A “gray zone” in international relations refers to the space between war and peace where a nation initiates discreet campaigns of aggression by non-military and paramilitary agents that do not meet the threshold of open armed conflict. This intermediary phase leads to various economically and socially hostile tactics, such as cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, mercenary operations, and targeted assassinations, aiming to disrupt, destabilize, weaken, or intimidate an adversary by exploiting their vulnerabilities.
Historically, “gray zones” have been a part of international competition, but with the advent of the nuclear age, countries have increasingly used small-scale acts of aggression to advance their national goals. The Cove, the Australian Army’s professional military education platform, lists contemporary “gray zone” activities such as interference in state politics, media manipulation, disinformation dissemination, violation of state borders, cyber intrusions, espionage, foreign interference, and hostile rhetoric in diplomacy. Examples of such tactics include China and Russia’s international policies.
Armenia occupied the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan for 30 years, forcing around one million ethnic Azerbaijanis from their homes. The Armenian side laid mines on the occupied territory, resulting in over 300 victims, 251 injuries, and 55 deaths since the end of the second Karabakh war in November 2020. This systematic policy of terror, exemplified by the Armenian side’s refusal to provide a complete map of the minefields, is a manifestation of “gray zone” tactics.
At the end of the 44-day war, Azerbaijan regained control over most of the previously occupied territories, and Armenians living in the Karabakh region have become full legal citizens of the Republic. However, integration of ethnic Armenians into the political, economic, and social spectrum of life in Azerbaijan has proven impossible as long as the Armenian side continues its persistent “gray zone” aggressions. The integration of Karabakh Armenians into Azerbaijan’s population is crucial for establishing lasting peace, as Armenia’s destructive propaganda exacerbates tensions in the region.
The South Caucasus conflict, known as the “Gray Zone,” has seen a shift in Armenia’s approach to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. This strategy aims to preserve Armenia’s interests while avoiding direct confrontation with Azerbaijan. The region has been a contentious issue since the Soviet Union’s collapse, with tensions escalating into open conflict in 2020. Armenia’s “gray zone” tactics involve irregular forces, infrastructure investment, and diplomacy to maintain a presence. However, the delicate balance in the region remains fragile, and any misstep could potentially rekindle hostilities. The international community must continue efforts to facilitate a lasting resolution to this enduring conflict.
Armenia is adopting “gray zone” tactics to blur control lines and avoid direct conflict with Azerbaijan. This involves withdrawing regular military forces from the region, but maintaining a presence through local militias called “border guards.” Armenia is also investing in infrastructure development to improve living conditions and solidify its economic and political influence in Nagorno-Karabakh. Additionally, Armenia is actively working to secure international recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh’s self-declared independence, despite facing resistance from Azerbaijan and its allies.
Armenia’s “gray zone” tactics could disrupt the South Caucasus region’s delicate balance, impacting key players such as Azerbaijan, Russia, and Turkey. Baku is closely monitoring Armenia’s actions in Nagorno-Karabakh, potentially triggering resumption of hostilities. Russia’s role as a peacekeeper complicates its relationship with Yerevan and Baku, and Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan adds complexity to the situation. The region’s instability is further complicated by Turkey’s involvement. The international community is divided on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, with Russia recognizing the ceasefire agreement as a step towards peace, while the US urges lasting settlement.