It’s been two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine and, in those 14 days of missiles and deaths, the international community of fact-checkers denied at least 1,359 false content circulating on the internet.
And the drama of disinformation only tends to grow. The “maskirovka” is at work, the historic Soviet tactic – now Russian – of deceiving enemies to win a war. In today’s column, I tell you a little about how this technique works.
In the free translation from Russian to Portuguese, “maskirovka” means disguise or camouflage. But since 1380, when Prince Dmetrius Donskói orchestrated a surprise attack from within a forest and defeated the Mongol army at the Battle of Culicovo, it also concerns military strategy that uses lies to create ambiguities and confuse rivals. .
Experts interviewed by the BBC in 2015, after Russian President Vladimir Putin managed to annex Crimea, said the “maskirovka” rests on three pillars: surprise, denial and the inevitable disorganization of the enemy.
The surprise is not only because of the time when Russian troops usually move, usually at night, making it difficult to see, but also because the Russian military is trained and willing to obey orders that, from the Western point of view , would be considered outlandish.
Records from World War II state, for example, that in August 1944, the Soviet Union shifted military and weaponry in opposite directions to confuse Adolf Hitler’s troops. There are also reports that the USSR dressed Soviet soldiers in German uniforms in order to penetrate and blend in with rival forces. It is also known that the USSR released prisoners of war fed on rivers of fake news, betting that they would spill the beans, leading opponents to believe misinformation. And it worked.
The second pillar of the “maskirovka”, denial, lies in the Russians’ ability to prevent those involved in a conflict from having the big picture of the confrontation, in addition to the daring to rebut the ululating obvious without moving a single muscle of the face.
The annexation of Crimea was also an example of this.
In 2014, Putin spent days claiming that his country had no relationship with the “little green men” who were armed and unidentified throughout the disputed region. He repeated that the group was nothing more than a local militia, with no connection to his government. In 2015, however, after the victory, Putin acknowledged that the green men were, in fact, a Russian special force. The world gaped.
The third pillar of the “maskirovka” is an immediate result of the efficiency of the two previous ones. It is the disorientation and disorganization of rivals. When the “maskirovka” goes into action, the army on the other side spends valuable time trying to understand what Russia is doing and/or trying to see behind the smokescreen what its military is hiding.
In 1968, in Czechoslovakia, it was like that. For months, the Soviet military carried out massive logistical exercises on the country’s borders with members of the Warsaw Pact. For a time, the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) felt threatened, but later, it became desensitized. This is where the USSR advanced, catching the Czechs and Westerners quite unprepared.
It is evident that all the powers of the world adopt disinformation tactics to achieve their goals. In 2003, for example, the United States convinced much of the world about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and gained support to invade the country and end Saddam Hussein’s regime.
But the digital version of the “maskirovka” deserves special attention.
In addition to having extrapolated the military sphere, becoming a kind of state policy, it has the speed of social networks and global political polarization.
Contrary to what Russian/Soviet propaganda does/does, to exalt the inherent qualities of the Russian people, the new “maskirovka” seeks to discredit the enemy. And that’s where, for example, the accusations that the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is a Nazi (being a Jew) come from.
Last weekend, the New York Times ran a long story showing how Russian disinformation has torn apart families who have members living on both sides of the war. The statements collected by the correspondent are shocking:
“No one is bombing Kiev, and you should actually be afraid of the Nazis, the group your father fought so hard against. Your children will be fine and healthy. We love Ukrainians, but you need to think carefully about who you elect.” , wrote from Russia a relative of a lady interviewed by the American newspaper.
Therein lies the most immediate result of the “maskirovka”.
Cristina Tardáguila is Senior Program Director at ICFJ and Founder of Agência Lupa