This article is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy.
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What is it: Grey-zone conflict or contest has been defined as “acts of coercive statecraft short of war”. If war is “the continuation of politics by other means”, as Carl von Clausewitz (director, Prussian Kriegsakademie) put it, grey-zone conflict is the continuation of war by other means. The older concepts of “hybrid warfare” and “political warfare” are closely related to the idea.
Where does it happen: Ukraine, the South China Sea and Yemen have all been cited as theatres, where media manipulation, computer hacking, spycraft and propaganda can play a role.
Why does it matter: Some theorists believe grey-zone conflict may replace conventional warfare. According to Robert Muggah (principal, SecDev Group) and John P. Sullivan (former lieutenant, LA County Sheriff’s Department), “future conflicts will mostly be waged by drug cartels, mafia groups, gangs, and terrorists”.
What can be done: Holding aggressors accountable is challenging. Their methods “do not fit neatly into the current international legal framework” (University of Pennsylvania, Center of Ethics and Rule of Law). Sabotaging infrastructure could be an act of war under jus ad bellum, or the right to war, while a cyberattack is in more murky territory: the grey zone.
Collateral damage: In June 2017, US pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. suffered a cyberattack that infected 30,000 of its computers. The source was a Ukrainian office targeted by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. Merck and its insurers are fighting a US$1.3 billion lawsuit over whether this was an act of war.