Armed men with their faces covered by balaclavas who say they are pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists but who possess weapons and equipment used to equip Russian special forces.
A convoy of more than 200 vehicles that the Russian government said carried humanitarian relief for people in war-ravaged eastern Ukraine, yet many of the vehicles inspected by customs officials at the Russian-Ukrainian border were nearly empty.
Earlier in August, the Russians reportedly moved military vehicles with “peacekeeping” insignia to the border—a first since the crisis in the Ukraine erupted. At the same time, Russia continued a massive build up of arms and manpower along the border that the NATO secretary general recently termed “alarming.”
Whatever game Vladimir Putin and the Russian government are playing regarding their support of pro-Russian separatists in the Ukraine, it seems to have little to do with shock and awe. Instead, the Russian military’s strategy could be more subtle and rooted in strategic deception.
The term is maskirovka, which in Russian literally means “something masked.” Maskirovka has its roots in the word “masquerade,” a synonym for “disguise.” It is a tactic as old as the Trojan horse … and a favorite of the Russian military.
“The Russians embrace maskirovka because it works,” said James Miller, managing editor of The Interpreter, a daily online journal that translates media from the Russian press and blogosphere into English for use by analysts and policymakers.
The staff at The Interpreter has tracked numerous examples of what they say are maskirovka tactics, Miller told War is Boring. What’s more, what they have found aligns with intelligence reports that NATO has released.
Take the case of the Russian “humanitarian convoy” and the recent appearance of Russian “peacekeeping forces” near the Ukrainian border, both developments within the last few weeks.
“(At the beginning of August,) NATO warned about two things,” Miller said. “They had intelligence indicating there could be an invasion by Russian forces marked as peacekeepers and the Russians might mount a humanitarian mission as an excuse for invasion.”
On Aug. 22, the alliance issued a sharply-written statement indicating not only concern about the troop build-up only a few miles from the Ukrainian border but growing skepticism about the Russian convoy supposedly mounted to transport humanitarian aid.
NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said recent intelligence indicates “an alarming build-up of Russian ground and air forces in the vicinity of Ukraine.”
“We have also seen transfers of large quantities of advanced weapons, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery to separatist groups in eastern Ukraine,” Rasmussen said in a written statement.
He also questioned the purpose of what he termed the “so-called humanitarian convoy into Ukrainian territory without the consent of the Ukrainian authorities and without any involvement of the International Committee of the Red Cross.”
“The disregard of international humanitarian principles raises further questions about whether the true purpose of the aid convoy is to support civilians or to resupply armed separatists,” Rasmussen continued.
If the Russians are deploying a fake aid convoy for other purposes, then the tactic falls squarely within the definition of maskirovka.
Military historians and analysts say it is the principle of subterfuge first established in the Soviet Red Army but which the current Russian armed forces maintain. The chief features of maskirovka are plausible deniability, concealment of forces, disinformation and decoys.
Some or all of those tactics might appear simultaneously as part of a larger strategy of denial and deception, namely to sow confusion and spread frustration among an enemy by denying the opponent accurate information, according to a 1988 study in Air and Space Power Journal.
Also, if the Russians are currently using maskirovka, it’s not for the first time. During World War II, the Soviets fooled the Germans with tactics ranging from building weapons in auto repair shops instead of large factories—to masking the actual number of troops in the field by way of decoys.
“Its central tenet is to prevent an adversary from discovering Russian intentions by deceiving him about the nature, scope and timing of an operation,” James Hansen wrote in Soviet Deception in the Cuban Missile Crisis: Learning from the Past, a historical analysis he prepared for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Hansen points out that the Russians used maskirovka techniques to smuggle missiles and nuclear warheads into Cuba in 1962.
Miller said a kind of creeping invasion of the Ukraine is already taking place. Russian forces have grown bolder but there still are limits on their actions.
One example of that is NATO’s statement on Thursday that Russian artillery is on Ukrainian soil, shelling Ukrainian armed forces targets on behalf of pro-Russian separatists. “In some way, the Russian military is not even trying to hide anymore,” Miller said. “Right now, you are looking at open war.”
The pro-Russian separatists actually are winning some battles against Ukrainian forces—but only on the border, Miller said.
Miller said he suspects the Russians eventually could move “peacekeeping” forces into the Ukrainian border region and create another autonomous zone under Russian control like Crimea or Transnistria, a breakaway pro-Russian state on the eastern Moldovan border with the Ukraine.
Miller said he believes the Russian’s incremental approach keeps NATO, the European Union, the United States and world media in the dark.
“The Russian attitude is ‘as long as we don’t invade outright, nobody will notice.’ So far, it is a strategy that is working,” Miller said.
At top—the Russian “aid convoy” on Aug. 22. AP photo/Pavel Golovkin