Intermediary Employment in Gray Zone Competition: How Revisionist States Use Non-State Actors to Perform State Security Functions

Gorkowski, Justin, Foreign Affairs - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Potter, Philip, AS, University of Virginia
Stam, Allan, BA-Frank Batten School, University of Virginia
Copeland, Dale, AS-Dept of Politics, University of Virginia
Schulhofer-Wohl, Jonah, Leiden University
McMaster, H.R., Hoover Institution, Stanford University

The contemporary international security environment is ripe with examples of aggressive revisionist state activity full of ambiguity, deception and disinformation just under the threshold of war. The annexation of Crimea by “little green men,” the Chinese construction of islands and employment of “fishermen” to occupy atolls and harass those who navigate disputed waters in the South China Sea and Iranian employment of Shia foreign legions in Syria, are all examples of revisionist state actors attempting to renegotiate their strategic position as regional powers.

The challenges presented by these actions are not indicative of “normal” state competition, nor traditional military action, rather they fall into a gray space between peace and war. However, the objectives achieved by these actors are reminiscent of those traditionally only accomplished through war. So, are strategic competitors or state adversaries looking for a fight to disrupt the international status quo? Likely not, notable adversaries are conventionally deterred. Revisionist state actors are too dissatisfied with the international status quo to stand by idly, but the costs of violating international norms through traditional or conventional means of competition are too steep. The current nature of the international system creates a revisionist dilemma that forces such actors to operate in the gray zone. The gray zone represents an additional realm for revisionist powers to compete multidimensionally to achieve zero sum gains without much of the backlash that would occur through similar action in the conventional economic and military realms.

This dissertation explores the dynamics of one of the most common elements of gray zone activity – the employment of intermediary actors or ambiguous forces. Intermediary actors consist of those actors employed directly or indirectly by states to achieve security related objectives for the state under ambiguous conditions of attribution. Such actors can range from militaristic to political. Specifically, I map out the intermediary force choice set available to revisionist state actors and analyze how such actors deploy intermediaries based on environmental conditions. Empirical analysis indicates the employment of intermediaries varies according to attribution (overt/covert) and the level of revisionist state control (centralized/decentralized). I argue the employment of intermediary actors by revisionist states is strategic and a function of target state antecedent conditions, symmetry of interests between a revisionist state and status quo power; and informal access within the target state. The available literature and practical knowledge reveal the employment of intermediaries is a key component of gray zone competition. This dissertation examines if and how intermediaries are applied to achieve desired effects by revisionist states.

Through the empirical analysis of a series of comparative cases using process tracing and structured, focused comparisons on Iran and Russia, this dissertation evaluates the full scope of conditions under which intermediary actors are employed in gray zone competition in a way that systematically clouds international response in terms of attribution, intent and legality. I find explanatory power in the theory’s ability to predict intermediary employment outcomes. This research assists in furthering the academic gray zone literature and reveals key policy implications with regard to asymmetric deterrence.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Gray Zone , Proxy , Great Power Competition, Iran, Russia
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