Evgen Kotenko/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images
- Throughout the war in Ukraine, Russian troops have been vulnerable to deception by Ukrainian forces.
- That has led the Russian military into repeated battlefield failures and high combat losses.
- What makes Russian troops easy to deceive also makes it harder to influence Russian decision-making.
Since World War II, the Russian military has prided itself on “maskirovka,” or the ability to deceive the enemy, but in Ukraine, it’s the Russians who are being deceived.
Ukraine has fooled Russian forces on numerous occasions, tricking Russian troops into wasting ammo on dummy targets and masking its own counterattacks. “Deception has succeeded against Russian forces at all echelons and across all three service branches,” according to a report by the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.
The problem isn’t that Russian soldiers are stupid or naive. Structural flaws in Russia’s military make it vulnerable to deception, especially by an opponent as crafty and resourceful as Ukraine.
Russian units often lack tactical commanders with enough experience to realize when intelligence information is suspect or the situation doesn’t look right. Russian troops also often lack the “situational awareness for contextual judgment” that is needed to choose between competing battle plans.
Russian troops during the Zapad 2017 exercise.
Russian Ministry of Defense
The RUSI report, which is based on events during the first five months of the war, points to three problems in particular.
One is the tendency to assume that information is true unless other information directly contradicts it. This leads to confirmation bias, where new data is unconsciously used to reinforce preconceived beliefs.
Russian military culture compounds this problem by discouraging commanders from reporting failures, which in turn prevents higher commanders from gaining a realistic view of the situation. Russia lacks sufficient capabilities to accurately assess battle damage, such as whether artillery and missiles have knocked out a target.
The Russian military, like its Soviet predecessor, also suffers from over-compartmentalization. Russian systems, such as air defense and electronic warfare, and their operators are trained to perform a single, narrow mission.
“Neither in their systems’ design, nor in their culture, is there an effective fusion process,” the RUSI report says. Even when different sensors report different information, there is no way to compare the data and alert commanders to any discrepancies.
A Russian Su-35 shot down in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region in April.
Press service of the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff/Handout via REUTERS
Against a much weaker opponent — such as rebels and militants in Syria — these flaws might not have been exposed. But Ukraine has proven adept at exploiting Russian mistakes.
At the tactical level, Ukrainian troops have used radio traffic and decoy weapons to fool Russian gunners. “This has almost always succeeded, leading to a vast expenditure of munitions against non-existent targets and a corresponding vulnerability for Russian fires in revealing their positions,” the report says.
By tracking how Russian forces assessed battle damage, Ukraine was also able to convince them that their strikes had destroyed targets — such as air-defense systems — that were actually intact. This deception “repeatedly led to the loss of Russian aircraft and other capabilities,” according to the report.
Russian forces have also been “predictable in allocating resources against telegraphed movements and failing to detect or prepare for concealed movements,” the report says. Even when they do detect Ukrainian movements, lower-level commanders can’t always convince their superiors to send reinforcements.
Historically, Russia had a knack for maskirovka, which refers deception by a range of means, which in a military context can be through camouflage, decoys, or disinformation.
Russian troops without identification stand guard in a village in Crimea in March 2014.
During World War II, the Soviet Union repeatedly fooled the Nazis into preparing for an attack in one area while the Red Army massed elsewhere — most famously in Operation Bagration in June 1944, when a massive Soviet attack surprised the Germans and inflicted 500,000 casualties.
The Russian vulnerability to deception carries another kind of risk for Moscow’s opponents. The inability of Russian personnel to effectively relay information means that efforts by rivals to deter Russia may be less effective because it is harder for those deterrence signals to reach decision-makers.
“In the context of deterrence, one of the biggest challenges may be preventing the Russians from deceiving themselves,” the report says.
In Ukraine, Russia’s performance may now hinge on whether its forces can learn from being fooled: “If the Russians can resolve the cultural tendency to treat all instructions as valid until directly countermanded, and all intelligence as accurate unless contradicted, their capability may rapidly improve, coming closer to what their systems suggest they should be able to execute,” the report says.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.