“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
What is Strategic Maskirovka?
Alphen, Netherlands. 5 April. It is not what actually happened that matters, but what people want to believe happened. That is the key element in any successful disinformation campaign. In May 2015 I published a paper for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, of which I am a Fellow, entitled NATO: Countering Strategic Maskirovka. In the piece (which is, of course, brilliant and so reasonably-priced it is free and can be downloaded) I wrote, “Maskirovka is the traditional Russian use of military deception…Moscow has established a new level of ambition – strategic Maskirovka – by which disinformation is applied against all levels of NATO’s command chain and wider public opinion to keep the West politically and militarily off balance”. This week Moscow has been in full Maskirovka mode in an attempt to discredit British claims that Russia is behind the 4 March poison attack on Sergei and Iulia Skripal. It has been aided and abetted by some not untypical incompetence from British officialdom who opened the door for a Russian propaganda drive and, of course, the Kremlin’s own useful idiots here in Europe.
Where is Skripal at?
Sergei Skripal remains critically ill and is unlikely to recover following the use of the Novichok nerve agent. Encouragingly his daughter Iulia is showing some signs of recovery. Both will need life-long care if they survive. This week Russia has also sought to exploit an implied inference from Gary Aitkenhead, CEO of the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, that he could not confirm the “precise source” of the nerve agent. Read the full transcript of the Sky News interview as I have and Aitkenhead does not question Russia’s responsibility for the attack. Rather, he sticks to the narrow focus of his laboratory’s remit to identify the type of agent used and points to wider intelligence efforts that confirm the source and origins of the attack. This morning the British revealed that they, “have a high degree of confidence in the location” of the Russian laboratory which is the source of the nerve agent. This is as much of a ‘we know you did it’ as British Intelligence tradecraft will ever confirm. The full intelligence picture has been revealed by the British to the allies who continue to support the British case.
There are two primary reasons for the latest Maskirovka offensive, Firstly, to distract from questions that Russia needs to answer about a possible breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Secondly, to divide the coalition of condemnation Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has skillfully helped to construct in the wake of the attack. Moscow’s employment of strategic Maskirovka will continue at today’s United Nations Security Council meeting at which Moscow will endeavour to discredit the 13 March letter from British Prime Minister, Theresa May to UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The letter states that it was “highly likely” Russia conducted the attack. Moscow tried and failed at a meeting yesterday in The Hague of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to secure a ‘joint’ investigation into the attack.
How is Russia conducting Maskirovka?
Strategic Maskirovka is one of a trinity of elements Moscow is developing in its future war strategy – disinformation/deception, disruption and destruction. The methodology is designed to exploit the many seams that now exist in Western societies by forcing public opinion to blunt any meaningful policy response to Russian coercion. Moscow’s strategy is aided and abetted by some European governments who do not want the extent of their vulnerability to Russian interference revealed. For example, when the Americans put their National Planning Scenarios online some years ago several European states demanded they be taken down for fear of revealing just how vulnerable they had permitted their states to become.
Who are the main targets of Maskirovka?
There is a range of fellow-travellers and useful idiots in Britain and elsewhere in Europe who for a range of reasons want to believe the Kremlin on just about everything. There has been a collapse in trust between power and the people in many European states, of which Britain is to the fore. For too long London has allowed the gap between rhetoric and reality to widen enabling Russia to build a ‘plausible’ case in the minds of unworldly elements in a brittle population. They are being instrumentalised by Moscow to its strategic end.
Sadly, Maskirovka has been aided and abetted by academia. In a 2 April article for the Washington Post entitled Russia and the Art of Provocation, Lynn Ellen Patyk, a Dartmouth assistant professor, argued that Britain’s very response has reinforced the Kremlin’s world-view of provokatsiia and a Russia facing a grand anti-Russian conspiracy. The message from the piece is clear: by expressing legitimate outrage to an act of Russian aggression on its own soil Britain is playing into Putin’s hands. Rather, Britain should have turned the other cheek. This is nonsense. If Britain had indeed turned the other cheek the Kremlin would simply have concluded that Britain is so weak that Moscow could further intensify coercion without fear of sanction or reprisal. Part of the purpose of Maskirovka is to test the limits of Russian action.
What to do?
Firstly, Britain has to get its head properly around the future war of which strategic Maskirovka is a part and design a new joined-up deterrent across the new matrix of battlespaces which include information, cyber and force. Secondly, NATO needs to be a willing partner in the twenty-first re-creation of deterrence and defence. Thirdly, NATO and the EU together must forge a new balance between protection of peoples and projection of defence (this is one of my core reasons for rejecting Brexit) with countering Maskirovka to the fore with a hardened concept of strategic communications.
Is Skripal just about Britain?
No, Maskirovka is a challenge to the security and defence of all Europeans and beyond. This week the presidents of the three Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - stood alongside President Trump in the White House. They celebrated a century of co-operation with the US and thanked the President for acting as the guarantor of their countries’ security and defence. Call me old-fashioned but the principle that peace-loving, democratic states, however big or small, should hold their own political destiny in their own hands is worth defending. The Baltic States suffer interference and intimidation from their Russian neighbour on a daily basis. If the British are unable to defend themselves from such aggression then just what credibility their defence of others?
My information is clear: Russia either acted or commissioned someone to act to murder Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, United Kingdom, on 4 March 2018. The Kremlin did not want a large number of other British citizens and others killed or injured but that was the only limit on the operation. Which begs one other question I once posed in a hard-hitting article in a Russian journal – what does Russia want?Julian Lindley-French