ussia is spent. Foreign investors and some of the country’s best minds have fled, the economy is hobbled by sanctions, and its military is bogged down in Ukraine, with many of its elite soldiers dead and best equipment destroyed. The revolt of Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group in June 2023 seemed a final humiliation, revealing a once-feared dictator reduced to bargaining with individual commanders. This weakness is real: if Russian president Vladimir Putin could turn back the clock, it is hard to imagine he would again choose to invade Ukraine.
Russia’s massive losses will probably make Putin cautious about conventional military operations in the foreseeable future. Even if Putin were tempted, the United States has increased the number of its ground forces in Europe to their highest level in nearly two decades, and NATO’s conventional and nuclear deterrence is robust. Nor would the Russian people and elite be eager to support an invasion of a NATO country and risk escalation to nuclear war.
Yet Putin shows no sign of leaving power. He continues to harbor revisionist aims and expresses admiration for Russian conquerors like Peter the Great. Russia still seeks influence in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. As long as Putin is in power, he will undermine any future Ukrainian government and attempt to deter and punish Western countries that support Kyiv. The expansion of NATO to include Finland and eventually Sweden, the military build-up of NATO forces in Eastern Europe, and continuing military aid to Ukraine are particular affronts to Putin, even though they are justified as necessary responses to Russian aggression. Putin sees the United States, which he refers to as the “main enemy” (or glavny vrag), engaged in both hard and soft power actions to encircle and overthrow his regime.
There is a way for Russia to square this circle of maximal ambitions and weak conventional capabilities: gray zone warfare, which we define as covert operations, disinformation, subversion, sabotage, cyber-attacks, and other methods that advance a state’s security objectives but fall short of conventional warfare. Russia has numerous skilled intelligence officers, paramilitary forces, elite hackers, and other personnel who enable it to excel in this arena. Moreover, Russia’s track record in gray zone warfare is impressive, in contrast to its poor performance on the battlefield.