Chaos vs. Maskirovka

(AP Photo/ Joseph Kaczmarek)

As Russia and Ukraine prepare for spring offensives, this year could prove the war’s most decisive yet. The weeks preceding an expected military event of this magnitude are often rife with rumor, much of it deliberately spread by the combatants themselves as disinformation. This is hallowed tradition. Following Soviet maskirovka doctrine, the campaign to destroy the German 6th Army at Stalingrad in 1942 was accompanied by misdirection. In those days it was relatively straightforward, consisting of signals deception, false messages, and fake units designed to convince the Germans to put their defenses in the wrong place.


But as Russian doctrine developed, maskirovka (which means “a little masquerade”) expanded beyond these simple misdirections to effecting surprise, uncertainty, and manipulating the adversary’s mind. “Maskirovka’s central theme is the presentation of a believable falsehood to conceal the truth. Maskirovka seeks to create a false reality for the target audience. Militarily, this false reality fixes the enemy’s attention on the factious, directing their efforts away from friendly forces.” The Russian ideal is to mess with the enemy mind.

Recently, supposedly classified information connected to the anticipated Ukrainian spring offensive was conveniently discovered on the Internet. “The latest documents were found on Twitter … a day after senior Biden administration officials said they were investigating a potential leak of classified Ukrainian war plans.” It suggested the U.S. was spying on its diplomatic allies, including South Korea, Israel, and Ukraine, and revealed extensive access to intelligence from inside Russia’s government. The spying allegations, if not fictitious, were certainly factious.

Was it maskirovka? The Biden administration suggests it was Kremlin disinformation. “Russia or pro-Russian elements are likely behind the leak of several classified U.S. military documents posted on social media that offer a partial, month-old snapshot of the war in Ukraine, three U.S. officials told Reuters.” But nobody on the outside can know for sure the Biden administration isn’t covering up its own carelessness.


Ukrainian officials played down reports that Kyiv is changing its counter-offensive plans due to the reported leak. Generally, if a surprise attack is discovered by the enemy, it may be wise to call it off. But the mooted 2023 spring offensive was certainly not a surprise, and the enemy’s discovery may not significantly impact the likelihood of success. However the alleged leak adds to the “fog of war” (nebel des krieges), a term used by Clausewitz to describe the uncertainty during military operations, that everyone must grope through.

The leak in itself is unlikely to play a decisive role in the coming events, whoever was behind it. It probably comes too late to affect the long lead time preparations on both sides. The Ukrainians have been resupplied and trained on new equipment. From commercial satellite imagery, it is clear that “Russian forces in Ukraine have been developing an extensive series of defensive fortifications a few kilometres behind the current frontline”.


This interactive map shows the extent of their construction and links each point to satellite imagery. The physical facts are plain.  Russia has built the Putin Line and still has its air force as a mobile fire reserve. This fortified belt raises the question of what a decisive goal for a Ukrainian offensive could be against an entrenched foe prepared to slow advances down. Possibly the Ukrainian target is not territory per se but the Russian field armies themselves. Kyiv may be hoping to create a situation where several corps or an army can be trapped and destroyed. Moscow of course must guess this and is planning to turn the tables in the eventuality.

Ukrainian messaging on social media plays on this operational threat of encirclement by suggesting they have learned to execute combined arms operations in ways the Russian field forces cannot keep up with. “What it takes most armies months to learn, our army has mastered in weeks. For what? #SpringIsComing.” Of course, Wagner chief Prighozin has been indirectly suggesting for weeks which axes Ukraine should take by bemoaning Russian weakness in certain parts of the front. So each side has been trying to fake, feint, and psych the other out.

What about Washington? In theory, Western deception operations are constrained by ethical norms. “Joint Publication 3-13.4: Military Deception states deception that misinforms friendly forces is detrimental to mission accomplishment. The Joint Publication further asserts that information released to the public must not be ‘of any [military deception] action [to avoid loss of] public trust.'” But Washington has one source of deception no enemy analyst can penetrate: the sheer unpredictability of its complex warfighting systems.


It is probable that the Russians will be watching the skies, especially the Intelsat, Viasat, Starlink, and classified NRO launch slated for April. The last is probably going to be watched very carefully by the Kremlin. The Ukraine 2023 spring offensive will be the first large-scale test of space dominance’s effect on ground ops. The US has clear superiority in space assets vs Russia. What effect it will have, no one can say with certainty.

Surprise can come from anywhere. The U.S. has for some time been trying to graft AI onto Space. One known effort is Project Sentient“When will the Department of Defense have real-time, automated, global order of battle? When would that translate to near-instantaneous understanding and strategy development?” journalists asked an Air Force official and a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) executive in 2019. The answer? “If not now, very soon.” No particular programs were mentioned that might provide this kind of autonomous, real-time interpretation. But an initiative called Sentient has relevant capabilities.

A product of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), Sentient is (or at least aims to be) an omnivorous analysis tool, capable of devouring data of all sorts, making sense of the past and present, anticipating the future, and pointing satellites toward what it determines will be the most interesting parts of that future. “The NRO has not said much about Sentient publicly because it is a classified program,” says Furgerson in an email, “and NRO rarely appears before Congress in open hearings.” … In 2018, a presentation posted online claimed Sentient would go live that year.


Or maybe Sentient is an American hoax, insubstantial vaporware meant only to keep the Kremlin up at night. In conditions of great geopolitical and technological flux, when no one can say what will be game-changing, maskirovka may not have its intended effect. Complexity interacting with greater complexity can lead to emergent behaviors that are difficult to predict or understand. The noise of deception will be lost in the greater noise. If the spring offensive ever starts no one will be able to say what role the leak played.


Books: Against the Great Reset: Eighteen Theses Contra the New World Order Kindle Edition by Michael Walsh (editor). In this timely and necessary book, Michael Walsh has gathered trenchant critical perspectives on the Great Reset from eighteen eminent writers and journalists from around the world. Though I wouldn’t exactly consider myself an eminent writer, mine is one of the 18 chapters in this book, and I think it’s worthwhile.

Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb by George Feifer.
Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945 by Ian W. Toll.
Year Zero: A History of 1945 by Ian Buruma.


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