Sari – Blurred Lines: Hybrid Threats and the Politics of International Law

This week marks the start of a reduction in output for TTAC21. After about a year of work from all of us, it has become apparent that the 4 or 5 pieces each month that we were reviewing can take up a bit more time that would be ideal. So, we are switching down to 2 or 3. If you have previously been put off joining the network by the number of readings, but are now interested just send us an email. All are welcome.

Now, onto our reviews. We are again looking at hybrid warfare, or hybrid threat. Following on from the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, and some other questionable deaths of Russia ex-pats, in the UK the hybrid threat issue has remerged after a flurry of interest during the Crimean crisis of 2014. Prior to this recent increase in interest, Aurel Sari wrote ‘Blurred Lines: Hybrid Threats and the Politics of International Law‘. It is a consideration of how international law can be used as a counter to hybrid warfare, and hybrid threats, and how it should go about being used.

Here’s what we thought. If you’ve got anything you would like to say about it, just pop it in the comments box below.

The 2018 paper, ‘Blurred Lines: Hybrid Threats and the Politics of International Law’, recognises an important need to re-engage with the politics of international law to prevail in, what Sari describes as, ‘the current strategic environment’.  Sari argues that such an environment exists as a result of the blurred lines between what is legally described as war and peace. These blurred lines are being used in the manipulation of legal concepts and thresholds in order to disguise violations of international law.  Although this article recognises a valid problem in international law, I have grave concerns with the proposed solution to this problem; ‘Western nations and institutions’ are called upon to save the international legal order against, what Sari repeatedly refers to as, the ‘adversaries and competitors’.

The reader is reminded of Russia’s 2014 ‘brazen violation of international law’ in its intervention in Crimea. There is also mention of the maritime activities of China that do not coincide with the West’s concept of international order. Other than Russia and China, it is not clear exactly who else comes under the classification of ‘adversaries and competitors’. Do all non-Western nations and institutions come within this classification? Surely not, as the inherent problems of such an ethnocentric view are obvious.

It is also not clear how Sari has come to the conclusion that it is only the ‘Western nations and institutions’ that can act as the saviours of the international order. Whilst reading this article, I felt an unease with the running theme of colonial-era thinking that only the West matters. The article makes the assumption that it is the West that are the only ones who are qualified ‘to promote their vision of international order’ (emphasis added). However, Western nations and institutions are not immune from exploiting international law or acquiescing in such exploitations. We only have to look at the US-led operation in Syria against Daesh and the invocation of the ‘unwilling or unable’ doctrine by various states to see how international laws can be strategically manipulated for a states’ advantage.

Positioning the West against the rest of the world under, what looks a lot like, an ‘us v. them’ paradigm, is not the solution to the ‘current strategic environment’. The international order is an order that governs all states. If we are to take measures to prevent the abuse of international law, then we need all states to be involved in this process – not just the states and institutions from the West.

Jasmin Nessa, University of Liverpool

In this article, Aurel Sari examines increasing ‘instrumentalisation’ of law to achieve political ends, citing examples such as the Russian ‘intervention’ in Crimea. In response to the instrumentalisation of law, the author calls for concrete measures in three distinct areas: legal preparedness, legal resilience and deterrence, and legal defence. While the author focusses primarily on legal approaches to political problems, he unfortunately lacks political insights into what is a difficult and complex challenge. The biggest weakness here is that the author fails to suggest any meaningful solution to the question of international relations between States that often lack the political and/or military desire to act on threats of action against those States that act unlawfully.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

I really enjoyed this article, and think the problem of the blurred lines of hybrid threats and the politics of international law are extremely important subjects, and serious threats to present-day international institutions. I especially appreciated the solution-oriented thinking, although I wish the author expanded a bit more on how to achieve the proposed solutions, as those are not easy endeavours. I agree with what the author said, so I will not spend too much time criticising their opinion. Instead, I will focus on the big glaring omission of the article: Western blurred lines.

The article overwhelmingly discusses threats to international law by adversaries to the West, and how the West should respond to uphold international law. Kosovo and Iraq are mentioned somewhere in a sub-clause, but Western actions are otherwise barely considered. This is problematic, as Western countries have always also promoted a certain flavour of international law that is in their own interests, and have violated international law when it suited them. Consider many arms control treaties, devised in a way so the West does not lose its military advantageous position; the questionable status of nuclear sharing under the NPT; the lack of respect for international law when going to war in Iraq; or the fact that Israel is the lawfare pioneer par excellence. When will we see accountability for torture in Guantanamo or political follow-up on the Chilcott report? It reminded me of a recent interview where NYT journalist Jim Rutenberg claimed that Russian interference in US elections was bad, but US interference in other regimes is very different, as it is for the greater good. The cognitive dissonance is striking.

It is completely right to question the practices of Russia in Crimea, or Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. I whole-heartedly agree that they are serious threats to international institutions as a whole. But one should not be blind for the actions of the West, and pretend there is no politics behind which countries and practices they consider problematic and which they do not. Western countries violate or (ab)use international law too, which is also a threat. I promise you that many countries in the Global South certainly do not see the West as firm protectors of international law. Furthermore, the selective outrage against Russia, China or Syria, but not against the USA or Israel, weakens the credibility of Western accusations. This janus-face risks that valid accusations about horrendous acts of chemical warfare in Syria are perceived as just another political stick to hit Russia with. This perception is extremely dangerous, as it leads to disillusionment and makes it significantly harder to restore respect for international law, which is urgently needed.

Dr Aurel Sari mentions three countermeasures against the threats to international law: strengthening legal preparedness, legal resilience and deterrence, and the capability for legal defence. I would thus add a fourth: More self-reflection and accountability for one’s own actions, and lead by example.

Against this proposal I can already hear the criticism: You are so naive. You are hypocritical, only criticising the West ignoring Russia and China. The West is so much better, and Western self-critique harms our global position Against that I have the following to say: (1) I agree with the basic premises of the article, but the omission of Western actions really weakens the argument, so that is what I comment on. It inaccurately represents reality. (2) It is rather concerning that in the current political climate the debate has become so polarised and black-and-white that questioning the established narrative leads to accusations of Russia-apologia. Disapproval of Western actions are not the same as approval of Russian actions. Russia is an authoritarian regime that violates international law and human rights. This does not mean they are an evil mastermind plotting the breakdown of the Western order and international institutions as a whole. The debate on information warfare has become completely hysterical, and seriously lacks self-reflection and taking responsibility. It is easier to pretend that Russia rigged your various elections and referenda than to admit how xenophobic or racist your population is, or that there might be a reason why your population is so disillusioned with its government. (3) I honestly believe it will strengthen Western arguments against violations of international law if they were known to be more accountable and self-reflexive themselves. It would strengthen international norms, increase credibility and remove ammunition against them, so this advice would thus actually be beneficial to them. (4) My advice is also not limited to Western countries. I wish all countries were more self-reflexive and

accountable. That said (5), I am Western, writing for a Western audience, from a democratic country with freedom of the press. I can affect Western policy a lot easier than I can affect Syrian policy. I think it is a natural phenomenon to be the most critical of one’s own country or community. I know it the best, and care about it. Misdoings bother me especially because I think we can do better, and because I want my community to uphold my personal values.

Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussel  

This article aims to highlight the growing necessity for the West to re-engage with the politics of international law in the face of adversarial subversive activities that breach, challenge and threaten the integrity of legal systems. The author discusses the “instrumentalisation” of law: the use of law by adversaries and competitors as a tool to augment diplomatic, economic, military and intelligence activities. What I found most interesting in this piece was that in order to confront these challenges of instrumentalisation, the author goes on to outline steps that themselves somewhat resonate with this notion of instrumentalising law; albeit in a less subversive fashion. It is suggested that Western states must put in place “…processes and capabilities to deny adversaries the benefits of using law as an asymmetric lever of influence.” (p. 6). Whilst mitigating Western legal vulnerabilities is, of course, essential – looking at this a little differently, does not creating and placing such processes and capabilities of denial (if underpinned by legal frameworks) amount to using law as an asymmetric lever of influence too, just in a different way?

There seems to be an underlying paradox associated with responding to/challenging adversarial breaches that is quite interesting to explore. It comes back to the idea of ‘lawfare’ – using/misusing law as a means to achieve an operational objective, but for me it also hints at a subtle overlap between the use and misuse of legal systems through the act of manipulation. Whether that is the manipulation of legal thresholds by hostile actors or the manipulation of legal systems and frameworks to mitigate these new threats through creating processes/capabilities of denial. This article consequently raised interesting thoughts for me about law and legal systems as simply extensions of the battlefield. Sari sums this up well when suggesting that Western states should acknowledge that “…law is a domain of competition, just like the land, maritime, air, information and cyber domains…”(p. 5); highlighting that law can be weaponised, manipulated and harnessed as an instrument to serve strategic advantages just as other domains more traditionally associated with war can. The lingering thought this paper left me with is: in order to prevent the erosion of legal integrity, how do Western states go about utilising law in such a way as to not inadvertently mirror the “instrumentalisation” of the law that we seek to confront?

Anna Dyson, Lancaster University.

I thought this piece brought a few interesting points together. Of course, as it is a policy paper, it is not very long and suffers a lack of detail as a result. But, it still gets the points across. I like Sari’s ideas of strengthening legal preparedness, resilience and deterrence, and capability for legal defence. But, all of this does beg the question whether Western nations defending a Western-dominated international order is because they want to retain the powerbase of international law, or because they want to defend something that usually works for most nations from other nations that want to subvert the global legal order for their own ends? There are also issues of whether Russia, China and other powers are trying to change the international legal order for their own ends, or to make it a more diverse and multi-polar system that represents and works for all people equally well, in the face of a Western-dominated history? I’m not really sure if international law has the tools to deal with this question, most of the international lawyers I know consider the extent of different perspectives that are worthwhile pursuing to be positivism v. natural law. Yet, if we turn to international relations theory, it turns into a classic realist v. liberalist debate. I guess this is a situation whereby there are no clear answers. Yet, it does seem that from a Western perspective, Russia and China are playing to win when it comes to International law.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

UPDATED: added 1st April 2019, written earlier

The author of this piece makes a plea for a Western-led reinforcement of international legal norms as the most potent counter to revisionist states like Russia and their ‘instrumentalisation of law for political purposes’. Concerned that ‘[p]ersistent and serious breaches of international law undermine respect for the rule of law in international affairs’, they propose a three-step plan: strengthening local preparedness, including ‘identifying legal threats and taking stock of legal vulnerabilities at the national and institutional level’; strengthening their legal resilience and deterrence; and strengthening their capability for legal defence.

All of this seems like very reasonable advice, although Western institutions have gifted themselves a steep uphill climb here through their own historic ‘persistent and serious’ breaches of international law when it suited them, from the CIA’s Cold War government-toppling misadventures to the Pakistani drone war of today. However, one hopes that states, like people, can change, and if they were truly interested in reclaiming this mantle as defenders-of-the-norms, I would suggest that they start by making sure their own house is order. Perhaps they could dip their collective toes in the water and consider doing something about the ethnic cleansing of Kurds that NATO ally Turkey is currently chomping at the bit to finish in Northern Syria. Just a thought.

Ben Goldsworthy, Lancaster University

Let us know what you think!

Wirtz – Life in the “Gray Zone”: observations for contemporary strategists

This month, we have moved on from considering The City and urban warfare. We are now looking at the changing character of war. A number of people have been talking about this recently, and how the 21st century has brought a sea-change along with it. It isn’t clear whether this is a resurgence of behaviours we have not seen for a long time, or a whole new change. This month, we hope to find out!


Our first article is “Life in the “Gray Zone”: observations for contemporary strategists” by James J. Wirtz in Defense & Security Analysis, 33:2, 106-114. Available here.

The article covers a number different strategies short-of-war which have been termed ‘Gray Zone’ conflicts (or Grey Zone, if you speak UK English). It is a great overview of different types of irregular warfare displayed below the thresholds of armed conflict, and some options to counter these types of non-conflicts.


Here’s what we thought:


This articles investigates the concept of the ‘Gray Zone’ (GZ) – a zone of indeterminacy between peace and war. The author asks whether the GZ is new, and what it really is, before taking the discussion back to the more fundamental question of why these GZ operations are taking place in the first place.

The author suggests that one factor is that there are an increasing number of actors who believe the world can handle a ‘little conflict’ (113). This comes in part (it is implied) by the fact that major actors are increasingly reticent about committing to full-scale military action. Clearly, this is cause for major concern, as while the general public may not be willing to accept military action, it does leave the world in a position where GZ actions are going to become more and more likely. The question from my perspective then is: why are the likes of NATO not doing more? How much longer can we continue to be permissive of so-called ‘minor’ incidents on the global stage?

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


I, like a lot of people became really interested in grey-zone conflicts, and ‘hybrid warfare’ after the Russia intervention in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. But, then, as with a lot of other people, I realised it is just another form of irregular conflict. On one level, all of these grey-zone tactics are just recycled from previous conflicts. But, there does seem to be something different about them. As Wirtz notes, the world is now multi-polar with China, Russia, and Iran being prepared to act on the world stage with less fear of a formerly hegemonic US response. However, as Wirtz alludes to, there are vast numbers of individuals and small groups with high-levels of technological power and know-how who have the ability to create change on their adversaries, whether they be other individuals they dislike, or corporations who they believe to be unethical. However, when it comes to these sorts of attacks of states, it does create the question, of whether states will suffer defeat from ‘a thousand cuts’?

It would seem that it is easier to survive a war of attrition if you know that your adversary is also suffering. But, when there are many adversaries, with an unknown and potentially minimal level of suffering happening to them, it becomes more difficult. Wirtz does suggest counter-strategies for these types of conflicts. They all seem to require states to do more, and work harder. I wonder whether the defence cuts engulfing UK armed forces will stop the Ministry of Defence being able to cover these areas?

Overall, Wirtz gives a really good overview of the grey-zone. I just wish I could have read it 5 years ago!

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


This article was very useful to learn more about strategy. It was very well structured and easy to read, which is a great accomplishment due to the dense material. I do not know a lot about strategy but have recently started delving more into strategic theory, so this was an excellent addition. However, for someone not versed in strategic theory, not everything was easy to follow. The intended audience of the article is strategists, so the reader is assumed to know more than I do myself. What I still struggle with is why the actions described are placed into a separate category of “short-of-war” strategies, as all these manoeuvres also seem to be found in full-blown war. Proxy warfare might not lead to superpowers taking direct military action, but can very well lead to an extremely violent war in the country in which this takes place. The author claims that multipolarity has led to decreased international management, and therefore control on allies. However, was proxy warfare not a key feature of the bipolar Cold World? Fait accompli seems to be a tactic that can be found in full-blown war as well – take action so quick before the opponent can respond (like the 1998 India-Pakistan Kargil War). I struggle with understanding this logic due to my limited knowledge of strategic theory. Nonetheless it was very informative.

What I found less satisfying were the recommendations to counter Gray Zone strategies. The author recommends accelerating bureaucratic processes, strengthening alliances, and developing tactics to strengthen deterrence against short-of-war tactics. It is not that I disagree, but the whole problem is what to develop and how to execute this. There are few people who do not want to streamline bureaucratic processes (besides perhaps paper salesmen), but how should this be done exactly, and what should be cut and altered? How this process is changed dramatically affects the outcome. Of course it is great to develop initiatives to strengthen deterrence, but what should be developed exactly and how? The recommendations lack substance, and are therefore not very useful practically.

The author finishes off the article by mentioning the possibility of increasing the likelihood of conflict (by redrawing red lines or actually executing deterrent threats sooner) when international decorum is insulted. The idea is that the risk of actual war is lowered, if the threshold of war is lowered too. This is a very thought-provoking suggestion, but as the author already clearly states, a very dangerous one. It is a gamble that the likelihood of war will actually decrease if you employ this doctrine, and escalation risks increase substantially. Furthermore, it also means that opponents might respond harsher to YOUR short-of-war tactics too. The article is written from a US perspective and mostly describes actions taken by China and Russia, but the USA fully embraces this type of warfare too with drone strikes, black OPS missions , cyber operations, etc. That should also be included when calculating the bigger risk picture. Still, if WW II clearly showed how horrible war is and that it must be avoided at all costs, which led to peace, increased cooperation and prosperity in Europe, did that make it worth it? The fact that WW II followed WW I shows that this is no guarantee, and statistically, prior conflict is one of the key factors in predicting future conflict. Nonetheless it is interesting to think about.

Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussels

Life in the Gray Zone” presents a clear account of the “short of war” strategies characteristic of Grey Zone conflicts and provides the reader with an understanding of why such strategies may be on the rise. Something that stood out for me throughout this article was the author’s recurring reference to “enablers” or facilitating factors that are seemingly incentivising short of war strategies.

Wirtz notes that the very fabric of deterrence strategies has an enabling effect on short of war strategies by providing adversaries with an opportunity to exploit the “victim’s desire” to avoid hostilities (p. 107). In addition, it is highlighted that globalisation, the information revolution and the pace of technological change also act as enablers for those seeking to alter the status quo. It is, however, a point made towards the end of the article, as Wirtz considers counter measures to Grey Zone strategies, that stands out the most for me in this regard. The author pertinently highlights that the problem of enabling factors incentivising short of war strategies runs much deeper than those factors previously mentioned – to the bureaucratic processes, slow procurement cycles and drawn-out strategic planning timelines within military establishments – and the fact that these are simply not keeping pace with the rapidity of today’s political, technological and social change (p. 112). This asymmetry of pace creates an exploitable gap; a gateway for short of war strategies to be used effectively.

Although it is clear that policies and strategies must be reimagined to align with today’s short of war reality, I wonder how feasible it might be to implement “continuous reform and reinvention” of deterrence strategies, force structures and doctrines, as Wirtz implies (p. 112). This would entail a very reactive approach that is likely to be in constant flux and therefore potentially unsustainable in the long-run. It seems almost counterproductive given the uncertainty inherent to how short of war strategies will evolve as technological, political and social changes continue to accelerate. The more useful way forward seems to be in defining red lines and identifying coherent ways to respond to short of war strategies, as Wirtz later suggests. Defining red lines is surely the logical first step and the one requiring the highest priority in order to effectively begin to counter Grey Zone activities. Until this happens, thresholds of tolerance will remain just as ambiguous as the short of war methods being used to erode them; further incentivising these approaches to be embraced.


Anna Dyson, Lancaster University 

As a novice to the topic, I found the article interesting, clear and informative. The author was able to succinctly define “Gray-Zone” conflicts and elaborate on the three strategies used by those that wish to alter the status quo (fait accompli, proxy warfare, and the exploitation of ambiguous deterrence situations).  I also found that the examples used to present the short-of-war strategies supplemented the theoretical discussion well.

As can be seen clearly in Crimea, “Gray-Zone” conflicts are a serious threat to international peace and security. Therefore, countering “Gray-Zones” is an important consideration for military strategists. Wirtz refers to some courses of action that can deal with the daunting challenges of “Gray-Zones” but only very briefly and without great substance. I would have enjoyed reading more detailed discussion on what can be done to mitigate the challenges posed by “Gray-Zone” conflicts.  Additionally, it would have been beneficial for Wirtz to acknowledge how realistic it is for his suggestions to be adopted by those seeking to counter short-of-war strategies.  If the suggestions are unlikely to be utilised then why is this the case? Why are the relevant actors not already implementing actions to counter short-of-war strategies? Perhaps, actions have been taken or are in the process of being implemented. Considering the seriousness of “Gray-Zone” conflicts, I would have assumed the article would have provided more focus on countering “Gray-Zone” conflicts. Perhaps this will be the focus of future research.

Liam Halewood, Liverpool John Moores University

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