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21st century strategic competition with Russia and China

08 Dec 2021 - 12:00
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Fifty Shades of Grey

This Strategic Alert examines the cases of Russia and China which successfully utilise such grey zone tactics to promote their strategic agendas.

Key take-aways

  • With the invention of atomic and sophisticated conventional weapons, conducting kinetic operations vis-à-vis states in the nuclear club is a risk too great to undertake. Wars between states, especially between the great powers, are therefore now fought in the grey zone, in which soft power and unconventional instruments dominate the arsenal.
  • As the frequency of direct interstate wars continues to decline, grey zone engagements will become increasingly prominent. The future conflict environment is dominated by increased competition between powerful nuclear-armed states and traditional militarised deterrence solutions are too risky as escalation may lead to unacceptable consequences.
  • Conflicts in the grey zone are essentially confrontations between states that do not pass the threshold of what is traditionally regarded as war. The participants in such conflicts utilise unconventional tactics, such as economic coercion and political pressure, non-state proxies and cyberspace to achieve their strategic goals.
  • Russia’s and China’s utilisation of different tactics in their engagement in the grey zone can be substantially attributed to their distinct geostrategic objectives. Ultimately both compete with opponents such as the US and its allies to influence the policy direction of third-party states. However, their trajectories of relative power determine the tools and tactics utilised, as well as their combination, within the grey zone.
  • Russia utilises a specific combination of conventional and unconventional military and soft power tools to counter the overall decline of its position in the world. It not only engages its opponents in grey zone conflict from a position of weakness, but operates in an environment of continuously declining relative power. On the other hand, it is the relative increase in China’s geostrategic power that influences the tactics it utilises in the grey zone.
  • Russia’s and China’s strategies and tactics in the grey zone are substantially different, and largely contingent upon their individual geostrategic momentum, on the descent and on the ascent, respectively. Both utilise their own distinct tools and combination of techniques, which therefore should be countered with tailored approaches.


Danny Pronk, Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute