Maskirovka and Predicting Kremlin Actions in the 21st Century

The word Maskirovka might not be familiar to many of us post-9/11 international affairs wonks but the word is all too familiar to our predecessors, namely the Sovietologists of yore. Maskirovka was a tactic born in the Russian Civil War that followed the October Revolution of 1917 and became official Soviet strategy not only in war but also in all manners of foreign statecraft in the Cold War. The concept emphasized the need for stealth, concealment and misdirection in all things in order to confuse one’s enemy, and though many Soviet ideas have fallen out of favor in modern Russia, Maskirovka remains very fashionable. Russian president Vladimir Putin was born and raised under the doctrine and has become one of its best contemporary practitioners, as he holds nearly all of Russia’s foreign policy decisions in his hands. Putin has demonstrated his mastery of the doctrine in Ukraine with constant misdirection, concealment, and stealth most recently with his military escalation in Ukraine after the death of a Russian security officer near the Crimean border, not to mention his equally rapid de-escalation.

This time, however, Russia’s de-escalation was perplexing for nearly all observers. Signs of the Kremlin’s escalation into open war were all there; an incident shrouded in secrecy that made Russian troops appear as the victim, an increase in Russian-backed separatist violence in the east, Putin’s statement of withdrawal from talks to end the conflict, and many others that Russian experts saw as classic Maskirovka tactics. What could’ve gone wrong? The problem lies in the indicators being used by observers in media and academia. If peace and stability in Europe are to continue, a better set of indicators must be composed to monitor Russian aggression not just for Ukraine, but for all of Eastern Europe. If a line can be drawn between the realm of Kremlin disruption and imminent Russian invasion then European governments can tailor their response appropriately. Failing to understand the nature of Maskirovka and when it is being used for disruption versus invasion could mean a drastic miscalculation on the part of the local government that allows the Kremlin to capitalize on the situation. For example a scenario many scholars and defense writers think of is a crisis in a Baltic country that usually begins with an ethnic Russian protest that draws a harsh response from the local government. Seeing an opportunity to disrupt stability, Russia deploys large troops near the border and sends intelligence officers into the area to increase disruption. If the host country misreads these tactics and concludes that the military is needed to protect this region instead of routine riot police, the situation could easily spiral out of control thus allowing the Kremlin to appear as if it is forced to act on behalf of its Russian brethren. In this case, and many other cases of Russian Maskirovka, miscalculations can be fatal. This means discerning between indicators of Maskirovka that signal an impending military confrontation and indicators that are simply signs of Russian attempts to destabilize and disrupt.

Among the most often-cited indicators of an impending invasion is a Russian troop movement to a given area, but using troop movements to convince your reader of an impending invasion has proven recently to be no more than alarmism. Russia routinely moves troops in large numbers as a tool of political leverage. This is not to say that monitoring troop movement is useless, but to use it as an indicator of impending invasion will more than likely lead to incorrect conclusions and bad advice for NATO states and local partners. While Russia used troop build-up in Georgia prior to the 2008 invasion, recently Russia has moved troops in response to NATO announcements, used troop movements and exercises to exert political pressure in Moldova, and in response to Turkish actions along the Syrian border. Yet the Kremlin did not open hostilities against these countries and most likely had no desire to—the objective was political pressure and intimidation, not invasion. While it is difficult to know for sure, as the Kremlin constantly seeks to redefine its Maskirovka tactics, it is safe to assume that Russian troop movements are tools of disruption, not indicators of imminent invasion. Another flawed indicator of invasion is increased violence in separatist regions in Ukraine and other former USSR states where the Kremlin holds sway. This is flawed, since the Kremlin uses upticks in violence for the goal of political pressure in the same way it does with formal military movements. In the case of Ukraine, a rise in violence has now become a tool for political persuasion at pivotal moments such as the 2015 Ukrainian local elections when violence on the front line rose. However this uptick in violence was not the worst a sign of impending invasion as there were no reports of direct Russian involvement as in earlier parts of the conflict. Unfortunately, escalation at key moments has continued to imply that this routine escalation pattern is not a sign of impending invasion but rather of routine political pressure. The Kremlin uses this same tactic throughout the former USSR to exert pressure on local governments such as in Moldova and Georgia. Many times, these escalations in separatists regions have been cited as signs of impending invasion and have been inaccurate.

Yet some indicators recently cited as pretext of Kremlin invasion are worth retaining, namely, abandonment of peace talks, snap military exercises, and most importantly an incident (a bombing or gunfight) that ends in the death of Russians or Russian security personnel often shrouded in secrecy by the Russian government but still seemingly points clearly to a responsible party (a hostile government or terrorist organization) and thus puts the Kremlin on a defensive footing. For the Kremlin, exiting negotiations is generally a very significant decision and is not usually taken lightly—even as the battle to capture the city of Debaltseve raged in Ukraine at Russian behest, the Russians remained in Minsk to sign a ceasefire deal with the Ukrainian government and as bombs rained down in Aleppo Russia remained at the negotiating table as well. Furthermore, snap military drills and inspections are classic Kremlin tactics used to disguise the deployment of troops as they did in Georgia in 2008, and shortly before and during the Russian military intervention in Syria. Unfortunately this indicator is tricky as snap military drills can also represent a Kremlin tactic of disruption, however if forces involved remain on alert or are kept out of their normal base of operations–as was the case in Georgia–the drills take on a different meaning. In this case in order to determine whether the Kremlin seeks to destabilize or invade, the focus must be on a micro level–watching how troops move after or during a drill–rather than a macro level. Lastly, a major incident that kills or harms Russians is the allowance of the Kremlin to appear to be in a defensive stance. This tactic was utilized in the run-up to the Georgian invasion when South Ossetian separatists baited Georgians into an attack by striking into Georgian territory with artillery—it’s important to note that Russians see Ossetians as a brother nationality. Additionally many believe the Russian security apparatus conducted alleged terrorist attacks in Russia, leading to the Second Chechen War, and thus are themselves an indicator of impending war. The Kremlin seeks to put itself on a defensive footing in order to justify its actions to the Russian public and make it seem like their actions are justifiable by international law as a part of their information warfare, a major aspect of Kremlin Maskirovka tactics that set the stage for greater Russian intervention and invasion.

However, to truly discern between Kremlin operations to disrupt and those pre-empting an invasion more new layers of analysis must be applied to the Maskirovka tactics we observe. Analysts and observers should rely on some traditional methods such as looking at operational level indicators of a Russian invasion; for example, the lack of field camps for Russian soldiers as pointed out by Nolan Peterson. Peterson, a journalist who has covered the Ukrainian conflict extensively, also notes that Russian troops only had enough fuel for one day of operation—another indicator of a lack of preparation. After the extensive reforms carried out by the Kremlin following the underperformance of Russia’s military in the Georgian invasion, it is safe to assume that if Russian forces were preparing to invade another country they would not be undersupplied. Other indicators that can be taken from the Kremlin’s preparation for the Georgian invasion include the deployment of separatists far beyond the theater of battle as Ariel Cohen and Robert Hamilton point out in The Russian Military and the Georgian War: Lessons and Implications in order to assist in laying the operational groundwork for an invading force. Cohen and Hamilton state that Russia used irregular forces from separatist states in Georgia to conduct advanced reconnaissance inside Georgian territory, a move that could easily be replicated in Ukraine. In Ukraine, “sabotage teams” from the separatist side occasionally attempt to break through Ukrainian lines, but if they were sighted farther inside Ukraine it would be a cause for serious concern.

The Kremlin, and Putin especially, pride themselves on being expert practitioners of Maskirovka and thus will always seek to confuse their enemy and change tactics. Unfortunately that means that the nature of the new age of Maskirovka is constantly changing and including more tactics of concealment, misinformation, and confusion. As the Kremlin seeks to conceal its intentions, the West must seek to pull back the curtain by analyzing more completely. As the Kremlin seeks to misinform, the West must seek to properly inform its decisions and ensure it has considered the consequences. Lastly, as the Kremlin seeks to confuse, the West must seek to understand Russian actions in order to more appropriately counter them. Western observers and analysts must have a more rigorous set of indicators to determine Kremlin goals, based on a tried and true study of Maskirovka tactics. Once again, the understanding of the goal of Maskirovka in the 21st century, whether it is simply to disrupt or to lay the groundwork for a large-scale conflict, is crucial in ensuring that the West appropriately responds to counter Kremlin objectives. The difference between an appropriate and inappropriate action has life or death consequences and could mean destroying the post-WWII peace that has become the European norm.