Theatricality and deception can make a man — or a country — appear to be much more than they really are in the mind of an opponent.
The word means “masking,” and it’s a fitting name for a tactic that depends entirely on misrepresentation.
Maskirovka is an insidious strategy that many Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, have used over the years to mislead opponents, over-represent their strength and flat-out lie about what they have or have not done.
“It’s designed, quite simply, to keep adversaries permanently off-balance, guessing what Moscow really intends,” said analyst Julian Lindley-French.
Maskirovka has persisted as a strategy from the Russian Imperial Army days, to the era of the Soviet Union, and up to today under Vladimir Putin.
Historians have traced the strategy as far back as 1380, when Prince Dmitry Donskoy and 50,000 Russian soldiers defeated the so-called Golden Horde of 150,000 Mongolian warriors in the Battle of Kulikovo. Donskoy’s men claimed victory thanks to a surprise attack by a regimen of soldiers hidden in a nearby forest.
Russian history is filled with similar battles in which the country’s troops have faked attacks or staged ambushes to defeat much larger opponents. They even used fake tanks to mislead the Germans in a battle during the Second World War.
Maskirovka has since morphed into a geopolitical strategy for the Russians, but the three elements involved remain the same: distract your opponent, disguise what you’re really doing and and spread disinformation to sow confusion and delay a response.
One need look no further than Russia’s recent alleged actions in Crimea, Syria, the U.K. and the U.S. presidential election to see how effectively the Kremlin can influence other world powers while denying involvement all along.
“People in western Europe, and everywhere in the West, trust their governments less than perhaps they once did,” said Lindley-French, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute think tank.
“That opens an opportunity for people skilled in the dark arts of maskirovka to ply their trade.”
The Russians also stick to the plan under maskirovka, meaning they almost never come out and claim responsibility for their actions.
That said, here are three recent examples that clearly illustrate maskirovka at work, despite the Russians’ refusal to acknowledge their hand in these cases.
Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is a textbook example of maskirovka at work.
U.S. investigators say state-sponsored Russian agents attempted to influence the election by hacking emails and deliberately spreading fake news on social media about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, to the benefit of now-U.S. president Donald Trump.
Thirteen Russian nationals and three groups have been indicted for the hack by Robert Mueller, the special counsel assigned to investigating Russian interference.
Mueller’s court filings allege the hackers effectively distracted and misinformed voters by raising fake issues, then disguised their actions by pretending to be grassroots activists.
The Kremlin also did its part to obfuscate the issue, denying direct involvement on several occasions while pointing the finger elsewhere.
“I do not care at all, because they do not represent the government,” Putin said in March, after 13 Russian nationals were indicted for their role in the hack.
“Maybe they are not even Russians but Ukrainians, Tatars or Jews but with Russian citizenship, which should also be checked,” Putin said.
He went on to suggest the hackers might have dual citizenship, or may have even been paid by the United States.
“How can you know that? I do not know either.”
Putin’s efforts to distract from the issue have proven particularly effective with Trump, who was slow to accept his investigators’ conclusion that Russia was behind the hack, and has been lukewarm in his condemnation ever since.
The president infamously declared that he accepted Putin’s denial of involvement, after the two leaders met face-to-face last year.
WATCH BELOW: Trump says he trusts Putin’s denials of election meddling
“Every time he sees me he says I didn’t do it, and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said.
Other uses of maskirovka
Lindley-French says Russian maskirovka played a major role in the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and in Russia’s political defence of Syria following a chemical attack in a rebel-held town.
He says Russia deployed troops to help pro-Russian separatists during the conflict in Crimea, while denying all along that it had any hand in the crisis.
The Russians claimed that the well-armed, camouflaged “little green men” who appeared on the Black Sea Peninsula during the conflict were merely volunteers on holiday, and not a Kremlin-sanctioned fighting force.
In the case of Syria, Russia used its army of online trolls to cast doubt on reports that its Syrian allies had used chemical weapons against an entire town of rebels.
“If they see a hashtag that is telling the narrative they want to see, they focus a lot of media effort and bot effort and even troll effort to push it forward,” said digital analyst Lukas Andriukaitis.
Russia’s Defence Ministry also joined the disinformation campaign, claiming the attack was faked the White Helmets, a British group of medic activists.
“Powerful pressure from London was exerted on representatives of the so-called White Helmets to quickly stage the premeditated provocation,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a spokesperson for the Russian Defence Ministry, said in April.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also raised doubt about the incident, claiming that an unnamed state had “fabricated” the attack as part of a “Russo-phobic campaign.”
Lindley-French said these tactics have become particularly effective in today’s geopolitical climate because of the rise in populism and fears of fake news.
“The Russians are pushing at an open door,” he said.