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Russia’s ongoing grey-zone warfare

While military theorists remain fixated on the civilisational joust between the US and China, the once great Russian bear crept into the shadows building economic, military and informational relationships the world over to challenge US primacy.

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Tue, 10 Aug 2021
Russia’s ongoing grey-zone warfare
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The sustained, and perhaps expanded, campaign for Russian influence was analysed by Anne-Marie Slaughter and Heather Ashby in Project Syndicate and appearing on ASPI’s The Strategist this week. Slaughter, chief executive of New America, and Ashby, a foreign policy expert, argue that the country’s deepening global military alliances, arms sales and widespread disinformation campaigns have enabled Russia to sustain, and in fact grow, their influence within the global south despite a weakening national economy.

Is it just sabre rattling?

Despite the overwhelming focus on the South China Sea, or perhaps the sovereignty of Taiwan, the Russian Federation ratified numerous bilateral and multilateral military agreements entrenching their position as a global military superpower.


“Russia has also signed military co-operation pacts with 39 countries (as of early 2020),” Slaughter and Ashby argue, demonstrating the breadth of Russia’s global military reach.

It is crucial that Western military theorists don't confuse this for simple Russian posturing. Russian groups have probed the resilience of US, European and Australian infrastructure via the use of state-sanctioned (if not state sponsored) cyber attacks. From the Colonial Pipeline attack that shut down some 45 per cent of the US east coast’s gas pipelines, to targeting US 400 hospitals for ransomware attacks amid the coronavirus pandemic and even attacking Queensland’s UnitingCare.

Such targeted attacks on critical civilian infrastructure show that the sabres aren’t simply drawn. Rather, Russia is in the middle of waging a grey-zone war.

Foreign policy

Not only does Russia continue to maintain extremely favourable relations with many nations in the global south, according to Slaughter and Ashby they’ve used their liberal arms trade policies to build inroads with the many of the United States’ longstanding allies with whom the US has demonstrated reticence to sell arms.

“The second pillar of Russia’s grand strategy is arms sales. In south-east Asia, Russia is selling weapons to Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam. In the Middle East, where the United States is withdrawing, Russia has effectively opened an arms bazaar,” Slaughter and Ashby maintain.

“In 2017, the United Arab Emirates purchased over US$700 million worth of Russian weapons during the International Defense Exhibition and Conference. Egypt has also increased its purchases of Russian arms over the past decade. After the Biden administration temporarily suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia at the beginning of this year, Riyadh looked to Moscow.”

The US also must beware of basing their foreign policy off of little more than an “enemy of my enemy” criteria.

During the Sino-Soviet split, much of the global south was forced to pick their either the USSR or the CCP as their benefactor. As such, many nations that exhibit anti-CCP tendencies have longstanding relationships with Russia, few more obvious than India.

Interestingly, India and Russia have long had a fruitful relationship following a bilateral agreement in 1971, creating a prosperous defence industry relationship.

“More than 60 per cent of India’s defence forces are equipped with Russian weapons. India’s ambition to become an arms exporter also explains why it collaborates with Russia in producing arms,” Anita Inder Sing wrote in Lowy’s The Interpreter earlier in the year.

“Both countries are cooperating in the manufacture of the 'Brahmos' missile system and licensed production in India of SU-30 aircraft and T-90 tanks. They reportedly plan to jointly manufacture AK-203 rifles, involving full technology transfer. India’s decision to buy Russia s S-400 missile system – providing India with a sophisticated anti-aircraft weapon – reflects its wish to maximise its military and diplomatic options by being able to diversify its arms suppliers.”

The US must look beyond using an "enemy of my enemy" as a case to build alliances.

Disinformation or charity?

Russia has leveraged long held anti-Western sentiment across the developing world to maintain influence via a well-funded disinformation machine. This has protected and enhanced Russian influence on almost every continent, from Asia to Africa and Latin America.

According to Slaughter and Ashby, this was recently demonstrated via the creation of a Spanish language news source to promote anti-US sentiment across Latin America.

"Russia is also pushing anti-colonialist narratives in Latin America. According to EUvsDisinfo, the Spanish-language social-media accounts of the Russian state-funded news sources RT and Sputnik have more than 26 million followers. Among the stories the Kremlin is peddling is that the US is blocking delivery of Russia’s Covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, to Latin America," the pair argue.

Leveraging these narratives has also been successful in Africa.

“In a meeting with his Sierra Leonean counterpart in May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recalled that ‘Russia, and the Soviet Union, made a decisive contribution to supporting the battle against colonialism’ there."

“Today, Lavrov continued, Russia believes in ‘an African solution to African problems’ and supports developing-country demands for greater representation on the UN Security Council. While that commitment has yet to be backed up by action, the declaration clearly aims to distinguish Russia from the Western countries that resist reform.”

Russia has not taken a back seat to China as the global hegemon of anti-Western and anti-colonial thought. The country has maintained and enhanced its relationships across the world via military and economic relationships, supported by a disinformation machine. Despite being less vocal, they are still competing for military and political primacy.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with [email protected], [email protected], or at [email protected].

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