Kautilya in the Gray Zone: How Russia has Successfully Adopted Two-Thousand Year Old Teachings

“A Russian serviceman is seen behind pro-Russian activists at the Belbek Sevastopol International Airport in the Crimea region, March 4, 2014.” Photo credit: Business Insider

What do a South Asian statesman from the fourth-century BCE and current members of Russia’s Ministry of Defence have in common? The belief that war should be conducted by incorporating all assets at a state’s disposal and that hybrid tools should be utilized to achieve operational and strategic goals when hard power might be too risky or costly.[i]

Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, was an ancient Indian statesman who authored the Arthashastra, a comprehensive account of statecraft and military strategy. Among his claims and observations within the Arthashastra, Kautilya describes four types of warfare: open, concealed, silent, and war by counsel.[ii] These four types draw contemporary equivalents; open and concealed war are analogous with conventional and unconventional war, respectively. Silent war can see relevance in its use of stealth, assassinations, and the spread of disinformation. Finally, war by counsel sees diplomacy as a subtle form of war, utilizing it when in a weaker position than an adversary.[iii] Contemporary Russia has been an effective implementer of Kautilya’s teachings.  

Kautilya and Gerasimov

Russia’s modern hybrid warfare approach and the concept of “gray zone tactics” have been associated with General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, and subsequently dubbed the “Gerasimov doctrine.” The Gerasimov doctrine can best be described as an effort for establishing ways to operationalize larger foreign policy objectives in conflict with the West. Three major components of the Gerasimov doctrine involve utilizing the whole-of-government in Russia’s approach to warfare, fusing elements of hard and soft power across multiple domains, and the idea of a gray zone where permanent conflict transcends the boundaries between peace and war.[iv]

According to the Gerasimov doctrine, hard power (military strength) is to be used as both a deterrent as well as a means of seizing and holding ground. Hybrid or soft tools may be used in lieu of hard power, but military force is always in the background when hybrid tools are utilized.[v] In accordance with Kautilya’s teachings, this doctrine has deliberately implemented various forms of warfare concurrently in order to maximize effects.

Crimea and the Donbass

Although Russia has employed Kautilya’s principles in various countries including Moldova, Georgia, and Syria, the Ukrainian crisis is a case study where these ancient principles and the Gerasimov doctrine have been implemented with staggering success. While the world looked on in horror as the Islamic State began conquering large amounts of territory across Iraq and Syria in 2014, Russia capitalized on this and aggressively pursued Ukraine.

Crimea’s relatively bloodless annexation by Russia has proved to be an overwhelming success of the Gerasimov doctrine. The overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Russian President, gave Putin and Russia the green light to commit the Gerasimov doctrine in Crimea. In little over a month, “little green men” – ambiguous troops which were later proven to be Russian military and Spetsnaz – occupied key military sites and airports, nearly half of the Ukrainian military presence in the region defected, the key parliamentary body dissolved, and a referendum was held in which Crimea declared its autonomy and subsequently joined the Russian Federation.[vi]

Domestically and abroad, Crimea’s decision to split from Ukraine was spun by the Kremlin as overwhelmingly positive and accepted by the Crimean people, showing a 97 percent vote in favor of annexation with a turnout of 83 percent. In reality, the total Crimean population voting in favor of annexation was just under 23 percent, with only 40 percent turnout.[vii] This narrative tips its hat to Kautilya’s silent war and the spread of disinformation, a key instrument in Russia’s gray zone toolbox.

The ventures into the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of eastern Ukraine, known collectively as the Donbass, have garnered different results for Russia. These operations have been labeled a Pyrrhic victory,[viii] with Russia occupying less land than it had hoped in the region and engaging in a costly, protracted war met with stiff Ukrainian resistance. After more asymmetric and silent approaches failed, Russia was forced to employ conventional means in an attempt to achieve objectives in eastern Ukraine, although it continues to deny its full role in the region.[ix]

Western Counterstrategies

To feign innocence and believe that the U.S. does not engage in deceptive gray zone tactics and strategies is foolish. For decades, both successful and failed coups in Latin and South America have demonstrated the US commitment to employing hybrid and hidden means to achieve its policy objectives. What sets the U.S. apart from its adversaries in the gray zone is the ability of the United States Government to ensure accountability and oversight compliant with foreign policy aims.[x] What can the U.S. rely on to effectively counter Russia in the gray zone?

A robust intelligence community that involves both governmental entities and private-sector companies, along with heavy investment in advancing technologies, will be critical in countering gray zone operations conducted by our adversaries. For example, following the 2014 invasion of Crimea, private-sector researchers and analysts were able to deconstruct the Russian narrative of plausible deniability by utilizing open-source geospatial data to positively identify Russian troops in Ukraine.[xi]

In a similar vein, the US Department of Defense (DoD) must refine the way it approaches the gray zone. The US Army’s TC 7-100 “Hybrid Threat” manual, for instance, provides a baseline understanding of the threat, but the literature is over a decade old and due for review.[xii] Lessons learned from Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, among other adversarial gray zone ventures, should be studied and added to our DoD repository.  

Reinforcing our allies and partners most susceptible to Russian influence and aggression is key in combating Russian actions in the gray zone. NATO, whose original design was to combat Soviet expansion and aggression, saw a decline in its relevance after the fall of the Soviet Union. The success of Russia’s actions in Ukraine has galvanized Europe and our NATO allies in a remarkable way. While Putin’s intervention in Crimea and the Donbass may have achieved his short term goals of preventing Ukraine’s accession into the EU and NATO,[xiii] it has bolstered NATO’s commitment in the Baltics and along Russia’s western border. A continued multilateral approach is crucial in deterring the bear in the East. 


[i] Eugene Rumer, “The Primakov (Not Gerasimov) Doctrine in Action,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/06/05/primakov-not-gerasimov-doctrine-in-action-pub-79254.

[ii] Roger Boesche, “Kautilya’s Arthashastra on War and Diplomacy in Ancient India,” The Journal of Military History 67, no. 1 (2003): 9–37, https://doi.org/10.1353/jmh.2003.0006.

[iii] Jeffrey D. Adkins, “Kautilya and Modern Day Strategic Advising,” Army War College, 2018, https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/3653.pdf.

[iv] Rumer, “The Primakov Doctrine.”

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Danielle Wiener-Bronner, “Putin Holds Treaty Signing to Annex Crimea,” The Atlantic, July 1, 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/03/crimea-russia-sign-annexation/359273/.

[vii] Paul Roderick Gregory, “Putin’s ‘Human Rights Council’ Accidentally Posts Real Crimean Election Results,” Forbes, May 6, 2014, https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2014/05/05/putins-human-rights-council-accidentally-posts-real-crimean-election-results-only-15-voted-for-annexation/?sh=4d45e586f172.

[viii] Stacie L. Pettyjohn and Becca Wasser, Competing in the Gray Zone: Russian Tactics and Western Responses, RAND Corporation, 2019, 46, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2791.html.

[ix] Pettyjohn and Wasser, Competing in the Gray Zone, 28.

[x] Kathleen Hicks, “Russia in the Gray Zone,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2019, https://www.csis.org/analysis/russia-gray-zone.

[xi] Melissa Dalton et al., eds, “By Other Means Part II: Adapting to Compete in the Gray Zone,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2019, 67, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/Hicks_GrayZone_II_interior_v8_PAGES.pdf

[xii] Headquarters, Department of the Army, Hybrid Threat TC 7-100 (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2010), https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/tc7_100.pdf.

[xiii] Pettyjohn and Wasser, Competing in the Gray Zone, 46.

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