was on its heels. Depleted by
decades of corruption, it could only field about 6,000 combat-ready soldiers
when the war began. So, to defend their homeland, everyday Ukrainians filled
the ranks of irregular, civilian combat units and set out for the front lines.

It was a grassroots war effort—an example of a society that didn’t
need to be prodded into a war by propaganda. Rather, Ukrainians of all stripes
simply took up arms, often with little or no formal military training, and
fought to defend their homeland. 

Ultimately, this ragtag coalition of Ukraine’s regular and irregular forces stopped the combined Russian-separatist advance by using what the RAND Corp. described as “a siege warfare campaign, leveraging Ukraine’s vastly superior numbers, artillery, and air power to steadily encircle and push out the separatists from fortified terrain.”

A U.S. Air Force pararescueman on a mission over northern Iraq during the war against the Islamic State.

By July 2014, just three months into the conflict, Ukrainian
forces had retaken 23 out of the 36 districts previously under combined
Russian-separatist control. Then in August 2014, with its hybrid operation in
shambles, Russia outright invaded eastern Ukraine. 

Ultimately, Ukraine sued for peace after the disastrous battle for
Illovaisk, in which regular Russian units killed hundreds of Ukrainian
troops. 

The subsequent September 2014 cease-fire stopped the war from
escalating further. A second cease-fire, known as Minsk II, was signed in
February 2015.

Yet, from an operational perspective, Russia’s original hybrid
warfare plan in the Donbas was a failure. In a 2017 study, the RAND Corp.
concluded that in eastern Ukraine Russia “failed to achieve the leverage
necessary without resorting to conventional war and outright invasion.”

“Ukraine is a case study not in pioneering new nonlinear approaches
but in the failure of hybrid warfare to deliver the desired political ends for
Russia,” note the study’s authors.

Today, the war in eastern Ukraine remains a
limited, conventional conflict. It’s a static, trench war, in which the two
camps take daily indirect-fire potshots at one another—and in which soldiers
and civilians continue to die. More than 13,000 Ukrainians have so far died due
to the conflict.

With Europe’s two largest standing
land armies still exchanging daily fire along the trench lines in the Donbas,
there’s always the chance of an unanticipated event—a so-called Franz Ferdinand
scenario—setting off an escalatory domino chain that leads to a far deadlier
cataclysm. 

Case in point—a November 2018 naval clash between
Russia and Ukraine in the Black Sea nearly precipitated a bigger war.

Outside the Donbas war zone, Russia continues to use hybrid war
tactics across all of Ukraine. Consequently, there’s hardly any part of
Ukrainian life that hasn’t been affected. 

Russian cyberattacks have hit Ukraine’s power grid, water supply
systems, the country’s banking system (shutting down ATMs), its largest
international airport, and the electoral process. 

For years Ukrainian soldiers have reported receiving threats and
demands for their surrender from their Russian enemies over cellphone text
messages. 

Russian drones have destroyed Ukrainian weapons depots, and
Russian operatives have waged a clandestine assassination pogrom across
Ukraine, targeting key Ukrainian security personnel and Russian
turncoats. 

Misjudgment

By using hybrid warfare tactics, contemporary
Russian military planners are targeting the Achilles’ heel of any democratic
adversary—public opinion.

The concept of “escalation dominance” was a key tenet of NATO’s
nuclear deterrence strategy against the Soviet Union. In theory, U.S. military
superiority would inherently deter the Soviet Union from going to war. 

The problem with the concept of escalation dominance, however, is
that American public opinion could turn against a conflict well before the
military has fully tapped its capacity for inflicting violence. 

Without public support, America’s material advantages aren’t
enough to compel an adversary to give up without a fight.

Public opinion is “generally a weakness of any democracy,” said
Vasyl Myroshnychenko, director of the Kyiv-based Ukraine Crisis Media Center.
“And once an adverse power learns how to affect public opinion, it has the
upper hand,” Myroshnychenko said.

Yet, hybrid warfare is not a one-size-fits-all formula. Rather,
the Kremlin tailors its hybrid warfare tactics according to each adversary’s
weaknesses.

“Russia’s gray zone tactics are most effective when the target is
deeply polarized or lacks the capacity to resist and respond effectively to
Russian aggression,” writes Czerewko of the
Joint Staff in the recent Pentagon study on Russia.

Gray zone activities aren’t necessarily anything new, either, in
terms of the history of warfare. Although it is significant to note, many
experts say, that hybrid warfare is becoming the go-to strategy for America’s
up and coming crop of adversaries.

For authoritarian regimes like those in Russia, Iran, and
China—which lean on nationalism to retain their hold on power—hybrid warfare
tactics offer a way to ceremonially push back against America for domestic
consumption while tiptoeing around a conventional war.

“Antics like those we’ve seen from Iran in recent weeks, and which
we continue to see from Russia and China, are those of weak governments eager
to demonstrate their international importance and by extension bolster their
domestic legitimacy,” said Gadzala, the Atlantic Council fellow.

In some respects, the old paradigms of the justice of war—which
include time-honored metrics, such as the proportionality of the use of deadly
force—are being challenged in this era of hybrid warfare. 

For instance, at what point does a cyberattack merit a lethal
military response? Or, is it ethically defensible to launch lethal airstrikes
in retaliation for an attack on a surveillance drone?

Compounding these ethical dilemmas, hybrid warfare is inherently
designed to create battlefield confusion, primarily in the command and control
process, clouding the situational awareness of both personnel in combat and
their commanders controlling the war effort from afar. For Western militaries,
which prefer precision strikes with minimum risk of collateral damage, that
kind of confusion can be paralyzing. 

However, Russian and Iranian leaders are playing with fire,
experts warn. 

In practice, the utility of hybrid warfare hinges on a country’s
ability to accurately judge an adversary’s tolerance for gray zone
provocations. That’s not necessarily easy to do—especially since the U.S. and
its allies have not yet created their own rules on when nonlethal gray zone
activities merit a lethal military response.

“The discrepancy between the Russian and the U.S. understanding of
‘conflict’ and ‘war’ will continue to grow, leading to a higher risk of
escalation in future situations involving both nations,” notes the Pentagon
study. 

“It is imperative that the U.S. establishes a consensus definition
of ‘gray zone’ and reevaluates old paradigms defining war and peace, as we
enter a new era of international politics which is defined by shades of gray,”
the study continued. 

In its attack on the U.S. drone, Iran misread Trump’s red line and
the two countries went to the absolute brink of war. For its part, Moscow’s
gross misjudgment of Ukrainians’ resolve to fight in 2014 proved to be a fatal
error for Russia’s hybrid war plan in the Donbas.

The stakes couldn’t be higher, analysts say. If Russia,
purposefully or not, oversteps America’s red line for tolerating gray zone
aggression—it could spark a nuclear war. And Iran’s brinkmanship campaign
against U.S. interests in the Middle East is hovering on the razor’s edge of
igniting a regional war.

Analysts also warn that Iran’s use of proxy
forces is a major concern. One lesson from Russia’s operation in eastern
Ukraine is how erratic those proxy forces can be—and how a rogue element could
spark an unplanned escalation. 

Accordingly, U.S. officials have made their
position crystal clear, repeatedly warning Iran that an attack by one of its
proxy forces would not go unpunished.

“If Iran organizes, trains, and equips and provides targeting
assistance for an operation and does everything except pull the trigger, they
are responsible for that operation,” Brian Hook, U.S. special representative
for Iran, told reporters during a telephonic press briefing on June 24. 

“We do not make a distinction between Iran’s government and the
proxies that it supports with lethal assistance and training and funding,” Hook
said.

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