Maskirovka; A Powerful Soviet Concept

‘War puts nations to the test. Just as mummies crumble to dust the moment they are exposed to air, so war pronounces its sentence of death on those social institutions which have become ossified.’ (Karl Marx, 1855).

Maskirovka, the art of deception, formed the very bedrock of Soviet military practice and is still an important tenet in Russian strategic thinking. It has no equivalent in the West; indeed the word Maskirovka itself defies translation. It encompasses the arts of concealment (skrytie), the use of dummies and decoys (imitatsiia), disinformation (dezinformatsiia), and even the execution of complex demonstration manoeuvres (demonstrativny manevry). Indeed, anything capable of confusing, and therefore weakening, the enemy may be incorporated.

Maskirovka, according to the Soviet Military Encyclopaedia, complements surprise by covertly ‘securing military operations and the routine activity of troops and by confusing the enemy with regard to the presence and position of the forces, military complexes, their position, level of preparation and activity as well as the plans for the command structure.’

Although both the Tzars and Bolsheviks recognized the potential of Maskirovka, neither exploited it fully. The Leninist secret service organization, the Cheka, adopted the term dezinformatsiia in the 1920s, but was subsequently frustrated by Stalin who actively distrusted the concept.

In the late 1920s the Ukrainian Military District was allowed to organize a special partisan task force charged with the demolition of critical facilities along the border with Poland and Romania in the case of invasion. The task force was responsible for the development of demolition technology, the establishing of explosives caches and the training of special teams to carry out covert demolition tasks. Primary targets for such teams were to be the key points and rolling stock of the Soviet railway system, their objective being to deny use of the system to an invading enemy.

More than sixty demolition teams were formed with an average strength of twenty-three persons each (including some females). Every demolition expert was also a parachutist, a radio operator and a master of camouflage (then defined as maskirovka). In the winter of 1932 a number of teams jumped into the Leningrad Military District on an exercise to demonstrate their skills on operations in the enemy rear, their mission being to capture a headquarters and destroy transportation facilities. The mission was an unqualified success and the teams were able to place ten mines on a 10km stretch of track before their presence was detected (by a mine which blew up under the wheels of a commuter train before it could be removed).

Although primarily an engineer effort, the programme was closely related to the GRU’s creation of a special partisan cadre trained for ‘stay behind’ operations in the enemy rear in the event of invasion. Gradually, however, as the threat of foreign invasion subsided, the partisan groups were absorbed into the Red Army and the programme destroyed. Most of the personnel associated with it were killed during Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s, possibly because he feared that the programme was a destabilizing threat to his own régime.

The Great Patriotic War

Maskirovka was employed to limited effect by the military during the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War). It was exploited during the counter-offensive to relieve Moscow in 1942, and later in the encirclement of the Sixth Army attacking Stalingrad. Its large-scale use was otherwise limited to the Manchurian Campaign described below.

The NKVD, however, almost immediately formed a Special Tasks unit of 20,000 men and women, including 2,000 foreigners and 140 former intelligence and security officers arrested in the pre-war purges and now released under licence (many were subsequently re-arrested once their usefulness was over). In October 1941, the unit was enlarged and reorganized into Independent Department Two of the NKVD reporting directly to Beria, and in February, 1942, became the Independent Directorate Four for Special Tasks and Guerrilla Warfare. As such it assumed responsibility for the vast majority of major intelligence operations against Germany, including the running of clandestine groups in the occupied territories, the creation of deception plans at home and the planting of disinformation rumours.

During the course of the war the unit infiltrated 212 guerrilla detachments comprising 7,316 men behind the enemy lines. It trained over 1,000 military and 3,500 civilian technicians and saboteurs and was responsible for the deaths of eighty-seven high-ranking German officials and the liquidation of 2,045 Soviet collaborators in the service of the Germans. Twenty-three of its officers (including a few former prisoners) were awarded the highest honour, Hero of the Soviet Union, and more than 8,000 of its members received lesser decorations.

One of the most successful deception exercises of the war was Operation Monastery, undertaken by the NKVD in conjunction with the GRU in July, 1941. Monastery was intended as a counter intelligence operation aimed at penetrating the Abwehr (German intelligence) network within the Soviet Union, but quickly expanded. A few members of the former Czarist intelligentsia who had somehow survived the Stalinist purges of the 1920s and 1930s were recruited by the NKVD and formed into a psuedo pro-German organization in the hopes that they would be targetted by the Abwehr.

Control of the group passed to Aleksandr Demyanov, a veteran NKVD agent with an otherwise impeccable White Russian background. His grandfather had been the founder of the Kuban Cossacks, his father an officer in the Imperial Army, killed in action fighting the Germans in 1915. His uncle had been chief of counterintelligence for the White Army in the Northern Caucasus, had been captured by the Chekists and had died of typhus en route to interrogation in Moscow. Demyanov’s mother, a well-known socialite, had received but rejected several invitations to emigrate to France, but had returned instead to Leningrad. There Demyanov’s background had denied him a formal education and, indeed, had led to his arrest in 1929 on false charges of possessing illegal weapons and anti-Soviet propaganda.

Unusually, Demyanov had not been sentenced to administrative exile in Siberia, but had instead been recruited by the NKVD. Tired of violence and political intrigue, he had agreed to work towards the neutralization of White immigrant groups returning to the Soviet Union. He had later moved to Moscow where he had obtained a job with the Central Cinema Studio, Moscow’s Hollywood. His intelligence and easy going nature had made him many friends among the actors, directors and writers, and had brought him to the attention of the Abwehr.

On the eve of the war, when Demyanov was first approached by the Abwehr, he already had ten years counter-intelligence operational experience with the NKVD. Having gained the trust of Germany, Demyanov let it be known that he led a pro-German underground organization which would feed the Abwehr information in exchange for a promise of positions in the German provisional government once the Soviet Union had been conquered.

The deception operation was originally planned as a means of exposing Russian collaboration with the Nazis, but quickly expanded into a far more deadly confrontation between NKVD and Abwehr. In December, 1941, Demyanov crossed the front line on skis, pretending to be a deserter from the Red Army. To make the crossing, he skied over a recently laid minefield, unaware of the danger. The Abwehr group to whom he surrendered did not trust him and, as a deserter, treated him with contempt.

They were, however, most interested in how he had crossed the minefield and could not believe that he could have done so without knowing the pattern of the mines in advance. They took no interest in his covert activities and, indeed, on one occasion staged a mock execution to compel him to admit his collusion with Soviet intelligence. That failing, they transferred him to Abwehr headquarters in Smolensk. There, to his surprise, the Germans took no interest in his political motives but instead recruited him as a full-time agent of the Abwehr with the task of setting up a spy ring based on his connections in Moscow.

The Abwehr became certain of Demyanov’s bona fides when they checked their own files and discovered that not only was he of impeccable pedigree but that he had been targetted by one of their agents. Demyanov was not allowed to mix with the Russian emigrés then serving the Nazis. Their organizations had been heavily infiltrated by the NKVD and Berlin was adamant that their new find would remain untainted.

In February, 1942, after a period of intensive Abwehr training, Demyanov and two assistants were parachuted into the outskirts of Moscow. The landing went badly, the three men lost contact with each other in a snowstorm and had to reach Moscow independently. Demyanov quickly contacted his NKVD masters and with their assistance set up a Nazi rezidenzia in the city. His two assistants were arrested.

In the months that followed, the Abwehr sent in excess of fifty agents to Moscow. All were quickly and quietly arrested. Faced with the stark option of death, a number agreed to become double agents and assisted the NKVD in the creation of a fiction in which Demyanov was receiving considerable intelligence from a number of undisclosed ex-czarist officers.

Railway accidents were fabricated and reported to the Abwehr as successful sabotage missions. Occasionally Nazi sabotage groups were left at liberty for a few days, but covertly followed to establish their contacts. In one instance Demyanov’s wife doped a team by dropping knockout pills into their vodka. While they slept a team of demolition experts entered her flat to disable the saboteurs’ explosives. Effectively disarmed, the team was allowed considerable leeway before being arrested.

A few German couriers, mostly of Baltic origin, were allowed to return to the Abwehr to whom they reported that the network was functioning successfully. Operation Monastery proved highly successful, causing the German High Command to make a number of fatal errors. Because Demyanov ensured that all information sent to the Abwehr contained at least an element of truth they began to accept the whole unreservedly.

In one instance, on the eve of the Battle of Stalingrad, Monastery predicted that the Red Army would unleash a massive offensive in the North Caucasus and in the areas to the north of Stalingrad. Such an attack did take place, but it was only a diversion planned by Stalin in absolute secrecy to divert German efforts away from Stalingrad itself. Even Zhukov, in command of the diversionary attack, was not told that the Germans had been forewarned, and in the process of pursuing the feint to its vigorous and bloody conclusion paid a heavy price in the loss of thousands of men.

Later, during the Battle of Kursk in April and May 1943, Monastery reported that the Soviets held strong reserves in the east and south of the theatre but that these lacked manoeuvrability. This resulted in the Germans moving much of their reserve to meet an anticipated, though non-existent, attack to the north, leaving themselves vulnerable to the actual Soviet thrust when it came from the south.

With the aid of Enigma the British were able to intercept many of Monastery’s messages to Berlin and reported these in sanitized form to the Soviets. In February, 1943, London warned Stalin that the Abwehr had a source in Moscow. Only years later did the British discover that this was in fact Monastery.

Although the largest of the Soviet deception plans, Monastery was far from unique. In all, Moscow operated in excess of forty minor radio deceptions, few if any of which fell under Nazi suspicion. In theory the Abwehr was an excellent intelligence organization. In practice it lacked versatility. It would not easily accept the possibility of error, nor the likelihood of infiltration. Soviet disinformation fed to the German High Command via the Abwehr seems to have been accepted almost at face value, and certainly did much to influence the course of several crucial battles.

The Manchurian Experience

The attack against the Japanese in Manchuria in August, 1945, was the last great campaign of the war, and was the only example of the successful use of strategic surprise by the Soviets. In eleven days of savage fighting they secured approximately 1.5 million square kilometres, an area the size of France.

The Soviets had fought the Japanese Kwantung Army in numerous border incidents in the years preceding the invasion, most notably at Lake Khasan in 1938, but tensions had eased somewhat with the signing of the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact in April, 1941. The Soviets had, however, continued to maintain a force of 1.3 million men, including between forty and sixty rifle divisions, on the Manchurian border.

Stalin had promised at the February, 1945, Yalta Conference to assist the Allies in the war against Japan within three months of the surrender of Germany, but in fact had intended to attack into Manchuria in late summer-early autumn 1945 to clear the Japanese from the area before the onset of winter. In the event his hand was forced on 6 August when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. On 9 August the Soviets crossed the Manchurian frontier taking the Japanese completely by surprise.

Preparations for the campaign were actually begun in late 1944, although formal planning did not begin until February, 1945. From December, 1944 to the end of March, 1945, the Soviets moved 410 million rounds of small-arms ammunition and 3.2 million artillery shells to the Far East. Between April, 1945 and 25 July, 1945 the Soviets shipped two military fronts, two field armies, one tank army and supporting war material from Europe, via the Trans-Siberian railroad to the Manchurian border. Over 136,000 rail cars and up to thirty trains a day were employed in the move, which led to the redeployment of the equivalent of thirty divisions, yet the entire manoeuvre was kept a closely guarded secret, not just from the Japanese but from the Soviet’s Anglo-American allies.

Key personnel travelled in disguise to preserve the myth of normality, while many units moved only at night, staying camouflaged during the day. Soviet troops closest to the border built massive defensive emplacements to reinforce the Japanese feeling of security. By August the newly created Far East command had just under 1.6 million personnel under arms, supported by 27,000 guns and mortars, 1,200 multiple rocket launchers, 5,600 tanks and self-propelled guns, 3,700 aircraft and 86,000 vehicles along a 5,000km frontage.

The Kwantung Army was taken completely by surprise. Although it occupied good defensive positions it had not expected to fight and was in any case a mere shell of its former self. Its better troops had long been transferred to other theatres, all but six of its divisions were new and some of its veteran units were down to 15% efficiency. There can be no doubt that it could not have withstood the might of the Soviet onslaught under any circumstances. Equally, however, had the Soviets not been so effective in masking their intentions the Japanese would have been better prepared and might well have delayed, if not completely frustrated, their advance. The Soviets learned many lessons from Manchuria, not the least the absolute necessity for deception in tactical planning. When Stalin died in 1953 the art of Maskirovka, which had made the Manchurian Campaign so successful, was formally adopted by the Red Army.

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