The Soviets learned several very important lessons during the Great Patriotic War. The first was that it is virtually impossible to conceal one’s intent to attack, even at the outset of hostilities. However, masking the scale, timing and direction can be at least as effective as concealing the intent: an expectant enemy tends to have a more active imagination and will be more receptive to false indicators, especially if his intelligence service is inefficient. One weakness of Soviet deception planning, though, was its inability to know how successful its own measures were, along with a tendency to follow predictable patterns, especially in the early war years. The Soviets identified concealment of forces and operational concepts as the principal purpose of maskirovka, citing the following measures as being fundamental to achieving surprise: secrecy of force deployments; demonstrative actions to deceive the enemy regarding one’s actions; simulations to confuse the enemy regarding intent and location of real forces; and disinformation by technical means, false orders or rumour.
Soviet wartime experiences also proved the essential interrelation between tactical, operational and strategic deception measures. Although one could make tactical deception without planning operational and strategic measures, it was impossible to do the opposite. Successful strategic deception depended entirely on the effectiveness of measures at lower levels. Most important was the ability secretly and efficiently to redeploy numerous armies and corps, which depended on the ability to hide individual tanks and vehicles. Sloppy camouflage or radio procedure could jeopardize the whole process, as could overenthusiastic razvedka boyem or artillery registration. It took numerous failures to reveal a talent for maskirovka, but by the middle of 1943 that talent was evident. Since it relied on the most extensive application of their methods and techniques, strategic deception took the Soviets longest to master.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s strategic and operational planning was overshadowed by nuclear weapons, although surprise and deception remained key elements. In 1976, however, General-Lieutenant M. M. Kir’yan, a senior member of the Voroshilov General Staff Academy, wrote that ‘surprise is one of the most important principles of the military art’, and his list of methods to achieve it began with ‘deceiving the enemy concerning one’s own intentions’. He further elaborated on among other things, secrecy, camouflage and night movement.
Regardless of its form, the environmental or organizational aspects affecting it, maskirovka is governed by four major principles: activity, plausibility, variety and continuity. The first of these principles (activnost) states that offensive action is necessary to degrade the enemy’s observation capability: his ability to locate and identify troop concentrations and key weapon systems, particularly indicator systems, by the concerted use of electronic warfare, dummies and good camouflage and concealment. Plausibility and persuasiveness (ubeditel’nyi and pravdopodobnyi) are essential, but their success depends on timeliness (svoevremennost). In the large forces available to the USSR there was no need to create entirely false armies, since there were plenty of real ones. Nowadays, far smaller forces are deployed, although the same principles apply. Iraq used a Soviet-based doctrine during the Gulf War in 1991 and, despite deploying over half a million men, made effective use of decoys made of wood, cardboard, paper, cloth and fibreglass, including realistic models of tanks bought from an Italian company. Maskirovka must be varied (raznoobraznye), and this requires forethought and originality if it is not to become stale and predictable. It is this embedding of maskirovka in the very fabric of every other activity, this level of awareness and training throughout the structure, that perhaps most clearly differentiates maskirovka from Western concepts of deception. Finally, continuity (nepreryvnost) must be maintained both temporally and throughout all levels of command; a tactical deception error may reveal an operational or even strategic deception.
At the tactical level maskirovka includes the following categories: optical/light, thermal, sound, radio and radar. Optical/light maskirovka covers those measures, mainly passive, designed to deny enemy optical reconnaissance systems, including photography. This covers everything from nets, camouflage clothing and special paints to the use of small lights like miners’ lamps, worn on the head and pointing downwards so that light can be applied only where needed. But it also includes displays of dummy equipment that are designed to be seen, as thermal maskirovka includes both concealing heat sources and creating false ones. Equally, radar maskirovka involves methods of reducing signatures, from topographic analysis in order to locate radar dead ground which cannot be scanned, to the application of stealth technology and the widespread use of reflectors to create false radar images. These reflectors (corner, pyramid, spherical or dipole) can also form effective radar jammers. Suspended along a road or throughout an area in pairs, they can mask activity; placed besides a wooden dummy they can give it a radar signature, and they can be used to create false bridges and even to ‘alter’ the landscape. During the mid-1970s every Soviet motor-rifle battalion was issued with thirty corner reflectors.
From this it would appear that maskirovka permeated very aspect of Soviet military life (and by extension, that of modern Russia and other former Soviet states). Indeed, Soviet soldiers were ‘compelled by regulations to employ some form of maskirovka’. With the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, this was regarded as absolutely essential, as much to ensure the survivability of Soviet forces as to gain surprise. It was valued primarily for its ability to disrupt and delay the enemy’s decision-making cycle and his ability efficiently to target Soviet concentrations and build-ups. Similarly, it is designed implicitly to raise such dilemmas in the opponent’s mind as to whether to fire on what may merely be decoys or to accept the risk of a massing of forces close to hand which may later threaten to swamp the defences. Nevertheless, Western analysts were hard pressed when watching Soviet manœuvres to detect the widespread implementation of maskirovka. Whether this was proof of its effectiveness, or because the ‘real’ thing was being held back for operations, or because the practice was far less advanced than history, doctrine and assertion suggested is not clear.
One Soviet writer noted that
a more important condition for achieving victory than overall superiority in weapons and manpower is the ability to use concealment in preparing one’s main forces for a major strike and use the element of surprise in launching an attack against important enemy targets.
A major theme in post-war Soviet thought was the determination never again to be taken by surprise. In the 1960s and 1970s Soviet military writers began to stress the key role of surprise as one of the important principles of military art. A plethora of articles on the subject culminated in a major work by General S. P. Ivanov, The Initial Period of the War, which derived lessons from the events of 1940–41 and August 1945. This need to possess the capability for launching surprise attacks, and to defend against them, became a central theme. The Soviets never distinguished between the tactical, operational and strategic levels of deception, and instead emphasized variation of the means of deception. Among other recognized methods for achieving surprise were the use of exercises and manœuvres as cover for the deployment of forces, a method used in the invasions of both Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. This was facilitated by the centralization of deception planning in Department D of the KGB’s First Main Directorate in 1959, in order to manage high-quality deception operations worldwide.
The invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 demonstrated these operations superbly. Contingency planning began several months beforehand, when it was discussed at the highest levels. Although the Soviet Politburo was reluctant to order military intervention, Leonid Brezhnev later admitted that sometime in May they began to contemplate the option as a last resort and began a military build-up, partly as preparation and partly to bring pressure on the reformists to keep events under control. Military exercises also gave cover for the necessary logistic preparations and rehearsals. By late June Soviet divisions had moved from their peacetime garrison locations in Poland and East Germany to the Czechoslovak borders. The first Soviet deployment onto Czechoslovak territory occurred in June and July under cover of ‘staff military exercises’, following an understanding made between Alexei Kosygin of the USSR and Czechoslovakia’s Alexander Dubček, the leader of the ‘Prague spring’. Forces from non-Czechoslovak Warsaw Pact countries were not originally to take part in these exercises, and the first units to do so arrived in early June during a meeting of the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s Central Committee. They brought with them heavy equipment, including armour and EW assets. They first entered air bases capable of handling the Soviet’s heavy lift capability. Not only were Czechoslovak officers not informed of this development, but they were excluded from the post-exercise analysis, a breach of the May agreement about which Dubček complained. It later transpired that the Warsaw Pact command had introduced 16,000 troops into the country between 20 and 30 June. A troop withdrawal announced on 1 July was then delayed until negotiations took place later that month and in early August at Cierna-Bratislava.
These month-long manœuvres formed an unusual deception. They were not only unsealed but widely advertised, and thus served not only as preparation for possible intervention but also to create political pressure. Militarily, they were designed to desensitize the Czechoslovaks and Western leaders and analysts. When it became known on 23 July that the Soviet Politburo was to enter negotiations with the Czechoslovak leadership, the Soviet media announced the holding of the largest logistic exercise ever held by the Soviet ground forces under the Commander-in-Chief Rear Services, General S. Mariakin. During this exercise, code-named NEMEN, thousands of reservists were called up and civilian transport was requisitioned. The exercise started all over the western USSR and as the negotiations progressed was extended into Poland and East Germany. Immediately before the Cierna conference, major fleet exercises were conducted throughout the Baltic, and all of these exercises continued during the conferences. When NEMEN formally ended on 10 August, a vast air defence exercise began the following day, along with a communications exercise in western Ukraine, Poland and East Germany. From 16 August Hungary was included, and the following day the decision to intervene was made.
All this time the KGB was trying to provide ‘proof’ of counter-revolutionary behaviour to justify military intervention, such as caches of secret weapons ‘discovered’ near the West German border and fake documents to incriminate the CIA. Czechoslovak stocks of fuel and ammunition had been skilfully reduced by removal to East Germany and the USSR under the pretext of the exercises, and the Soviets arranged for a major exercise of the Czechoslovak Army to take place from 21 August – a day after the intervention was due to start – in order to divert the attention of the Czechoslovak military. Tight security measures were imposed, including radio silence and use of electronic warfare assets, to ensure the West knew as little as possible about what was about to happen. Certainly Dubček himself know nothing until it was too late. Huge forces were deployed, estimated at between a quarter and half a million men, but despite the prolonged logistical exercises the operation was dogged at several points by shortages of fuel and food and water. The Soviets had, however, learned from subjecting the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when they suffered some 720 dead and missing and 1,540 wounded: in Czechoslovakia they lost only ninety-six men killed.
The invasions of both Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan included the establishment of a military and KGB element to assist in the production of a cover and deception plan to divert attention away from it and allow them quickly to seize the essential facilities and key leaders and officials. In Afghanistan preparations for the Soviet invasion of December 1979 also began months earlier. In April General of the Army Aleksiy Yepishev, head of the Main Political Directorate, led a delegation to assess the situation (as he had previously done in Czechoslovakia). In August General of the Army Ivan Pavlovski (who commanded the Czechoslovak invasion), now Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Ground Forces, led some sixty officers on a weeks-long reconnaissance tour of Afghanistan. With the country in the throes of civil war following the replacement of the king by Afghan Communists, an exercise held in August involved transporting 10,000 troops from the USSR to South Yemen and Ethiopia and back again, in a fleet of Antonov-22 aircraft. In September they took the first steps towards influencing the military situation in Afghanistan during the visit to Moscow of President Nur Mohammed Taraki, and a meeting was arranged with Babrak Karmal, who in due course would adopt the position of president following the invasion. The Soviets were involved in intrigues aimed at eliminating Taraki’s rival the vice-president Hafizullah Amin. These backfired and the result was Taraki’s death and the ascendance of Amin to power. Forced to accept the coup, they pretended to court Amin and appear to have decided to intervene on a massive scale only as late as November, when they sent the First Deputy Minister of the Interior, General-Lieutenant Viktor Paputin, to Kabul, ostensibly to advise Amin on police and security matters but in reality to rally the supporters of Taraki and Karmal.
Changes to deployments along the Afghan and Iranian borders during this period were apparent to US analysts, who this time were not particularly surprised by the invasion when it came. Preliminary moves began on 8 and 9 December with the lift of airborne units to take control of Bagram airport to reinforce a unit sent originally in September. Their initial task was to secure the main road between Kabul and the Soviet border while other units moved concurrently to take control of Kabul municipal airport. The actual invasion was deliberately timed for 24–26 December, when most Western officials would be on Christmas holiday. On the ground Soviet advisors succeeded in disarming two Afghan divisions by persuading their commanders that they needed to take over their ammunition and anti-tank weapons for inventory and their tank batteries for wintering, and that some of their tanks needed to have a defect modified. Then between 24 and 26 December some 10,000 men of the 105th Guards Airborne Division landed at Kabul while two motor-rifle divisions crossed the border from the north and advanced to take control of key positions in the centre of the country, leaving control of the borders until later. In total, some 80–100,000 men were deployed, and the logistic problems that hampered the invasion of Czechoslovakia were avoided. However, simply taking control of the country’s main installations and infrastructure was not sufficient to calm the population and control the country. Although the invasion itself was accomplished with few problems, that was only the beginning.
The invasion was felt by many in the West to be the Soviets’ ‘Vietnam’, and with some justice. Soviet tactics in Afghanistan were very clumsy to begin with, and the poor training of many of the units involved meant there was seemingly little employment of maskirovka. As with the Americans in Vietnam, the emphasis was on firepower, using armour and large-scale troop deployments to destroy completely Mujahadeen villages and their associated agriculture. Later, with the introduction of Spetznaz (special forces), this changed towards observing arms supply caravans from the air and intercepting them. So Mujahadeen commanded by Abdul Haq took to setting up dummy caravans and assembling a counter-force. Having waited to see where the Spetznatz teams were deployed, they would ambush the ambushers. Not many of the Mujahadeen groups were capable of such operations, but only after 1986 did they adopt more subtle tactics.
In the autumn of 1987, during the largest Soviet operation of the war, MAGISTRAL, the 40th Army launched to drive to clear the main route to Khost district, which had been effectively cut off by the Mujahadeen. The key position was the Satukandav pass, thirty kilometres east of Gardez, and practically the only way through the mountains between Gardez and Khost. On 28 November, following unsuccessful negotiations with the guerrillas, General Boris Gromov decided to determine the enemy’s weapon systems (especially air defence) with a fake parachute drop using twenty dummy parachutists. This proved highly successful and the guerrillas revealed their positions for artillery observers to record. They were then attacked from the air and with a four-hour artillery programme. Although the deception was very effective, the artillery programme (which far exceeded Soviet norms) was not, and the pass was cleared only after heavy fighting.
Success in guerrilla war is hard to define and body count is certainly a poor criterion. The Soviets appear repeatedly to have been engaging rearguards and the slow or uninformed guerrillas. Night patrols and ambushes were singular planned missions, not routine events. The Soviet concept of line-of-communication security appears to have been to establish a series of fortified positions, man them and then sit back and wait, without aggressive patrolling or reconnaissance. Similarly, they seem to have used air power primarily for offensive action and not reconnaissance, with little effort to shift forces, occupy temporary sites, or take actions to deceive or ‘wrong-foot’ the enemy. By the time the Soviets finally left Afghanistan in 1989 their casualties amounted to over 15,000 dead and a staggering 439,000 wounded and sick. Soviet command might perhaps have been more effective if it had read a book written at the end of the nineteenth century, Sir Charles Callwell’s Small Wars.