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War in the Gray Zone

Apr 12, 2023
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

Long-term imbalances in the international system inevitably lead to demands for power redistribution among the nations within the system. The dominant powers in the international system tend to look for more resources or reduce their international obligations (without weakening their hegemonic position) to maintain their position. In contrast, nations with military power whose status is declining often go to war in response to the imbalances and to shape their own status. Thus, wars for improving status are systemic wars, and they take place in a specific time frame and geographical space.

War in a gray zone 

The Ukrainian issue is one of the focal points of the post-Cold War conflict between Russia and a combination of the United States and Europe. With the passage of time — and with mounting pessimism about the prospect of restoring Russia’s great power status — more Russian political elites are thinking that the parting of ways with Ukraine was a historical mistake and a threat to Russia. They argue that losing control of Ukraine and allowing it to become part of the Western world constitutes a major blow to Russia’s international prestige.

In addition, serious divisions have arisen within Ukrainian society over the direction of the country’s development. Ukrainians in the west and parts of the central region generally support integration with Europe, while Ukrainians in the Russian-speaking east support closer relations with Russia. The gray zone in eastern Ukraine has gradually become one in which rivals choose to use indirect, non-military and paramilitary tools against each other as a result of the great power game. After the Crimea crisis in 2014, the gray zone in Ukraine escalated into a battlefield and led to a broader war. 

War changes international landscape

War is a barometer of changes in the status of major powers in the international system. Since the decline of Russia’s state power and its struggles with the outside world, a gray zone has formed from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea as a result of a three-way game between Russia and a collection of former Soviet republics, the U.S. and America’s European allies. In the game, the transatlantic relationship between Europe and the United States has gradually become a key variable affecting the international landscape.

Before the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, there were structural problems within the transatlantic relationship. For example, while Europeans were not worried about U.S. hegemony, they believed that the stronger their attachment was to the United States, the more Europeans would lose influence over the direction of global affairs. Russia has often used such transatlantic problems to win the game with the U.S. and Europe in the gray zone. For example, it supported the independence of the Republic of Moldavia on the Dniester River, started the Russo-Georgian War and annexed Crimea.

Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, European foreign policy has been transformed in two ways. First, transatlantic relations have become closer, and cooperation with the U.S. on security and energy has been strengthened. Coordination mechanisms between NATO, G7 and other organizations in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been strengthened, and active participation in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group has been achieved. Second, there is a high degree of intra-European solidarity. For the first time, the EU has shipped lethal weapons abroad and launched 10 rounds of sanctions against Russia.

The international landscape has also changed in response to the changing opinions of Europeans. The multiple powers in the international system have shifted from a state of some strategic autonomy to affiliation with a camp. In particular, close transatlantic relations have allowed the U.S. superpower and Western European powers to coordinate their external positions, which has changed the international balance of power.

Russia is constantly adjusting its strategy at all levels to hedge against the changes in the international landscape. For example, it is deepening its comprehensive strategic partnership with China, expanding the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS, and pulling more countries from the South against the West because of the anti-Western sentiment and neutrality of developing countries in the South.

If the pressure on the international system continues to grow, Russia will try to convince China to promote the evolution of multilateral mechanisms as a counterweight to the changing international landscape, including the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. 

Interstate politics must adapt 

To protect themselves, countries must adapt to the changing international landscape, and those doing badly in this regard will be outdone by countries that are doing better. Under the premise of continuously improving their own strength, countries need to flexibly use diplomatic tools to defend their interests.

Despite the changes in the international landscape due to close transatlantic relations, Europe’s perception of China will not become one with that of the United States. This is because Europe will realize that pushing China exclusively to Russia will only complicate the European security order, while the U.S. will have more influence on European security.

For China, the relationship with Russia has become a tool with which to balance the pressures of the international system. But China should not only be able to add leverage to the tool but it should also be able to reduce it. This is because wartime Russian diplomacy will be more pragmatic without being tied to the Sino-Russian relationship. In terms of how interstate politics works, no country can determine or predict the consequences of war. Staying out of it may be the best way to maximize gains. This is because the losing side will have to face the backlash of the international system and share — or fully bear — the costs.

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