15:46 Oct. 12, 2016
Russia is updating its military's set of lethal tricks known as maskirovka, or masking
As Russia under President Vladimir Putin has muscled its way back onto the geopolitical stage, the Kremlin has employed a range of stealthy tactics: silencing critics abroad, hitching the Orthodox Church to its conservative counterrevolution, spreading false information to audiences in Europe and even, according to the Obama administration, meddling in American presidential politics by hacking the Democratic Party's computers.
One of the newer entries to that list is an updating of the Russian military's set of lethal tricks known as maskirovka, or masking.
Russia's most recent military deployments began with operations involving this doctrine: with literally masked and mystery soldiers in Crimea in 2014, soldiers said to be "vacationing" or "volunteering" in eastern Ukraine and a "humanitarian airlift" to Syria in 2015.
As the Russian incursion in Ukraine unfolded, Moscow sent a "humanitarian" convoy of whitewashed military vehicles to the rebellious eastern provinces. The trucks were later found to be mostly empty, prompting speculation that they had been sent there to deter a Ukrainian counteroffensive against rebels.
The idea behind maskirovka is to keep the enemy guessing, never admitting your true intentions, always denying your activities and using all means, both political and military, to maintain an edge of surprise for your soldiers. The doctrine, military analysts say, is in this sense "multilevel." It draws no distinction between disguising a soldier as a bush or a tree with green and patterned clothing, a lie of a sort, and high-level political disinformation and cunning evasions.
Thus at a news conference immediately after the invasion of Crimea, Mr. Putin flatly denied that the "green men" appearing on television screens were Russians, saying anyone could buy a military uniform and put it on. It was only five weeks later, after his annexation of the peninsula, that he admitted that the troops were Russian.
And last month, the Ministry of Defense denied Washington's assertion that Russian warplanes had attacked a humanitarian convoy in Syria. It said first that the trucks could have been hit by a rebel mortar, then that an American Predator drone was responsible and finally that the cargo had simply caught fire.
Maskirovka goes well beyond the simple camouflage used by all armies and encompasses a range of ideas about misdirection and misinformation, as useful today as it has been for decades.