A new report prepared for the Joint Chiefs has found that the U.S. needs an urgent change of strategy to deal with Russia’s growing influence on the world. The Kremlin is deploying an increasingly sophisticated strategy of propaganda, political manipulation, economic exploitation and provocation to disrupt U.S. influence and restore Russia’s global standing—Washington needs to change its approach or risk falling further behind.
Across 150 pages, more than 20 military and independent analysts call out Russia’s actions in Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the Arctic. “Future confrontations between major powers may most often occur below the level of armed conflict,” writes Rear Admiral Jeffrey J. Czerewko in a preface. “Economic competition, influence campaigns, paramilitary actions, cyber intrusions, and political warfare will likely become more prevalent—countering Russian provocative activities requires a comprehensive strategy.”
In other words, warfare has become ever more complex and multi-faceted. And it has become ever more reliant on global spheres of influence. And on that battlefront, Russia is striding ahead. “The U.S. capability to influence the outcomes of both global and regional events must be reconsidered,” continues Czerewko, Deputy Director at the Joint Staff. “The U.S. must collaboratively employ multiple instruments of national power in a synchronized manner.”
The document, which is part of the Strategic Multilayer Assessment entitled the Future of Global Competition and Conflict, focuses on the “gray zone,” where “Russian President Vladimir Putin is adhering to a global grand strategy” to regain influence over the former Soviet nations and recognition as a “great power,” and to portray Russia as “a reliable actor, a key regional powerbroker, and a successful mediator.”
Here, Russian activities “profoundly impact and continue to threaten vital aspects of U.S. national interests and security,” according to Lieutenant General Theodore D. Martin, the Deputy Commanding General of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command—the white paper was put together in response to questions raised by TRADOC. “Finding a way to understand the overarching campaign plan behind Russian actions will enable the United States to more effectively counter Moscow.”
The U.S. objective of “promoting and protecting the international liberal order,” undermines Putin’s strategy, and so “underpins the Kremlin’s belief that it must contain and constrain U.S. influence and activities in Europe and elsewhere across the globe.” As such, “the growing divergence among great powers (i.e., the U.S., China, and Russia) regarding what constitutes legitimate or acceptable deterrence, compellence, and escalation management activities should be carefully examined.”
Activities in the gray zone need to be viewed in combination. “The Kremlin has mastered the use of ‘hybrid warfare’ in driving Russia’s foreign policy. Russia utilizes a variety of gray zone tactics around the globe. These include the use of paramilitary forces and other proxies, interference in political processes, economic and energy exploitation (particularly in Africa), espionage, and media and propaganda manipulation. Putin is also adept at blending military and civilian elements for maximum impact.”
Such tactics vary by region. Propaganda and political manipulation in Europe, economic exploitation in Africa and the Middle East, a more restrained approach in Asia to fit with China’s own sphere of influence—although, even here, “Russia makes up for its shortcomings by engaging in episodic and reactive endeavors to disrupt U.S. influence in the region.”
Despite the breadth of Russia’s strategy, its “growing influence abroad,” as well as its “diverse array of gray zone tactics,” the white paper concludes that the U.S. “can still limit the results of this grand strategy,” albeit that “countering Russian provocations will require the use of all instruments of national power, [with] U.S. success reliant both on its ability to influence populations, states, and non-state actors, and on its ability to minimize Russia’s influence on these actors.”
The situation in the Middle East, as well as the underlying tensions in former Soviet border countries in Europe, attest to Putin’s strategy of “piece by piece” escalation, often by proxy or through propaganda. The allegations of election interference in the U.S. and Europe—and elsewhere—do the same. There is also a shift emerging in the relationship between China and Russia, where the two countries have both enhanced their regional and global standing through political, economic and military influence.
“This deep dive on the geopolitics of Russia,” writes General Martin, “is intended to outline how the key actors view the parameters of cooperation, competition and conflict, as well as the points at which information and deterrence activities may become escalatory. The U.S.-Russian competition to influence global affairs will likely prove to be of key importance in the decades to come. Creative approaches must be identified now to help better understand and respond effectively to that evolving landscape.”