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ICONS team releases report on escalation management in gray zone international crises

A team of START researchers led by Jonathan Wilkenfeld, Egle Murauskaite and Devin Ellis released a report on a three-year Department of Defense (DOD) Minerva Research Initiative study of escalation management in gray zone conflict and crisis last month. The study focused on great power competition in conflicts that unfold in the space between war and peace, with state actors using many different types of power to achieve political and security objectives.

Familiar examples of gray zone conflicts featuring great powers include Ukraine, Syria, Libya and dangerous confrontations in the South China Sea. Other less-prominent but nonetheless dangerous recent cases feature proxy actors playing prominent roles, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo-Rwanda in 2004, Chad-Sudan in 2007 and 2009, India-Pakistan in 2016 and Afghanistan-Pakistan in 2017.

The project report includes an outline of a Gray Zone Tool Kit for U.S. policy makers on data-informed and empirically tested options that are available for managing escalation and deterrence in competition short of armed conflict.

Together with a new conceptual escalation management model developed through this research, the Gray Zone Tool Kit includes a modeling platform to help strategists and planners in addressing the factors that drive complex conflict situations. It allows planners and strategists to explore those factors that cause international competition or conflict that can manifest as unanticipated, and often counterintuitive, outcomes.

The report also includes an examination of gray zone crises based on expanded International Crisis Behavior (ICB) project data, which explored the propensity of actors to use violence based on power disparity, regime type and state capacity. The report explores what prompts states to choose gray, or hybrid, tools versus direct violent tools in initiating a crisis, and why defender states might choose to escalate in response to challenges.

State capacity is the critical factor in determining a state’s propensity to use force to initiate or to escalate a crisis, suggesting a strong state-level explanation for international behavior stemming from institutional capacity for action.

The team’s findings also suggest that countries using proxy actors all but guarantees that a crisis will turn violent. Namely, when a defender state is challenged by a proxy, its most likely response is violence, regardless of whether the initial challenge was violent. Nevertheless, using proxies can offer their patron states some insulation from these unfolding violent crises, since the violence is usually directed at the proxy and not at its patron.

The project team also conducted public surveys with 6,300 participants in March 2021, using YouGov in the U.S. and U.K., and Spinter in Lithuania. The surveys focused on current public threat perceptions and preferred policy responses.

The surveys found that NATO is perceived as the international first port of call across the board, and that NATO ought to support targeted member states. U.S. respondents were mostly concerned about China as a threat, whereas Lithuanians showed much greater concern over Russia. Interestingly, the U.K. public did not seem particularly threatened by either.

Models of two hypothetical cases explored the outcomes of different crisis scenarios between the three global powers and their proxies. In a South China Sea crisis involving the Philippines, China and the U.S., the model indicated that unless the U.S. and the Philippines take strong highly visible actions, the ability of the Philippines to maintain a military presence becomes very problematic, with an emboldened China increasing pressure if it perceives no serious reaction.

The second scenario explored the various potential developments in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. The model suggests that unless Russia withdraws its support for the Donbas separatists, and the Ukrainian government mounts a considerable effort to curb internal corruption, the impact of Western third parties upon the country’s political and economic stability will be limited. Moreover, it also indicates that should the West cease its diplomatic support to Ukraine or sanctions pressure on Russia, Ukraine would quite promptly fall under Russia’s influence.

The project team noted that while the insights of this project have broad applicability, the focus is on confrontations short of armed conflict which are complicated by intertwining political, territorial, economic, ethnic and/or religious tensions.

Other members of the project team include David Quinn (START), Allison Astorino-Courtois (NSI), Robert Elder (George Mason University), Alexander Levis (George Mason University), Catarina Thomson (University of Exeter) and Corinne DeFrancisci (START). There were also 25 graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Maryland, Brown University, American University, New York University and the Graduate Institute Geneva who assisted in the data collection phases of the project.

Those interested can view the report at this link.