Cold War Maskirovka

By the late 1960s surprise had become an important ingredient in military operations. The Soviet Military Encyclopaedia described surprise as ‘one of the most important principles of military art (which) consists of the selection of times, techniques and methods of combat operations, which permit delivery of a strike when the enemy is least prepared to repulse it and thereby paralysing his will for organized resistance.’

Painfully aware of the impact of Barbarossa on the Red Army in 1941, the Soviets determined that they would never again be caught unprepared. At the same time surprise and deception began to rank with superiority in arms and manpower as central themes for future victory against the West. From the outset the Soviets accepted that complete surprise was impossible, but nonetheless began to believe that they could neutralize most NATO early warning and surveillance systems by adopting a policy of absolute secrecy and by using Maskirovka at all levels.

Knowing that they were powerless to prevent the intrusion of United States spy planes and satellites into their air space, the Soviets took steps to disguise the true intentions of military factories and installations in their flight path. Phoney factories and arms dumps were built, and after May 1960 (when Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 aircraft was shot down by an SA-2 missile near Sverdlovsk) dummy surface-to-air missile sites were constructed to deter further sorties over delicate areas. A massive arms park was constructed in East Germany, close to the railway used by the United States, France and Britain to resupply their troops in West Berlin. While every effort was made to disguise the quantity and type of real weaponry stored there, dummy tanks and guns were regularly deployed close to the compound perimeter to confuse the intelligence analysts travelling on the daily trains.

Disinformation, a core component of Maskirovka, became the responsibility of Department D of the Committee of State Security, or KGB. For years the KGB and its predecessors had been doctoring photographs to reinforce the myth that the Bolshevik seizure of power had been a mass movement headed solely by Lenin. Trotsky had ‘disappeared’ from many official photographs, including the famous photograph of Lenin addressing the troops in a packed square in Moscow in 1920. In the 1960s they even began to doctor parades. The May Day and October Revolutionary Parades through Moscow’s Red Square began to ‘exhibit’ new weapon systems, tantalizingly tarpaulined to keep them a secret from prying Western observers. Only when the observers began to realize that the tyre pressures and suspensions on these often massive lorries were inconsistent with their carrying anything more than a light wooden mock-up did they come to realize that the whole thing had been an elaborate hoax.

Later, even after the introduction of Gorbachev’s glasnost, topical subjects were cleverly distorted. Newspaper articles appeared describing the decadence of the West. In March, 1987, the influential state newspaper Izvestia carried a cartoon implying that AIDS had in fact been manufactured in the West. This was followed a month later by an article in the internationally read Moscow News implying that experiments were being undertaken at Fort Detrick, Maryland to spread the disease. The naked aim of this policy seems to have been to create pressure for the removal of US foreign bases, thus strengthening the influence of the Soviets abroad. Ultimately this somewhat crude propaganda attempt was overtaken by events and failed. Nonetheless the fact that it was even attempted gives an indication of the degree to which the Soviets were willing to project their policy of disinformation, even when fighting for their own political survival.

The Need for Strategic Surprise

At the height of the Cold War the Soviets were keenly aware that they could not hope to match the West economically, and fully appreciated that any conflict with NATO would have to be brought to a conclusion quickly and clinically before its sixteen participating members had the opportunity to mobilize and deploy their armies. West Germany would become the principal target, and would have to be overrun in a single pre-emptive offensive. The distance from the then Inner German Border (IGB) to the Ruhr was a mere 350kms across the North German Plain, a relatively short distance for the Soviet Union’s highly mobile Third Shock Army if allowed to exploit its preponderance of armour, mechanized artillery and motor rifle regiments.

The Soviets fully appreciated that, if they were to stand any realistic chance of taking West Germany by surprise they would have to keep deployed in peacetime sufficient armed forces to reach at least the nearest strategic objectives before NATO had the opportunity to mobilize and bring into action its reserve echelons. The Soviets would not have time to call upon their own reserves, nor would they be able to mobilize them before hostilities for the fear of alerting the West to their intentions. In the words of Marshal of the Soviet Union V. D. Sokolovskii, ‘He who, right from the start, can get his troops deepest into enemy territory will be best able to exploit the results of his nuclear strikes (or indeed to foreclose his nuclear option) and to prevent the enemy from mobilizing.’

Experience had taught the Soviets that troops moving fast sustained less casualties, and expended less fuel and ammunition, than forces moving slowly. By moving rapidly their strategists argued that they would be able to impose their style of war on NATO. Instead of having to conduct a difficult breakthrough operation, they would clash with NATO formations in a series of ‘meeting engagements’ – a form of battle for which they had trained and most of NATO had not.

They regarded surprise as a force multiplier which would enable them to achieve at least limited strategic objectives with much smaller forces than would be necessary against a prepared enemy. By moving fast they would be able to exploit the gaps and weaknesses enforced by NATO’s mal-deployment, and by obviating the need for breakthrough operations would remove the necessity for vulnerable concentrations of reserves and for strong second echelons. They would therefore simply not present NATO with sufficient battlefield nuclear targets to warrant the politicians agreeing to nuclear release, with its obvious ramifications.

In the world of deception the Soviets displayed a level of flexibility and organization which NATO both failed to comprehend and was incapable of emulating. Officers were compelled by regulations to employ some form of Maskirovka to aid their exercise assaults and were severely censured if they failed to do so. Dummy equipment was introduced which not only looked like the equipment being simulated but possessed similar physical properties. Where possible it reflected light, heat and electromagnetic energy in the manner of the original to confuse photographic analysts with the array of infra-red and false-colour imagery available to them.

Control of deception plans was exercised at the highest possible level to reduce the possibility of lower-level deception schemes compromising each other and the main plan by revealing anomalies. All plans were clearly defined and subordinated ruthlessly to the aims of the overall operation. They were directed at specific targets, often the enemy commander, and were based on his known prejudices and likely reactions. NATO intelligence gathering and dissemination was analysed to insure that as many of its sources and agencies as possible would be able to corroborate the deception plan without realizing its implications.

The Soviets accepted that modern intelligence gathering made it difficult to conceal preparations for a large-scale offensive. Nonetheless they regarded concealment of the scale, and especially the direction and timing, of the main attack, as quite achievable. Soviet principles of Maskirovka were never tested on the North German plains. They, were, however exploited fully during the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and later in Afghanistan.

The rôle of Special Forces in Maskirovka

It was always accepted by NATO that any Warsaw Pact offensive would involve the widescale use of the Soviet Special Forces, or Spetsnaz, who would attack key targets behind the lines and who would almost certainly attempt the assassination of key military and political figures. Yet very little was known about Spetznaz. In fact Voiska spetsialnogo naznacheniya, to give it its full name, had no peer in the West. In the eyes of the Soviet Union it was a force of special designation rather than a NATO-style special purpose force, and was ideally suited to the art of Maskirovka.

As ever the Soviet paranoia for secrecy was all pervading. Until 1989 references in the Soviet press to the VSN were rare and usually couched in historical terms. Units were described in a special reconnaissance (spetsialnaya razvedka) or diversionary reconnaissance (diversiya razvedka) context, and never as special forces. The very existence of a multi-talented elite within the Soviet Army was discounted as Western propaganda.

In 1989 the Kremlin partly lifted the veil of secrecy and allowed a series of articles to appear in the Soviet military and civilian press referring in detail to the existence and performance of units of special designation. However, much of the information leaked was of low grade intelligence value. It was already known to NATO analysts and was almost certainly only released in an attempt to defuse the West’s growing interest in Soviet special forces. Moreover, many of the units discussed, although doubtless elite, had little, if any, connection at all with Spetsnaz, nor were they directly involved in the growing art of Maskirovka.

The Prague Spring

Maskirovka was used to devastating effect during the suppression of the so-called Trague Spring’, a Czechoslovak liberal-reform movement which began on 5 January, 1968. On that day the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party met to formally end the fourteen-year reign of First Secretary Antonin Novotny. His replacement, Alexander Dubcek, at once began to implement a series of reforming policies which the Kremlin found unacceptable. For six months the Soviets tried to undermine the reform movement through political sabre-rattling, threats and covert action. When this failed they resorted to violence.

A series of large-scale Warsaw Pact exercises were initiated in and around Czechoslovakia and were accompanied by numerous visits by military and diplomatic delegations. Following the Warsaw Pact ‘SUVAMA’ exercise, 16,000 Soviet troops remained in Czechoslovakia awaiting their long delayed withdrawal. In a particularly clever ruse, shortly before the invasion the Soviets ordered the transfer of substantial Czech fuel and ammunition stocks to East Germany as part of an unspecified logistical exercise.

So as to mask their intentions from an unsuspecting world, immediately prior to the invasion of Czechoslovakia the Soviets confined to barracks the majority of their conventional troops stationed throughout the northern sector of the Warsaw Pact. The Czechs were not unduly worried therefore when an unscheduled civilian Aeroflot aircraft landed at Prague’s Ruzyne Airport late at night, taxied and eventually parked at the end of the runway. An hour later a second Aeroflot aircraft was granted permission to land. This time the aircraft disgorged its passengers, all of them fit young men, who, having cleared customs without incident, set out for the city centre. Two hours later the ‘passengers’, by now fully armed from caches stored in the Soviet Embassy, returned to take over the main airport buildings.

Almost at once one, possibly two, further aircraft, directed by the ‘rogue’ at the end of the runway, landed and immediately disembarked teams of uniformed Spetsnaz. A series of transports followed, each containing a nucleus of Spetsnaz supported by conventional airborne troops from the 103rd Guards Airborne Division. Within two hours of the first uniformed Spetsnaz troops landing, the airport and its immediate environment were firmly in Soviet hands and troops were advancing unmolested on the capital. By daybreak the Presidential Palace, the radio and television studios, the transmitters, all of the main railway stations and the bridges over the River Vltava were in Soviet hands.

Even now the Soviets maintained a level of total security. To the total surprise of Western military watchers (who openly admitted that they could not have done so themselves) the Soviets brought in reinforcements from throughout the Warsaw Pact in total radio silence. Quietly and with minimal fuss the advance units crossed the Czech border preceded by military police regulators. The latter deployed to the major crossroads, towns and larger villages en route to await the oncoming convoys. When these arrived they were flagged forward and onward to their destination without the benefit of a single radio transmission. The Nato EW (Electronic Warfare) units, which might have expected to gain a great deal of intelligence from the mass manoeuvres, were left confused and frustrated.

After the invasion the KGB embarked upon a propaganda campaign so virulent that it supposedly began to influence the actions of its political masters in the Politburo. Weapons caches supposedly hidden by Western sympathizers were ‘discovered’ near the West German border, fake documents were produced to prove the existence of CIA-supported counter-revolutionary activity, liberals were terrorized and untrue and exaggerated reports sent back to Moscow.

Maskirovka in Afghanistan

The rôle played by Maskirovka in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was no less critical. The aim of the invasion was to establish a new puppet government in Kabul which would ask for Soviet assistance, thus legitimizing the initial intervention. For this it was necessary for the exisiting government, itself pro-communist, to be destroyed completely. The actual invasion took place over the Christmas period when immediate Western condemnation would be difficult to orchestrate.

Nothing was left to chance as every aspect of Maskirovka was fully exploited. In April, 1979, a battalion of Soviet paratroops were deployed to Bagram Airport, notionally to release Afghan troops for operations against anti-government rebels in the hills. In late August General Ivan Pavlovskiy, who had commanded the invasion of Czechoslovakia, arrived with a sixty-man General Staff delegation to conduct a detailed on-scene reconnaissance that lasted into October. On 17 December, after an abortive attempt to assassinate him at his palace in Kabul, President Amin was persuaded by his Soviet advisers to move his court to the more ‘secure’ palace at Darulaman, some miles from the city.

Prior to the invasion, Soviet advisers actually managed to neutralize two Afghan divisions by persuading their commanders that their anti-tank weapons and ammunition needed to be checked and accounted for, and the bulk of their armour withdrawn for servicing.

Between 8 and 10 December, 1979, some fourteen days prior to the invasion, Spetsnaz forces accompanied by an airborne regiment deployed to Bagram, a key town to the north of Kabul, in order to secure the Salang Highway with its vital tunnel. Between 10 and 24 December a battalion from the airborne regiment, with Spetsnaz support, moved to Kabul International Airport less than 3kms from the city centre. Between 24 and 27 December troops from the 105th Guards Airborne Division, again supported by Spetsnaz, landed at and secured Kabul Airport and the Afghan Air Force bases at Bagram, Shindand and Kandahar.

During the course of the following night the full offensive began. Paratroopers arrested the Afghan government, much of it while attending a lavish Soviet social function in the city. At the same time Spetsnaz teams demolished the central military communications centre, captured the still-functioning Ministry of the Interior, the Kabul radio station and several other key points. Simultaneously two Spetsnaz companies, with KGB assistance and supported by an airborne regiment, attacked President Amin’s palace at Darulaman. Amin, his family, security force and entourage were killed for the loss of twenty-five Soviet dead, including KGB Colonel Balashika, reportedly killed by ‘friendly’ cross-fire.

1 thought on “Cold War Maskirovka

  1. Interesting and fun part: “The Nato EW (Electronic Warfare) units, which might have expected to gain a great deal of intelligence from the mass manoeuvres, were left confused and frustrated.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.