Unmarked Russian soldiers who seized Ukraine’s Crimea region earlier this year gave every appearance of military professionals well equipped with modern body armor and weapons. Russian troops, tanks and fighter jets have massed on the Ukrainian border as if ready to storm in at a moment's notice. But despite the flexing of military muscle, Russia most likely prefers to follow the path laid out by Chinese warrior–philosopher Sun Tzu: "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting."

Military experts have another way to describe Russia's current playbook: "asymmetric," or "ambiguous," warfare. Such a strategy falls just short of open military conflict and works in Russia's favor at a time when it's still trying to shed antiquated Soviet-era military baggage and create a more professional military for 21st-century warfare—especially when U.S. and NATO forces generally possess more advanced battlefield technologies. For now Russia’s greatest strength may rest with its shadowy armies of cyber warriors and backup arsenal of nuclear weapons as well as its masterful use of politically destabilizing tactics.

Such schemes compensate for the country’s lagging technology, says Dakota Wood, senior research fellow for defense programs at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. “This is where Russia is investing as a means to degrade the capabilities of others, send political messages—for example, its cyber attacks against Estonia and Georgia—and to buttress both its negotiating posture and national prestige with nuclear capabilities.”

Showing its age
The need to modernize the Russian military became clear during the nation's short, sharp war with neighboring Georgia in 2008. “While Russia’s victory in the Russo-Georgian War was convincing, it still highlighted deficiencies in how the Russian army was armed and equipped,” says Keir Giles, a director of the Conflict Studies Research Center at Chatham House in London.  Russia relied more on the shock of overwhelming force rather than the sophisticated use of military intelligence and combined arms, according to a U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute report. For instance, Russia lost a Tu-22 bomber during a reconnaissance mission because its forces lacked drones and satellite imagery to conduct surveillance safely. The incomplete state of Russia’s own global navigation satellite system at the time meant its air force could not effectively use guided bombs or missiles to support ground forces.

On the ground Russian soldiers often fought better-equipped Georgian troops who wore modern body armor—protection they themselves lacked at the time. Russian tanks suffered losses in frontal assaults against more modern Georgian military vehicles equipped with night vision, reactive armor and better communication. The brief conflict also strained Russian supply lines. One Russian tank commander described the loss of two of his tanks this way: “We simply ran out of ammunition and they surrounded us with grenade launchers.” But the sheer size of the Russian military and its strategic positioning of its forces for such a conflict enabled it to win.

The Russian military has already improved since the war six years ago. Russia's fairly bloodless takeover of Crimea this past spring gave the world a look at the modern body armor and other gear worn by the occupying troops. A July 2014 U.K. Parliament report (pdf) has concluded that Russia plans to spend $720 billion over the next decade to create a modern military that could better challenge NATO and the long-term threat of China’s fast-growing military power. The Russian military budget has risen to third-highest in the world, at almost $69 billion in 2013, according to the consulting firm IHS. That amount is still about half of China’s military spending the same year and barely 10 percent of the 2013 U.S. military budget.

Sowing doubt
But Russia does not need a fully modern military to achieve a political victory in the ongoing conflict between the Western-backed Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatist forces. Russia has already mastered the use of an “information war” strategy to influence local populations, confuse the outside world's perception of ground events and shut down opposing sources of online information.

Manipulating and controlling information in ambiguous warfare enables Russia to deny involvement in eastern Ukraine even as it supplies separatist fighters with armored vehicles and air defense missiles, including the Buk missile system that likely was used to shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The disinformation strategy also worked for Russia when it denied sending troops into Crimea, despite the sudden appearance of well-armed fighters wearing standard uniforms but lacking national uniform insignia or flags on their vehicles.

Part of the information war uses patriotic news outlets and bloggers to broadcast Russia’s version of events on TV, YouTube and on social media, even as the Russian government increasingly restricts independent media voices at home. “There is creeping control over various forms of media, reaching down into the Internet, which was the last means of getting independent information not controlled by the government,” Giles says.

The popularity of social media and mobile phone cameras has posed one of the greater challenges to Russia’s information war strategy. Much initial evidence surrounding the shoot-down of Flight 17 came from Twitter. Careless postings by Russian soldiers betrayed their presence in eastern Ukraine despite official denials, Giles points out. Russia has countered with a law seeking official registration of popular bloggers and requiring social media networks to store six months of data on servers in Russia, according to BBC News.

Limited cyber assaults
Another element of information warfare involves Russia's use of cyber attacks—often denial-of-service attacks—to overwhelm government and media Web sites in Ukraine or in the West. Such cyber attacks are appealing because they are extremely difficult to trace with certainty, thereby providing plausible deniability for government officials. “Russia has been using very strategically focused disinformation to influence the civilian population and disrupt media outlets with cyber activities,” says John Bumgarner, chief technology officer at the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, a nonprofit research institute.

The cyber attacks have targeted a variety of sites, including the Georgian government Web sites during the Russo-Georgian War and NATO’s Web sites during the recent Crimean crisis. But Russia's use of cyber attacks has avoided crossing what Bumgarner describes as the “gray line” of causing damage to real-world equipment, as demonstrated by the sophisticated Stuxnet computer worm that was likely developed by the U.S. and Israel to damage nuclear centrifuges in Iran. Lower-level cyber attacks suit Russia’s strategy in part because they have not provoked a stronger response from the West.

If ambiguous warfare represents Russia's current weapon of choice, it also still keeps its nuclear option in its back pocket. Unlike the U.S., Russian military strategy still relies heavily on tactical nuclear weapons in some battlefield scenarios, says Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. He pointed to how Russian military exercises often simulate the use of nuclear weapons in cases when invaders overwhelm conventional forces.

Although experts doubt that the world is entering a new Cold War, they acknowledge that tensions could easily worsen. Russia’s effort to modernize its military builds on long-standing fears of U.S. military power and ambitions. Meanwhile, the July 2014 U.K. Parliament report warned that NATO is especially ill prepared to handle the ambiguous warfare demonstrated in Ukraine. “Right now the biggest issue is the growing sense of mistrust,” Kristensen says. “Beyond everything else, the West thinks that you cannot trust the Russians. And the Russians, they certainly don’t trust us. That’s just a wicked cycle that can spin into all sorts of unfortunate things.”