Home Ambiguous Warfare: Search for a Strategic Response

Ambiguous Warfare: Search for a Strategic Response


On 4 to 5 September 2014, Wales will host the largest gathering of international leaders ever to take place in Britain as the UK holds the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) summit at Newport. President Obama, Chancellor Merkel, and President Hollande are expected to attend along with leaders and senior ministers from around 60 other countries. The summit comes as NATO draws down from its longest ever mission in Afghanistan and against a backdrop of instability in Ukraine. One of the issues likely to be on the agenda during the summit is NATO’s response to “Ambiguous Warfare”.

A recently released paper of the Defence Committee of the U.K. House of Commons on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, subsequent developments in Eastern Ukraine and their implications for Western security concludes that “events in Crimea and Ukraine represent a ‘game changer’ [that] will have significant implications for resources, force structures, equipment and training.” The report draws attention to how the Russians have been increasingly employing more-effective “next-generation warfare” tactics, beginning with the cyber attack on Estonia in 2007 but seen most clearly in the Georgia War of 2008 and the recent events in Ukraine. These tactics are also referred to as “ambiguous”, “asymmetric”, “unconventional” and “nonlinear”, among other terms, with the central objective being to avoid conventional force-on-force fighting with superior NATO forces. It is felt that NATO would have to reorient its concept and approach to collective defence and accordingly restructure its capabilities to avoid being caught flat-footed by these Russian tactics in the future.

The heart of the issue appears to be the failure of the US in coming to the aid of Ukraine during the Crimean crisis to uphold the security guarantees under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the effectiveness of the response by NATO, EU to subsequent developments in Eastern Ukraine. The western response, besides procedural issues on what constitutes an act of war and who should be held accountable, was also constrained by legal and ethical issues related to conduct of warfare. These events, even though Ukraine is not a NATO member, raised serious concerns about NATO’s capability to respond to threats of this nature under Article 5 of its treaty, which essentially says that an attack on one NATO state is an attack on all. The challenges, which NATO currently faces in this context of deterring, or mounting an adequate response to attacks of such nature are seen as posing a fundamental risk to NATO's credibility.

Ambiguous Warfare

One of the early reference to the term “Ambiguous Warfare” can be traced to a conference at the U.S. Army War College to discuss “Landpower and Ambiguous Warfare: The Challenge of Colombia in the 21st Century,” in December 1998, attended by scholars, civilian government officials, and military officers from the United States, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama and Mexico. Ambiguous Warfare was then deliberated upon as one that “inherently makes building a consensus on who is the enemy and a proper strategy to defeat him an exceedingly complex task.”  The dialogue then saw ambiguous warfare as developing in the region as an outcome of the various sources of violence; the role of the guerrillas, paramilitaries, and narcotraffickers; the institutional capabilities and responses of the Colombian government and armed forces.

According to Chris Donnelly, Director, Institute for Statecraft, in his oral deposition before the Defence Committee of the U.K. House of Commons, ambiguous warfare integrates the use of conventional and unconventional force; integrates the use of force with non-military tools of war — cyber, economic, political; integrates the whole with an immensely powerful information warfare programme; and is backed up by an ideology. Donnelly perceives it as a change in the nature of conflict; a form of warfare that operating under the reaction threshold of the adversary. In the case of Ukraine the objective of the ambiguous warfare was to break the integrity of the State before there is any need to cross its borders with an attacking force by an act of war that would be recognised an Article 5 situation, in the case of a NATO member country.

Further Donnelly highlighted one crucial aspect of the ambiguous warfare being waged in Ukraine that not only will its effects manifest below a threshold of response, they are designed to create uncertainty about whether a military response would be proportionate or legitimate. Concerns have therefore been raised whether Article 5 may be of limited utility in response to ambiguous attacks of this nature due to the difficulty of proving that a state actor is responsible.

However, NATO is not just pondering when to react to such a threat but also how and with what. NATO’s doctrine and process are more geared to defending against the risk of Soviet armour pouring across the North German plain rather than a threat that is more likely to start with cyber attacks or covert action to stir up Russian minorities in Europe's east than from any overt aggression. The recent events in eastern Ukraine and Crimea where Russian-speaking troops in uniform but without insignia took up checkpoints across the peninsula and interdicted Ukrainian military bases; thereafter Russia proceeded to formally annex the territory. Repeated use of such tactics has substantiated the belief that they need to be countered.    

Analysts are assessing the impact of such warfare and grappling with a way forward. According to John Bassett, a former GCHQ official now an associate at Oxford University, NATO finds itself in a spot due to “a lack of willingness to focus on the area beyond diplomacy but below the threshold of traditional military conflict." U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander, was quoted as saying "We need to mature the way we think about cyber, the way we think about irregular warfare”. Janine Davidson, former US deputy assistant secretary of defence for plans and now senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations feels, "It is very difficult to know how to react to it. It will have to be very much on a case-by-case basis."


Military experts have another way to describe Russia's ambiguous warfare. They perceive it as a strategy thrown up at a time Russia is still trying to shed antiquated Soviet-era military baggage and create a more professional military for 21st-century warfare. It is a strategy designed to buy time and compensate for the country’s lagging technology. Therefore Russia as of now is falling back on what is thought to be its greatest strength; its faceless army of cyber warriors and a backup arsenal of nuclear weapons coupled with deft use of politically destabilizing tactics. Russia is adept in the use of an “information war” strategy to influence local populations, confuse the outside world's perception of ground events and blank out opposing sources of online information. By Manipulating and controlling information in an ambiguous warfare scenario Russia is able to deny involvement in any wrong doing and infringement of international laws.


Ambiguous Warfare is an emerging challenge, not just for NATO but for all nations, to define the boundaries of warfare in an era when it is becoming ever more complex and the means to wage war more diverse. With the proverbial “tripwire” missing, cyber and asymmetric attacks and the manner and time at which a response to them is triggered is already challenging nations and their militaries primed for conventional warfare. The issue is not only challenging just techniques, technology and procedures but it is challenging ethically and legally. According to some Ukraine crisis has send NATO 'back to basics'.

Previous ArticleNext Article
Monish Gulati

Contact at: [email protected]
Monish Gulati is an independent defence analyst based in New Delhi.
More Articles by Monish G...
Powering India - Nepal Ties
# 1743 May 12, 2017
Russia-Pakistan Relations: the Bear at G
# 1672 December 05, 2016
Iran-Saudi Tensions: Pakistan the Peacem
# 1517 February 08, 2016
  • Surprise, Strategy and 'Vijay': 20 Years of Kargil and Beyond
    Price Rs.930
    View Detail
  • Space Security : Emerging Technologies and Trends
    By Puneet Bhalla
    Price Rs.980
    View Detail
  • Securing India's Borders: Challenge and Policy Options
    By Gautam Das
    Price Rs.
    View Detail
  • China, Japan, and Senkaku Islands: Conflict in the East China Sea Amid an American Shadow
    By Dr Monika Chansoria
    Price Rs.980
    View Detail
  • Increasing Efficiency in Defence Acquisitions in the Army: Training, Staffing and Organisational Initiatives
    By Ganapathy Vanchinathan
    Price Rs.340
    View Detail
  • In Quest of Freedom : The War of 1971
    By Maj Gen Ian Cardozo
    Price Rs.399
    View Detail
  • Changing Demographics in India's Northeast and Its Impact on Security
    By Ashwani Gupta
    Price Rs.Rs.340
    View Detail
  • Creating Best Value Options in Defence Procurement
    By Sanjay Sethi
    Price Rs.Rs.480
    View Detail
  • Brave Men of War: Tales of Valour 1965
    By Lt Col Rohit Agarwal (Retd)
    Price Rs.320
    View Detail
  • 1965 Turning The Tide; How India Won The War
    By Nitin A Gokhale
    Price Rs.320
    View Detail