As a young Air Force analyst, I found the doctrine both admirable and deeply unsettling. Maskirovka, the Soviet (and now Russian) program of concealment and deception, wasn’t formulated by strategic planners on the Moskva River. It is as old as warfare itself. Any military officer will know, for instance, Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” In it, the Chinese strategist wrote some 2,500 years ago, “The ultimate in disposing one’s troops is to be without discernable shape.” And more directly, “War is based on deception.” Moreover, the Russians themselves acknowledge its deep roots. “As soon as man was born, he began to fight,” Major General Alexander Vladimirov, a Russian military historian, said in a BBC interview. “When he began hunting, he had to paint himself different colors to avoid being eaten by a tiger. From that point on, maskirovka was a part of his life. All human history can be portrayed as the history of deception.”
But the Soviets, more than any other nation, raised the program of concealment and deception to the level of a lethal art. In World War II, the use of maskirovka was essential to victory at the key battles of Stalingrad, for instance, when the Soviets built fake airfields and bridges to draw German artillery fire. And its use only increased after the war. To scuttle President Carter’s potential deployment of the neutron bomb, the Soviets fomented large protests throughout western Europe, protests that only appeared to be indigenous. To prepare for potential war with NATO, the Soviets pre-positioned the Spetsnaz (special forces) throughout the continent. Trained to carry out, among things, assassinations and infrastructure demolitions, these particular troops were given special language and cultural preparation to blend seamlessly into target countries and await a full-on Soviet assault. From the SS-18 Mod 4 ICBM, to the Tu-95 Blackjack bomber, to the silent assassins among the Spetsnaz and the larger program of maskirovka, the “new Soviet man” seemed almost invincible.
Then came 24 August 1991. I had traveled with another analyst to spend the month doing Pentagon-sponsored, in-country research after the first Gulf War. The aim was to evaluate Arab attitudes and make a tentative assessment of the security environment in the region. Then, in an allied facility in the Arabian peninsula, we listened to a radio program. Mikhail Gorbachev had dissolved the Central Committee of the Communist Party and resigned as general secretary. It seemed impossible. I had grown up in the context of the Cold War. I could recall, with unnerving clarity, the days in October 1962 when I thought my life was soon to end because of missiles sent to Cuba. I was 11 years old. Could this now be happening? Yes, indeed. By December 1991 it became clear the dreaded empire had passed and, with it, the quiet and lethal military program called maskirovka. Three years later I left active duty for the reserves so I could work on my Ph.D in politics and religion. The new Soviet man was no longer to be feared.
And yet. Adjustment to the reality that the Soviet Union had collapsed did not come easily. I continually asked “what if” questions. Then the idea for a novel came. The Soviets could never match us in R&D and the sophistication of our weapons. Their moribund, planned economy could never supply the robust development that our market economy and free trade could provide. But they had something else: They had the fully formed doctrine that I had admired and found so unsettling years before. What if we, as Americans, settled into a post-Cold War complacency? What if we forgot the connection of eternal vigilance and liberty? What if the greatest accomplishment of maskirovka was even then being implemented. What if the Soviet leadership had successfully faked the collapse of the Soviet Union? In that case, the enemy would now be at the gate, and our collapse, imminent. And so the main plotline of such a novel began to unfold. I tentatively sketched my characters. I developed the ancillary but essential love story (of course). I determined the city and circumstances where the dénouement would occur . . . and where our great nation might be saved. But there was a problem. A dissertation is a jealous mistress. She would not tolerate a second narrative residing in my mind and heart. I never wrote what I hoped could be a great American novel.
The ‘smoothest invasion’
Until now. Vladimir Putin, former KGB officer and a man who understands well the value of maskirovka, stands at the helm of Russia. He leads a nation that remains the most significant rival to the United States in terms of nuclear arsenal, with the Federation of American Scientists estimating it possesses just over 4,000 warheads. Russia’s military spending priorities now focus on upgrading its overall nuclear posture and air force, according to Stratfor. And there is the tri-nation race (Russia, China and the United States) to develop hypersonic weaponry. But something more ominous unfolds. In 2014, Russia carried out what the BBC called the “smoothest invasion of modern times” when, in a masterstroke of maskirovka, it deployed “little green men” (they were wearing various uniforms, often without insignia) to take Crimea. Similarly, Russia — in a grand public relations show — moved vehicles with humanitarian aid into Eastern Ukraine, all while covertly sending military materiel through other checkpoints, another instance of maskirovka. But while the examples may be multiplied, the prize lay elsewhere. That prize was to capture the U.S. presidential election of 2016.
Here we must note that the ultimate value of maskirovka is not deception of a military enemy as part of a military campaign. Like the perfectly trained samurai who can defeat an opponent without a single blow, maskirovka‘s truly deadly strength is non-kinetic. It has the capability to reverse the great dictum of Clausewitz, the Prussian military strategist, who averred that war is politics extended by other means. In this case, the greatest potential of maskirovka is to enter politics itself and fracture a target population’s very perception of truth and thereby foment a societal civil war. And so it has. The Mueller Report notes that:
The Internet Research Agency (IRA) carried out the earliest Russian interference operations identified by the investigation — a social media campaign designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States. The IRA later used social media accounts and interest groups to sow discord in the U.S. political system through what it termed “information warfare.” The campaign evolved from a generalized program designed in 2014 and 2015 to undermine the U.S. electoral system, to a targeted operation that by early 2016 favored candidate Trump and disparaged candidate Clinton.
How successful was this maskirovka campaign? CNN Business relates that by November 2017, Facebook estimated the Russian-based IRA had placed some 3,000 ads on its pages, ads directly viewed by 11 million people. To “sow discord,” those ads supported both “blue lives matter” and “black lives matter.” To evoke barely concealed fears, they placed a meme with Arabic-looking script to declare that candidate Hillary Clinton was seeking to “save American Muslims.” And Texas itself drew the attention of the IRA. Talk of secession has long bedeviled the state, and the masters of maskirovka saw an opening. As the Washington Post reports, the IRA established a fake page, The Heart of Texas. By 2016 it gained an astonishing quarter-million followers, the largest secessionist group in the state . . . and the group didn’t exist. It “lived” only to deceive and divide, then faded away.
But maskirovka has not been successful only if it places ads on social media. It can be gauged a success when it acts as a catalyst, initiating a malignant conversation in a target population, then stepping aside as the victims themselves continue it. Maskirovka is a success when we deem allies to be enemies, and critical alliances to be hindrances to a unilateral scope of action. Maskirovka has accomplished its deadly mission when we willingly accept an adversary’s claim as true that it did not interfere in the 2016 election but dismiss the rigorous assessment of the entire U.S. intelligence community that a nuclear-armed Russia did interfere. Concealment and deception triumph when we discard inconvenient articles in the national media as fake and adumbrate unhinged conspiracy theories (e.g., Pizzagate) as real. In this case, maskirovka has put the knife to our throat, and we now hold it there. We think exactly as the masters of maskirovka would have us think.
This is not a drill
And how have we responded to this existential threat, this threat to our national discourse, to the integrity of our democratic processes, to the republic which has stood as a beacon of hope to all humankind? Not very well. We see an administration openly turning to its adversaries to seek help in getting reelected. We have Senate leadership refusing to undertake the essential steps to safeguard our 2020 national election from foreign interference or, indeed, fulfill its Article I oversight responsibilities. We see Congress more broadly dismiss critical issues as it acts with overweening partisanship or inexplicable pusillanimity, failing in its sacred duty to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
This is not a novel, and this is not a drill. What is unfolding in this perilous moment is a looming tragedy, an ancient Greek tale writ anew for this generation. It is certainly a tragic story beyond my ability to compose, with a through line beyond any I could ever have conceived. If we choose not to act, if we fail to rise as a united people, then maskirovka, or some other adversary, or even we ourselves will write the dénouement. In that case, the members of the Greek chorus may well be our own children and grandchildren. And amid the dust and rubble, one might hear the faint and keening cry, “You failed us.”