In Ukraine this past year, the world witnessed the successful use of maskirovka by the Russian Federation. This type of military operation should be of particular interest to the United States and NATO. Translated, maskirovka means something similar to “camouflage,” “disguise,” or “masked warfare”. It is defined as a broad concept of military deception that emphasizes the use of various forms of camouflage, concealment, diversions, feints, secrecy, imitation and disinformation conducted in conjunction in order to disguise military capabilities, plans and intentions.
Maskirovka as a military concept can be used at the strategic, operational and tactical levels. Used effectively, maskirovka enhances surprise - one of the key principles of warfare. It has four major principles that must be adhered to in order to be successful. These principles are activity, plausibility/ plausible deniability, variety, and continuity. Activity refers to the aggressive and persistent use of the forms of maskirovka (camouflage, diversions, disinformation, etc.) in order to give the enemy a false idea and includes changing the use of these forms as necessary to support this false idea. Plausibility or plausible deniability means that all maskirovka must be plausible in order to make the enemy believe that the false idea must be true and to keep the true intentions of the operation unknown. The principle of variety means that the use of maskirovka must be unpredictable and that patterns or repetition of use must be avoided so that the enemy will be unable to anticipate its use. The fourth and final principle of continuity refers to the fact that maskirovka must be a part of all plans and continued throughout the entire duration of an operation in order to be successful.
Maskirovka was first developed by the Soviet Union in the 1920s and it was used extensively by Soviet troops throughout World War II. Today, Russian military units have applied the lessons they learned during that conflict to effectively apply maskirovka to operations in both Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. When used effectively, maskirovka can both disguise strengths and hide weaknesses. The principle of plausible deniability was used effectively when the “Green Men” appeared in Crimea with no identifiable insignias and claimed to be local self-defense forces and militias. Statements from Russian politicians and diplomats supporting that there were no Russian troops conducting operations in Crimea were plausible, even though they were regarded as highly suspicious. These statements were persistent and plausible enough to keep NATO and Western European countries confused and hesitant to confront Russia (either militarily or politically) about their involvement in Crimea. This also demonstrated the proper uses of the maskirovka principles of both activity and continuity. Only after the successful military operation to secure Crimea and its subsequent annexation, did Russia admit that its military forces had been involved.
In operations supporting the Eastern Ukrainian separatists in and around the Donetsk region, Russia has also been using maskirovka, but with varying degrees of effectiveness. The use of Chechens and other “volunteer” military forces in the Donetsk region are quite possibly disguised GRU (military intelligence forces) and Spetsnaz (Russian Special Forces) directly supporting the separatists. Although this is denied by Russia, it would demonstrate the use of the maskirovka principle of variety by using different forms of imitation and deception from what was used in Crimea. It also provides Russia with plausible deniability for direct military involvement in Ukraine. When ten Russian paratroopers were captured thirteen miles inside Ukraine, Russia claimed that they had gotten lost while on patrol and had crossed into Ukraine by accident. This was only moderately plausible at best, but it allowed Russia to explain a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty as a mere accident. US and NATO satellite pictures showing Russian military convoys and artillery in Ukraine and along the border have been dismissed as propaganda (specifically, images from computer games) but the plausibility of this explanation is fairly poor and not easily supported by evidence. Russia also claims that the separatists are not armed with Russian weapons and supplies, but rather from looted Ukrainian weapon stocks. This is more plausible than the explanation of the satellite pictures, but it is highly unlikely when evidence routinely shows large numbers of military type vehicles regularly crossing the Russian border towards the separatist held city of Donetsk. Mounting Russian casualties, transported from the Donetsk region back to Russia in vehicles marked “Cargo 200” (a Russian term for military casualties) makes the plausible deniability of Russian military involvement even harder to sustain over time.
It is important for us to learn from the Russian use of maskirovka when conducting military operations in a limited manner in Ukraine. When used effectively, maskirovka disguises the capabilities, plans and intentions of a military operation. When the military aspects of maskirovka are used in continuity with political, diplomatic and economic strategies, it enhances the effectiveness of surprise; one of the key principles of warfare. It must be understood that this strategy also has clear limitations. The longer an operation continues, the more likely it is that the enemy will discover the maskirovka techniques being employed.
The linked article provides additional information about the conflict and Russia’s use of maskirovka. https://medium.com/war-is-boring/maskirovka-is-russian-secret-war-7d6a304d5fb6
As military leaders, what would be the most effective way of disrupting an adversary’s use of maskirovka in a limited warfare situation, as Russia is currently doing in Eastern Ukraine, without escalating into a fully fledged military conflict? Do the current tactics and techniques we use to combat insurgents adequately prepare use to counter the use of maskirovka by a professional military?
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