Artikel von Elisabeth Braw

Murky Threats: Why Defense Against Gray-Zone Aggression Needs a Whole-of-Society Approach

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A member of the Taiwanese Coast Guard Administration stands next to a new coast guard patrol ship during its launching and naming ceremony in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, in June 2020. (RITCHIETONGO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

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As the lines between war and peace blur, so do those that define acts of aggression. Germany should learn from other countries’ efforts and invest in developing a defense against these gray-zone threats.

Hostile states’ cyber aggression against other countries is well documented. So is the systematic use of disinformation and misinformation that Russia in particular has perfected in recent years (though its actual skills seem to have declined). But especially in the past three years, the world has been forced to realize that so-called gray-zone aggression goes far beyond cyberattacks and malign-influence campaigns: it already encompasses, among other things, subversive economic practices, hostage diplomacy, gradual border alterations, and the weaponization of migrants. And because gray-zone aggression exploits the vulnerabilities of free and open societies, it will continue to morph and expand. Germany should do like other European countries and develop its gray-zone defenses. Unlike traditional military defense, such defense involves not just the government but all parts of society. Indeed, it gives everyone the opportunity to help keep the country safe.

In December 2022, the US basketball star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian penal camp and, in a prisoner exchange, swapped for the convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had been serving a prison sentence in the United States for conspiracy to kill Americans. People reacted with euphoria. But there was nothing to be euphoric about. Russia had demanded a massive price for freeing Griner, who had been arrested with a small amount of cannabis oil in her possession, just as China demanded a massive price for Michael Korvig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians who had had the misfortune of being in China when Beijing needed a tool of coercion to force Canada to release Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou, who had been arrested in Canada on sanctions violation charges. Iran and North Korea, too, have a history of using the travels of Western citizens to their countries as an instrument with which to extract diplomatic concessions from such countries.

» Because gray-zone aggression exploits the vulnerabilities of free and open societies, it will continue to morph and expand. «

— Elisabeth Braw

Key Points:

  1. Gray-zone aggression goes beyond cyberattacks or disinformation campaigns. It also encompasses destabilizing economic practices, hostage diplomacy, gradual border alterations, or the weaponization of migration flows.
  2. It is often hard to tell when acts of gray-zone aggression are actually taking place. The defense against these ambiguous threats thus cannot involve governments only, but has to be a whole-of-society effort.
  3. Germany should use its upcoming security strategy as an opportunity to learn from other countries’ efforts and develop a systematic approach to defending against gray-zone threats.

Nuisance or Aggression?

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks a return to old-fashioned conventional war, today most countries are strengthening their position in the world – and weakening that of others – not by conquering territory but through non-military means in the gray zone between war and peace. Fleets of Chinese excavators regularly turn up in Taiwanese waters and dig up sand that belongs to Taiwan, which harms the Taiwanese seabed, deprives the country of an important natural resource and forces it to spend more money on coast guard vessels that can chase the intruders away. Similarly, China’s long-distance fishing fleet turns up in other countries’ waters and fishes them dry, thus harming the maritime environment in the process. These are not military attacks, but damaging another country’s natural habitat and taking its resources indisputably constitutes a form of aggression.

So does illegally acquiring the intellectual property of other countries’ companies, as Chinese companies – sometimes aided by Chinese intelligence officers – have been doing for years. Research and innovation, which generate intellectual property (IP), are the engine of economic growth, and taking other companies’ and countries’ IP has allowed China to accelerate the growth of its high-tech sector at the expense of Western companies and countries. 

Gradual border alteration – an act that violates another country’s territorial integrity but does not involve the use of armed military force – forms another part of gray-zone aggression. For years, Russia has incrementally been changing its border with Georgia. In 2017, for example, Russia appropriated ten hectares of land near the border village of Bershueti. Moscow’s small neighbor still has possession of the vast majority of its territory, but any seizure of land from another country constitutes aggression. Another example is, again, China: By gradually building artificial islands in waters considered to belong to the Philippines, China has de facto changed borders; but since the border change involved diggers and cranes rather than soldiers and military equipment, it was not clear how countries in the region could respond. In the end, they chose to stick with appeals as a use of military force seemed too escalatory. Now the islands are there, complete with military installations.

» Today most countries are strengthening their position in the world – and weakening that of others – not by conquering territory but through non-military means in the gray zone between war and peace. «

— Elisabeth Braw

In fact, the challenge facing countries that are targeted by gray-zone aggression is that it is often very hard to tell when it is taking place. A person slightly changing the location of a border sign or slapping some concrete on the seabed may just be a malcontent or a criminal. Companies sometimes steal IP from competitors and there is no government involvement whatsoever. Criminal gangs perpetrate cyberattacks. Cutters fish in other countries’ waters. Companies buy cutting-edge businesses in other countries. (Some Western companies are especially known to engage in such cut-throat competition.) However, when these activities happen on a systematic scale, and in conjunction with a government using them to advance its own country’s geopolitical position, to weaken that of other countries, or both, that constitutes gray-zone aggression. 

Chinese acquisitions of Western critical national infrastructure or semiconductor firms are simply not globalization as usual. It is noteworthy that Germany’s business community rang the alarm bell regarding China’s aggression below the threshold of war long before German politicians grasped that these Chinese practices might pose a fundamental risk to the German economy. Indeed, many German businesses now try to reduce their presence in China by setting up operations in countries like Vietnam out of concern that China is becoming too politically risky. But when does a regime’s caprice cross the line? German Chancellor Olaf Scholz still seems to consider China a reliable commercial partner: in November 2022, he travelled to Beijing with a business delegation in tow. Still, if identifying when a nuisance becomes purposeful aggression is difficult, deciding how to respond to it is even harder. That is why my book about gray-zone aggression is called The Defender’s Dilemma.

A Window of Opportunity

Chinese authorities’ early obfuscation of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan allowed the virus to spread first in China and then internationally – and that prompted a remarkable shift in international public attitudes toward China. In 2019, 56 percent of Germans held unfavorable views on China; today, 74 percent do. In the UK, the same figure has risen from 55 to 69 percent, and in Greece from 32 to 50 percent. Russia and Iran, too, have ruined any remnants of international respectability, the former through its recent violence against Ukraine and the latter against domestic protesters. 

Paradoxically, this shift will help countries targeted by these states’ gray-zone aggression to build their defenses against both the forms practiced today and new forms that may be added in the future. Such defense cannot involve governments only: it has to be a whole-of-society effort, which is why it matters that the public is aware of the true nature of the regimes currently instigating gray-zone aggression against Western countries. In fact, today’s gray-zone-aggression practitioners are so successful that other regimes may try to adopt their strategy, as Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko did when his regime weaponized migration flows in an attempt to weaken the European Union in the autumn of 2021

» At the very least, the new German National Security Strategy should promise to constantly keep the public updated about prospective crises and how to prepare for them. «

— Elisabeth Braw

Some countries, primarily the Nordic-Baltic states, already have programs and initiatives that others could adopt: Finland’s national defense course for leaders in every sector; Sweden’s total defense” exercise; Norway’s and Denmark’s excellent home guards; or Latvia’s national security curriculum for teenagers. The Czech Republic’s Ministry of Defense now runs gray-zone defense exercises for companies in different sectors, and the UK government is planning a civil reserve. Germany’s planned national security strategy presents an excellent opportunity for the German government to include defense against gray-zone aggression, especially since this aggression will only continue to increase. 

Indeed, Germany benefits from being able to learn from allies’ pioneering activities. Given its large and absolutely crucial industry, Germany should follow the Czech Republic’s example and launch gray-zone exercises for the private sector. It can study and adapt Latvia’s national security curriculum. And at the very least, the new German National Security Strategy should promise to do what Sweden and a growing number of other countries are now doing: constantly keeping the public updated about prospective crises and how to prepare for them. Thinking about crises is not enjoyable, but COVID and the Ukraine War have painfully demonstrated that thinking about events before they occur trumps having to collectively improvise while the crises are occurring.

Elisabeth Braw

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute (AEI)