Moscow: Deep in the Russian countryside, the grass sways in a late-summer breeze. In the distance, the sun glistens off the golden spires of a village church. It is, to all appearances, a typically Russian scene of imperturbable rural tranquillity.
Until a sleek MiG-31 fighter jet suddenly appears in a field, its muscular, stubby wings spreading to reveal their trademark red star insignia. A few moments later, a missile launcher pops up beside it.
Cars on a nearby road pull over, the drivers gaping in amazement at what appear to be fearsome weapons, encountered so unexpectedly in this serene spot. And then, as quickly as they appeared, the jet and missile launcher vanish.
“If you study the major battles of history, you see that trickery wins every time,” Aleksei A. Komarov, the military engineer in charge of this sleight of hand, said with a sly smile. “Nobody ever wins honestly.”
Komarov oversees military sales at Rusbal, a hot-air-balloon company that also provides the Ministry of Defense with one of Russia’s lesser-known military threats: a growing arsenal of inflatable tanks, jets and missile launchers, including the MiG in the field.
At a factory behind high concrete walls not far from here, workers toiling in secret with little more than sewing machines and green fabric are churning out the ultimate in soft power: decoys that appear lifelike from as close as 300 yards and can pop up and then vanish in mere minutes.
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 US 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 longtime interest in operations of deceit and disguise, a repertoire of lethal tricks known as maskirovka, or masking. It is a psychological warfare doctrine that is becoming an increasingly critical element in the country’s geopolitical ambitions.
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, 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 a US 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. Soviet maps, for example, often included inaccuracies that frustrated drivers but served a national security purpose: If taken by a spy, they would confuse an invading army as apparently useful roads, for example, led into swamps.
The inflatable T-80 tank, one of the company’s standard products, weighs 154 pounds, costs about $16,000, totes in two duffel bags, inflates in about five minutes and vanishes just as quickly. Sold separately: a device for stamping fake tank tracks in the ground.
“There are no gentlemen’s agreements in war,” Oparina said. “There’s no chivalry anymore. Nobody wears a red uniform. Nobody stands up to get shot at. It’s either you or me, and whoever has the best trick wins.”