Maskirovka: Soviets, Russians, and the art of deception

In light of recent revelations regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election and in United States politics in general, it is worth taking a look at Russia’s history of covert political interference in the West and its long-term strategy of deception.

The Russians developed a doctrine of deception in both war and peacetime during the beginning of the 20th century. This doctrine was called Maskirovka, literally meaning “masking.” While its wartime aspect of operational deception was refined chiefly during the Second World War, its more relevant peacetime philosophy was developed and utilized primarily during the Cold War.

This Cold War-era doctrine placed emphasis on strategic deception regarding Russian intentions and capabilities. The former is the driving force behind Russian foreign political operations. This deception and denial was used to great effect in the annexation of Crimea, leaving international actors in the dark regarding Russia’s true intentions. Russian denial of involvement delayed Western response, ensuring that the entire peninsula could come under Russian control. By the time a response was formulated, it was too late.

Russian covert operations have also focused on interfering in foreign politics. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union made a major point of supporting the growth of foreign communist parties. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the KGB remained largely intact, changing little aside from its name; it is now the FSB of the Russian Federation.

Disinformation has become the dominant arm of the Russian strategy of active measures against the West. This has manifested itself overtly in Kremlin owned and operated news outlets such as Russia Today and Sputnik News, which push the Russian political agenda domestically and abroad―an incredibly socially conservative and politically authoritarian agenda.

The main thrust in propaganda targeted at both domestic and foreign targets is the portrayal of Russia as a victim besieged on all sides by hostile powers. It is this besieged-fortress mentality, this image of Russia as a pariah, that allows authoritarianism to thrive in Russia. This mentality fuels Russian nationalism and allows the regime to characterize any criticism of the government’s agenda as an attack on Russia. Effectively, this allows Russia’s leaders to vilify any opponents of the regime as traitors to the nation.

With internal unity assured through both repression and nationalism, the second aspect of Russian policy is to spread discord abroad. This manifests in the funding of extremist political parties, both on the left and on the right. The status quo of most countries is anti-Moscow. Therefore, Russia has an inherent incentive to create political turmoil in countries who oppose its agenda by attempting to empower domestic political parties that appear sympathetic to its aims in exchange for material support.

The fact that this has historically been part of Russian foreign policy is the reason that the Russian connection of the Trump campaign has always been so troubling. The imperialist actions of Russia have historically sparked strong opposition in the form of a unified West. The idea that Russian covert operations have the ability to gain influence through the Trump campaign and through advertising on social media is troubling to both national security and the global cause of freedom.

The recent indictments by Special Counsel Robert Mueller are unsurprising, but nonetheless incredibly significant. The confirmation that Russia has interfered successfully in the U.S. election provides a strong indication of the Russian threat, and of the nation’s imperialist ambitions. If the United States wishes to avoid facing a superpower ruled by Vladimir Putin, it must adapt to Russian Maskirovka tactics in order to counter its global disruption operations.