Ukraine isn't the only country Russia is trying to topple

  • To Russia, the Ukraine war and the "gray zone"  fights beyond it are two sides of the same coin.

  • The Kremlin believes that destabilizing Africa would ease Russia's campaign in Ukraine.

  • The KGB's successors, however, have had a less-than-stellar record.

Even as Russian bombs pound Ukraine, Moscow's mercenaries and spies are busy trying to set much of the rest of the world afire.

"Russia is using unconventional methods to expand its influence, evade containment, and destabilize and disrupt its adversaries — and is making progress in several directions," a report by Britain's Royal United Services Institute think tank warned. This includes covert operations in Europe, mercenaries operating across Africa, and establishing links with Muslim communities in Central Asia and Europe.

To Russia, the conventional warfare waged in Ukraine and the unconventional "gray zone" warfare waged around the world are two sides of the same coin. "It is the conventional threat of escalation that deters retaliation against unconventional activity, thereby expanding the scope of what Russia can get away with," RUSI said. "Conversely, it is the unconventional operations of the Russian special services that aim to set the conditions for the successful application of conventional military force."

Thus, for example, the Kremlin believes that destabilizing Africa — and diverting Western attention and resources — will ease Russia's campaign in Ukraine. All of this means that Russian "special services" — spies, assassins, and propagandists — are set to continue their efforts.

Revolution and subversion was the business model for the Soviet Union and later Russia. "The Russian playbook has been remarkably consistent for decades," RUSI noted. "The overall approach is to use information operations and active measures to polarize a target population, mobilize factions in support of allied elites, and paralyze support for opposing elements of a country's leadership. Human intelligence operations are used to attempt elite capture through the offer of assistance to politicians who support Russian interests. Finally, violence can be employed to escalate political tensions to the point of crisis, or in other contexts to isolate a captured elite."

For example, in 2016, Russian military intelligence recruited criminal gangs for an attempted coup to stop Montenegro from joining NATO (the attempt eventually led to several agents and Montenegrin politicians being sentenced to prison). In February 2022, Moscow tried to spark street protests that would "justify Russian military intervention, aided by collaborators within the Ukrainian government, clearing the path for Russian agents recruited inside the Ukrainian parliament and state to seize power," RUSI said. And in Moldova in 2022 and 2023, Russia's FSB security service hoped that protests would offer an excuse for pro-Russian leaders to call for military intervention (though "the poor performance of Russian arms in Ukraine" made these leaders hesitate, RUSI noted).

A building next to a highway.
The Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces building, also known as the GRU, in Moscow.Getty Images

'Creating crises'

Unfortunately for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the KGB's successors have had a less-than-stellar record. The 161 Intelligence Specialists Training Center — the shadowy sabotage, subversion, and assassination unit of the GRU, or Russian military intelligence — has accrued multiple failures over the past decade, including an unsuccessful coup in Montenegro in 2016 and attempts to foment violence in Ukraine and Moldova to justify Russian military intervention.

"The reasons for failure were consistent," the RUSI analysts Jack Watling, Oleksandr Danylyuk, and Nick Reynolds said. "Poor operational security leading to the exposure of the plan to domestic security services and the disruption of its implementation; and inaccurate assessment by the Russian special services as to the extent of their influence in these countries." In addition, many European nations expelled Russian diplomats and spies after the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Inept operations — such as botched assassinations of GRU defectors in Britain — also didn't help.

Undaunted, Russia has rebuilt its capacity for unconventional warfare capabilities, or "active measures." To create a support network for its agents in Europe, it has switched from using Russian businessmen and expatriates to utilizing the Russian mafia and recruiting foreign students at Russian universities.

"As the war in Ukraine protracts, Russia has an interest in creating crises further afield," RUSI said. "The Balkans present a particularly serious set of opportunities for such enterprises. Russia also has an active interest in destabilizing Ukraine's partners, and with a slew of elections forthcoming across Europe there is a wide range of opportunities to exacerbate polarization."

Russia's state-sponsored mercenaries are meanwhile expanding their efforts in Africa and the Middle East by providing military support to dictators and warlords, from Libya and Mali to Sudan and the Central African Republic. The infamous Wagner Group — a private military corporation — seems to be subsumed, its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin having opposed Putin before dying in a mysterious plane crash. Instead, Russia is now offering a "regime survival package" — delivered via a GRU Expeditionary Corps of mercenary groups such as Convoy — to support clients against threats from Islamic rebels and rival factions.

"The Kremlin, through the GRU, has now set about seeking to build an 'Entente Roscolonial' — a group of states that actively seek to assist Russia, while also becoming increasingly subordinate to Russian influence — displacing Western interests across Africa and the Middle East," RUSI said.

At the same time, Ramzan Kadyrov, the powerful and ruthless leader of Russia's republic of Chechnya, is attempting to expand Moscow's influence among the Muslims of Central Asia and the Balkans. "Russian official propaganda and networks of hidden influence operating in Muslim countries push a romantic image of Kadyrov as a defender of Islam, opposing Western heretics who are trying to destroy traditional values," RUSI said.

Even so, Russia has become a target of Islamist terror groups such as ISIS-K, which claimed responsibility for the gunmen who killed more than 140 people at a Moscow concert on March 22.

Interestingly, the RUSI experts concluded that the West's best defense against Russian unconventional warfare wasn't to rebut Moscow's relentless flood of propaganda and fake news. "Countering disinformation — while important — is far less consequential than breaking Russia's access to and leverage over elites, and its support apparatus for active measures. This can be achieved through the exposure and arrest of its agents, intelligence officers, and activities."

But the West has to be careful not to become as repressive and paranoid as its enemy. "As a lot of Russia's unconventional operations are self-defeating, countering Russian unconventional warfare must be premised on careful, selective, and intelligence- driven targeting," the report emphasized. "This is why having a broad understanding of Russian forms and methods is essential; it protects a state from jumping at shadows."

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers University. Follow him on X/Twitter and LinkedIn.

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