Strategic Deception

Russia’s Maskirovka as a Doctrine

Strategic deception has always played an implicit role in the utilization of armed force. Throughout history, the vast majority of conflicts have exhibited at least an implicit application of military deception at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels, alike. Today, unique approaches to achieving military deception objectives exist at the core of most developed militaries’ doctrinal tenets.

From Odysseus to Sun Tzu to von Clausewitz, warfare has been described as the “eternal path of cunning.” Today, in a world of asymmetric and heavily-saturated globalized processes – from instantaneous ­communications and social networking to competing regional and global identities – the very nature of armed conflict has shifted into the realm of subversive sociopolitics and purported public opinion. So too, therefore, must the nature of such deception change along with it.

Military deception as a part of broader psychological operations remains a key driver in both conventional and unconventional conflict zones around the world. NATO countries and their global counterparts instill the doctrine as a basic principle for military action at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels throughout the defined battlespace. Its effective exploitation, especially in asymmetric theatres of operation, and the “greying” of a previously black and white dichotomy, renders the doctrine a highly relevant feature of strategic studies. While the effective application of deception operations has become increasingly difficult and expensive to apply effectively, the importance of such application is perhaps more relevant and timely than ever before.

The Russian word maskirovka translates roughly to masking. Within the context of “masking” battlespace elements through means both traditional (such as camouflage, disinformation and concealment) and those marvelled as particularly novel within even the early 21st century. As exhibited perhaps most readily in the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, such new methods include disinformation on a grand scale, cyber disruption and outright socio-political denial.

Those who study maskirovka often first interpret the term to be a simple equivalent to the umbrella concept of military deception. However, a more detailed analysis, reveals that the Russian doctrine of military deception is a product of unique circumstance – one that has evolved over the course of centuries into much more than a school of thought for military context.

The importance of maskirovka when applied is even more important before the belligerents in question define and describe the battlespace. In the initial period of hostilities (before having been declared by either party), mobilization, concentration, and deployment of personnel and assets is key to ensuring both strategic and operational victory. In this way, those applying a campaign of maskirovka can define and describe the battlespace through their own constructed perspective – one of nihilistic cynicism and perpetuated non-truths. The doctrine has been implemented to great effect over the last century, and the elements that define maskirovka have accordingly evolved into the complex geopolitical manœuvrings that we see today.

Maskirovka in History
The Red Army made extensive use of maskirovka on a typically grand scale during the Second World War. Confronted with the dilemma of massive troop formations on both sides of the conflict, storied Soviet commanders like Georgy ZhukovIvan Konev, and others applied maskirovka to great effect, enabling the rapid deterioration of Axis superiority on the Eastern Front.

In the Rzhev salient in summer of 1942, simultaneous deception operations, involving the construction of hundreds of fake tanks, artillery pieces, and logistical equipment, were used to divert the Luftwaffe from striking Soviet assembly areas and railheads. Soviet troops ignited bottles of fuel to simulate fires and to draw the German air support to a false concentration of troops, while the actual concentration moved during night through heavily forested terrain. Even though the Battle of Rzhev (often referred to as a slaughterhouse) resulted in a Soviet operational failure, the series of confrontations ultimately allowed Soviet generals to further develop the doctrine. Deceptions on a much smaller scale were attempted by other commanders, largely to little strategic benefit, proving that the potential for maskirovka is most convincing when implemented cohesively by competent leaders.

In November 1942, at the decisive Battle of Stalingrad, the effective application of military deception by the Soviets gave the impression – to both German field commanders and Hitler, himself – that the Red Army had few armour reserves and could do little in the way of launching large-scale counterattacks. A major reduction in radio traffic, as well as concealment of formations during the day and restriction of movement until nightfall, allowed the Soviets to create five new tank armies without being detected by the enemy. An increase in both overt and seemingly covert activity closer to Moscow, as well as the withdrawal of civilians en masse, drew German concerns away from the embattled city of Stalingrad – a key indicator of the disinformation element within maskirovka. Even when then-General Friedrich Paulus was informed by air reconnaissance of the build-up of forces on the River Don, he did not act, thanks to the effective deception tactics deployed within and beyond Stalingrad by Soviet intelligence. In total, over a million men were moved prior to Operation Uranus, the November 1942 action that saw the decisive encirclement of 300,000 Axis forces in Stalingrad, thereby cementing the fate of the Sixth Army.

In both a defensive and offensive context, respectively, Soviet commanders successfully implemented maskirovka on a grand scale in the Battle of Kursk (1943) and Operation Bagration in Belarus (1944). As exemplified in the deception campaign employed within Operation Uranus, leaders discovered that the successful application of maskirovka required several conditions to be met: The deception must appear credible to the enemy; it must complement the actual operation; and must be conceived and implemented at the highest practical level of command.

With the subversive geopolitics of global powers during the Cold War, maskirovka evolved from a doctrine aimed exclusively at the military realm into one that can be exploited just as effectively (if not, more so) in times of relative peace. Following the installation of U.S. Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and senior military commanders initiated Operation Anadyr – the covert deployment of ballistic missiles, medium-range bombers, and a division of mechanized infantry to Cuba – thereby dissuading further U.S. attempts to invade the island nation, after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion undertaken in 1961.

The codename Anadyr is significant, in that it represents a river in the far north of the Soviet Union, flowing into the Bering Sea – in itself a deception tactic. The approximately 40,000 troops being deployed to Cuba were informed that they were being sent to the far east of the Soviet Union. They were equipped with winter gear, and were only allowed on the decks of their transports during night. By the time U.S. intelligence became aware of the Soviets’ strategic intent, a campaign of outright denial at the diplomatic level allowed many Soviet assets to be deployed to Cuba before the Missile Crisis began in earnest in October 1962.

In perhaps an ironic conclusion of deceptive geopolitics, President John F. Kennedy was able to secure a public victory through the Soviet withdrawal of missiles from Cuba, while the U.S. secretly dismantled its own missiles in both Italy and Turkey. It would be another four decades before the U.S. and its allies would be fully aware of the sheer scope and breadth of the Soviet deception operation carried out in both the military and diplomatic realms.

In the latest mass application of maskirovka, the annexation of Crimea has been strategically significant in causing a resurgence of Western interest in the Russian practice of military deception. In the aftermath of the “Euromaidan” Revolution and the unrest in southern and eastern Ukraine, several hundred heavily armed troops without insignia emerged in Crimea in late February 2014 and occupied key installations, including Simferopol International Airport, the Simferopol parliament, and military bases across the peninsula. Termed by global media as “little green men,” the soldiers possessed arms and equipment issued only to Russian Armed Forces. Reportedly, even the pro-Russian supporters of the movement in Crimea were not aware of the deployment, but the two camps quickly began to work together.

Russian President Vladimir Putin promptly stated that the personnel were, in fact, not part of the Russian Armed Forces, but rather that they, too, were local militia troops who obtained their weapons from captured Ukrainian stockpiles. While these “spontaneous self-defence groups” continued to occupy key Crimean government facilities, the peninsula’s parliament voted to terminate ties with Ukraine. At this same time, more unidentified “little green men” worked with local militia forces to establish security checkpoints and cut off access to the Ukrainian mainland.

Eventually, Russian military and political leaders acknowledged the presence of “volunteers” that were beyond the control of the Kremlin taking part in the conflict for purportedly “personal” reasons, while experts in Ukraine assessed that the heavily-armed soldiers were likely troops of the 45th Guards Spetsnaz Brigade, based outside of Moscow. On 17 December 2015, President Putin finally confirmed that Russia did, indeed, have “people in Ukraine who were engaged in certain tasks, including the military sphere” while not going so far as to say that meant the presence of regular Russian military personnel, themselves. This now-admitted seizure of sovereign territory by foreign troops, at the same time as Russian “humanitarian” aid convoys arrived in eastern Ukraine, provided concealment that enabled the effective annexation of the peninsula by Russia.

The application of maskirovka in Crimea and the broader Ukraine highlights the pragmatic adaptation of the doctrine to practical scenarios. Russian filmmaker, Peter Pomerantsev stated that, “the Russian strategy, both at home and abroad, is to say there is no such thing as truth,” and that the current regime thereby promotes a form of “seductive nihilism” that transcends the strategic outlook of its Western counterparts. Furthermore, this dichotomy paints an explicit contrast between Russia’s maskirovka and the Western doctrine of military deception; the former is one of multidimensional disinformation at all levels of the battlespace, including that of the geopolitical arena, itself.

Past and Future Operational Potential
With these examples of maskirovka in action – from the Eastern Front to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the annexation of Crimea – it is evident that one of the greatest strengths of this comprehensive approach is in its ability to evolve based around pragmatic demands.

The application of this multidimensional doctrine is beyond a simple military dimension. Rather, it is applied equally on the ground as it is in the realm of public opinion (the detached socioeconomic cynicism prevalent in Western constituents and policymakers). The potential for maskirovka to be implemented in the Russian intervention in Syria or in the regime’s continuing long-term goal of establishing a new Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, are more likely than ever before.

U.S. military historian David Glantz writes that the inherent goal of military deception is to surprise the enemy, and is a natural and necessary part of warfare. To go one step further, military analyst William Connor states that maskirovka means much more than simple camouflage and concealment of troops and installations. Rather, Connor suggests that, at its very core, maskirovka implies the goal of actively controlling the enemy at all levels of the battlespace – in both the military and diplomatic realms. The effective utilization of multiple battlespace elements reveals that deception tactics can indeed foster beneficial strategic changes against both conventional and asymmetric conflict.

Perhaps the most important conclusion to draw from this brief assessment of maskirovka is that its potential will outweigh the costs and tip the scales for success in practice – if deployed correctly by talented leaders. However, if implemented poorly or inconsistently, the damages can be near-catastrophic. The doctrine must be applied with the understanding and insight of the battlespace.

The unique experiences of both the Soviet Union and the contemporary Russian Federation have allowed this doctrine to evolve in a way that seems impossible for a similar development in the West, given the demand for government accountability and transparency both within and beyond the government in question, itself.

While the West might prove adept at manipulating strategic goals to fit their desired objectives on the ground, the multidimensional value of maskirovka is in its inherent strength to create an entirely new truth, around which a concealed objective is forged.

A long-standing assessment of conflict is that war is simply an extension of politics by other means. So too, therefore, the pragmatic nature of maskirovka finds potential for dramatic strategic and operational gains in times of both conflict and peace, overt and covert, alike.

The lessons learned by the effective deployment of this comprehensive doctrine must be taken into account and applied to fit the unique challenges and opportunities afforded by the 21st century.

Casey Brunelle recently completed an internship at United Nations Headquarters in New York, specializing in humanitarian response. He is currently an intelligence advisor with more than five years’ experience in both the public and private sectors.