Perspective: In an insightful 2016 paper, “A Little Masquerade: Russia’s Evolving Employment of Maskirovka,” Major Morgan Maier, United States Army, wrote:
“Russians originally employed maskirovka to create a false reality to achieve surprise and battlefield advantage over adversaries. While surprise remains a significant component of maskirovka, it fails to address Russia’s application of deception in modern conflict..Maskirovka has expanded beyond concealment to facilitate surprise, placing greater emphasis on creation of ambiguity, uncertainty, or for controlling responses of potential adversaries..”
“Russia uses maskirovka to conceal military and political activities, as well as engage in clandestine military operations. The Russian military and political apparatus see deception as an indispensable component of war, warfare, and operational art.”
Ask: From this perspective, what Russian political and military objectives might have been hidden, achieved or defeated by the Wagner Group’s June 24th occupation of Rostov-on-Don, aggressive drive toward Moscow, and Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s reversal and presumed exile to Belarus?
Discussion: The convolutions of words and actions by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner Group, Kadyrovites, President Vladimir Putin, Moscow’s Prosecutor, the FSB, and Alexander Lukashenko on and since June 24th have had the effect of creating chaos, fog, dichotomies, and triangulations for all to decipher. There were no public words of denial, decision, or assertion from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu or Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov during these events, and few active duty military spoke-up about it.
Prigozhin had significant momentum and sympathy for his short-lived crusade evidenced by so little resistance from regular military, national guard, and police forces along the way. Then all at once, Prigozhin stood down. He and Putin were silent for about a day until Prigozhin explained that he reversed his Moscow march to avoid shedding Russian blood and because his goal was “protest” not “regime change.” This, after threats to go all the way against the corrupt Russian MOD. He added that many Russians were disappointed Wagner Group had stopped its drive toward Moscow “because, apart from the struggle for our existence, they saw in the march of justice the support in the fight against bureaucracy and other ailments that afflict our country.” The explanation rang hollow for some who believed he would champion a righteous cause. (Recent history is instructive: Yevgeny Prigozhin was well known for crimes of moral turpitude, cooking-up government food, and running the “Internet Research Agency” before appearing (supposedly at the front) with Wagner mercenaries for photo-ops. Internet Research Agency was an online and offline active measures, maskirovka machine.)
On anti-bureaucratic talk, compare twelve days earlier President Putin’s meeting with Russian military bloggers on June 13, 2023 in which he blamed the MOD bureaucracy for failing to promote younger, combat experienced talent to command Russian military units. Here, Putin mirrored Prigozhin’s blame for the MOD bureaucracy in answering the mil bloggers’ questions, but only as a convenient excuse for himself. Prigozhin appeared to make corruption in the Russian MOD a recurring theme in his demand for change, yet dropped out in the end even as Putin purges those Prigozhin inspired to sympathy with his cause.
Yet Putin had earlier this year catered to the MOD bureaucracy, promoting Chief of Staff Gerasimov over General Sergei Surovikin for command over the Ukraine war, and favoring those that Wagner chief Prigozhin rhetorically despised. Putin allowed the harsh anti-MOD rhetoric from Prigozhin while giving the MOD more latitude and credit, utilizing a divide-and-conquer approach to keeping the fire out from under his own feet over Ukraine. He nurtured conditions for a clash.
Prigozhin’s bottom line in recent days appears to have been to support Putin’s rule while yet attacking the MOD bureaucracy under Putin’s watch, putting it in the crosshairs of the public and military rank and file, yet then withdrew from his own crusade he initiated on a false pretext. Such contradictions put enigma wrapping on Russian state intrigue for the outside world.
In an apparent face saving attempt after the Wagner “justice march” made him look weak, Putin dramatically honored military and police for stopping “civil war” from breaking out in Russia while the FSB dropped a criminal case against Prigozhin because his forces had ceased “criminal activities.” Yet Putin apparently implied that charges for stealing would be brought against Prigozhin if warranted even as Lukashenko told the press that there were security guarantees for Prigozhin in Belarus.
And it appears that within the past 24-48 hours there are reports of Prigozhin reportedly flying to Moscow to work out the terms of his negotiated relationship to Russia and Belarus even as Putin began purging the military of those sympathetic to Prigozhin’s aborted march for justice. Wagnerites appeared to cry foul online over Prigozhin’s fight and flight as a betrayal, but whether all were Wagner posting on Telegram is also uncertain. And so Prigozhin’s march of justice started looking like an exercise to draw out those who would not remain loyal to Putin and his silovarch-run regime as the Ukraine adventure soured.
If, in a fit of Stalinesque paranoia, Putin undertook an operation using Prigozhin as a tool of deception to ensnare traitors and execute purges, Putin will have learned from it how unenthusiastic Russians were about protecting him as Wagner Group closed in on Moscow. Such an operation would also reveal how weak, selfish, and ignoble Putin has become, flailing away at those around him. By preemptive betrayal he distrusted the fear that he in part instilled in them. Tangled webs, paranoia, and dictatorship trend in maskirovka to hide the corruption and degradation of the ruler drunk on power.
The Russian military blogger FighterBomber reportedly blasted Putin’s moves on his popular Telegram Channel without naming him, writing that: “The main gratitude and the direct responsibility of the state toward pilots who fulfilled their duty and sacrificed their lives to save the Motherland would be the inevitable and severe punishment of their murderers. In accordance with the laws of the Russian Federation.”
Apparently, FighterBomber believed that Russian airmen had been killed by Wagner Group in the numbers stated, but it is not clear if he actually witnessed this firsthand. If FighterBomber’s followers and sources are reliable and his belief correct, the downing of seven Russian military aircraft and their crews followed by Putin’s Stalinist purges of the military are losses Ukraine’s leadership and supporting powers would want to publicize in detail.
Meanwhile, recently uncorroborated reports of camp construction underway in Belarus to house Wagner Group mercenaries brought denials from Belarus President Lukashenko despite his acknowledgement of security guarantees for Prigozhin and musings that combat experienced Wagner Group mercenaries could usefully train Belarus forces. In that vein, Lukashenko also bid them, “set up your tents.” Lukashenko’s cryptic words coincided with Putin reiterating his promise to let Wagner mercenaries move to Belarus with their leader.
For context, recall that early in Putin’s invasion of aggression against Ukraine in 2022, President Lukashenko had briefed his security council using a map showing plans of attack against Ukraine and Moldova from Belarus.
Analysis: In a few days, positive and negative actions and communications by Russian decision makers have imposed dichotomies on nearly every event involving Wagner Group retreating from Ukraine and moving against Russia’s MOD since June 24th, generating uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt as to the truth of these matters.
Key dichotomies follow, with one forming triangulation:
(1) Wagner in Ukraine was poorly supplied per Prigozhin, Wagner was paid billions by Moscow per Putin;
(2) The Russian MOD attacked Wagner in Ukraine with rockets per Prigozhin, possibly pushing a false pretext, with the accusation denied by the Russian MOD;
(3) Wagner was on a heavily armed justice march that would hold corrupt Russian military leaders to account per Prigozhin’s telegraphed resolve to go “all the way,” before he stood down outside of Moscow calling it only a protest;
(4) Prigozhin was determined to save Russian troops from corrupt bureaucrats, then he was not;
(5) Putin called Prigozhin a traitor, but then implied that he may only be a thief, or neither;
(6) Prosecutors opened a case for treason against Prigozhin but then dropped it;
(7) Wagner mercenaries were illegal and deniable in Russia but Putin admitted Moscow bankrolled them;
(8) Putin promised that if Prigozhin and any member of Wagner Group would not pledge loyalty to Russia, Prigozhin and as many of Wagner Group fighters who wanted to could remove to Belarus after Wagner Group turned in its weapons to the Russian MOD at Rostov-on-Don;
(9) In a seeming triangulation from these Putin-Prigozhin dichotomies, Belarus President Lukashenko suggested Wagner mercenaries could serve a useful combat training role in Belarus while denying reports that camps were being set up to house them. This, against the recent historical backdrop of Lukashenko’s early 2022 briefing of his security council on a mapped plan for Belarus to be a staging ground for Russian attacks on Ukraine and Moldova.
(10) In a potentially related development, Yahoo News reported that Russia sent five Il-76 heavy air transport aircraft from Pskov, Russia to an airfield near Minsk, Belarus on June 24th and back again on the evening of June 25th, its source asserting that the transports saw no activity while at the airfield and were empty both ways “according to the information” the source had. The means, quality, and character of the information is difficult to assess by the report alone. Whether, as the report posited, Putin sent transports for Belarus forces on standby to fly in and help defend Moscow from a Wagner Group raid, or whether Russian military supplies and or personnel were flown into Belarus to coincide with Wagner Group’s arrival is uncertain. It is not clear from the Belaruski Hajun’s brief Telegram Channel report that the monitor could obtain firsthand verification that there was no cargo onboard the transports or that the planes had not stopped elsewhere on the way. Adding to the uncertainty is that the reported origin of the five Il-76s flying into Belarus on June 24 was the Pskov oblast near St. Petersburg, home of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division. The 76th is an all-volunteer, elite airborne division situated for rapid deployment with a storied Soviet war history, successful hybrid warfare in Crimea 2014, and evidence of violations of the laws of war protecting civilians in Russia’s second war against Chechnya and in the 2022 invasion of Ukraine in Bucha. The 76th Guards Air Assault Division had massed inside Belarus for Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. Its members may have a revenge motive for continuing the fight against Ukraine after reportedly losing most of its 237th Guards Airborne Assault Regiment during Ukraine’s counter-offensive in September 2022.
(11) Prigozhin was reportedly exiled to Belarus and Wagner Group given three choices by Putin, however Prigozhin’s business jet has reportedly traveled to Moscow from Belarus in the past 48 hours with some speculation that Prigozhin had returned to Moscow to complete “negotiations” of the terms of his relationship to Russia, Belarus, and perhaps Wagner Group’s future in Belarus and elsewhere.
A commonality between internet-based OSINT outlets in Belarus and Russia is that they are permitted to operate and report by their ruling regime and are at special risk for coercion and information spiking by their ruling regime security forces, adding uncertainty to their allowed output.
None of this requires or rules out a finding that there is a pivoting, adapting maskirovka operation between Moscow, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and others. However, patterns of communications and actions playing out between Prigozhin, Putin, some in the MOD, Lukashenko, and others are creating dichotomies of uncertainty, ambiguity, and provocative bait for Western powers per the objectives of modern Russian use of maskirovka centrally controlled as operational art.
It would be irresponsible not to consider that maskirovka for military deception purposes may be at work to create future surprise or advantage in the war with Ukraine even as advantages may be pressed with timely professional responses and precision. The patterns in conduct of the relevant Russian and Belarusian decision makers appears to fit the purposes and effects of maskirovka as used in Russia’s modern warfare as discussed below under “Objectives Achieved,” and subject to criticism with “Negative Outcomes Realized for Russia.”
Restated Ask: By the confusion surrounding Wagner Group’s and Russian regime activities from June 24th on, what objectives have been hidden and achieved or negative outcomes realized by the Russian regime and Wagner Group?
Russians have historically achieved objectives through chaos and ignominy that most people find hard to believe. Consider these possible objectives materializing through the Prigozhin mutiny event evolution:
- Time and Safe Passage to Pivot: Intentionally or not, Prigozhin / Wagner Group and Vladimir Putin each bought or received windfalls of time when Prigozhin telegraphed Wagner’s move against the MOD in Rostov-on-Don and “march of justice” on Moscow. (This likely helped Wagner with safe passage and relocation out of Ukraine following Prigozhin’s telegraphs and tip-offs to the West, an observation made by commentator Eric Udouj on LinkedIn). Wagner’s vigor and good condition on entering Rostov-on-Don and in blitzing toward Moscow supports the safe passage point yet also casts doubt on Prigozhin’s pretext for action, that the Russian MOD attacked his mercenaries with rockets. For Wagner Group, Prigozhin’s deception could lead to military survival escaping Ukraine’s counter-offensive, and future military advantage by redeployment. For Putin the gains are political: Putin gained time away from military and public scrutiny and blame for the failing war on Ukraine when Prigozhin played the wild card threat and intrigue-object up to present day.
- Fear Created Opportunity: As worked in the 1990s, Putin would likely resort to a playbook that elevated him in to the Presidency by New Years, 2000. As Putin used Yeltsin’s incapacity to sell himself, so with Prigozhin Putin could stoke Russians’ fear of chaos and civil war to keep power. Prigozhin’s fury at the Russian military leadership and bureaucracy helped Putin appear the more reasonable alpha. Yet Prigozhin, by standing down and submitting himself to Putin’s deal, enabled Putin to appear to stare down the rider of the apocalypse and save Russians from chaos, acting executively to purge the government and military thereafter. This allowed Putin to masquerade as both protector and master of Prigozhin, the Russian military command, and the Russian people by working them all against each other, then coming to their respective rescue from the chaos Putin caused in the first place.
- Scapegoats: Prigozhin made scapegoats of “bureaucrats” of the Russian Defense Ministry, military officers, intelligence heads, and perhaps other governing officials to the Russian people, military rank and file, and veterans for what has gone wrong in the Ukraine war, which was a diversion from Putin’s central responsibility for the Ukraine aggression.
- Patriot Appeal: Both Putin and Prigozhin appealed to nationalistic symbols of patriotism to win followings from mil bloggers and patriots. For Prigozhin it was in ostensibly caring about the troops poorly commanded by bureaucrats and incompetents. For Putin it was using his dear leader pulpit to personally thank military, national guard, and police forces for their service in averting chaos and civil war when the actually did not, making them heroes in the eyes of Russians who fear chaos more than foreign wars. There were few signs of serious will to protect Putin in Wagner Group’s easy occupation of Rostov and blitz toward Moscow.
- The Reassignment of Wagner Group to Belarus: If reports are true that Wagner Group will regroup in Belarus with their leader Prigozhin, it could be an effort to renew attack vectors and missions against Ukraine and eventually, the Baltics from inside Belarus.
- Deeper Cooptation of Belarus: With Wagner Group adhering to Belarus by Putin’s authority and Lukashenko’s acceptance of Putin’s edict ‘exiling’ Prigozhin and company to Belarus, this further coopts Belarus in common peril with Russia after Belarus’ reception of Russian nuclear missiles.
- Fog and Confusion: Fog and confusion caused by Russian leadership in Russia can be claimed as a governing talent or asset to counterbalance criticism of the regime for its costly failures in Ukraine if the leaders have a preplanned antidote for it, for example appearing to be on top of things by purging scapegoats for the “special military operation” gone bad, recently adding Prigozhin to the list of those maligned yet continuing to use him at the same time. The image of Donald Trump continuously throwing people under the bus to stay in a limousine comes to mind, with each new victim the latest scapegoat-antidote to public doubt in the dear leader yet the dear leader still plays hot and cold with scapegoats (Lt. Gen. Flynn). If the antidote appears to relieve the people from the believed fear and chaos it may be praised depending on ultimate outcomes. Confusion, fear, and chaos beg order, and it seems easier for many to accept the existing dictator than to risk worse with another that might start a civil war. This is likely why Putin invoked the term “civil war” in praising military and police for stopping Prigozhin’s march that Putin himself provoked by working the MOD and Prigozhin against one another for some time.
- Controlling Enemy Responses / Reflexive Control: Weakness at Home Produces Scapegoats Abroad to the Fearful Russian Public: The chaos caused by Prigozhin and Putin this past week has opened windows to real desperation and weaknesses in Putin’s Russia by making a short show of a real or supposed breached unity among men that Russians had deemed alpha leaders. Yet more desperate, Putin leveraged the specter of civil war to deepen his peoples’ fear of chaos and loss. And here is where reflexive control comes into the picture: At the show of weakness, Western voices of authority and opinion responded to Prigozhin’s coup feint by calling out Russia’s weakness across many media. By the West’s criticisms of Russian weakness Russian leadership may try to drum-up unity in a siege mentality among Russians. Would it be easy, or an uphill battle? The siloviki will cynically bet the Russian people would go with their bad alpha leader over self-righteous, judgmental outsiders. In the West, the right touch in telling the sad truth about Russian leadership during Russia’s self-created crisis is key.Voices of experience who know, appreciate, and even love Russia and Russians while yet faithfully and intelligently serving freedom over time could include Retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Peter Zwack and long serving intelligence veteran and statesman executive, Robert M. Gates.
Negative Outcomes Realized for Russia
Maskirovka, planned or executed on the fly during tumultuous events largely set in motion (in Russia’s case by the decisions of its leadership) can be clever, mind-boggling, and vexing for analysts yet does not always work well. It can and does create cascading, ongoing problems of entanglement in its own webs of deceit observed in Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem Marmion. Here are some negative outcomes, real and potential applying to Russia:
- Firehose or Snowmaker of Falsehood: After 23 years of Putin’s siloviki-heavy regime control, a RAND editor’s famous title about Soviet-Russian active measures, “Firehose of Falsehood” aptly describes the volume of deceptive activity used on the Russian people and the world by a narrow-set of rigid, hardline KGB veterans adopting western PR methods to puff Putin’s brand and bury Russians under layers of snow jobs so heavy, the avalanche risk to their power inevitably spikes. As the veils of deception fall, the Russian people see and feel the resulting, growing problems. And high volume deception, like drug addiction, breaks down credibility, trust, and human motivation to serve, undermining the regime employing the deceptions they themselves cling to out of desperation when lies are debunked by the plain truth the people inescapably live in. This trends in regime self-destruction, and President Biden was correct to say what is happening in Russia is an internal matter for Russia. When a regime having made itself your enemy is destroying itself, step out of the way and keep the U.S. out of Moscow’s toolbox for finding external scapegoats for its sins.
- Maskirovka Overused: Maskirovka, “a little masquerade” when employed in strategic and tactical military situations within just wars of defense as Ukraine is fighting, can be effective. And, as victory ends the need for more deception, it self-expires after its just purpose is met. However, used as a larger tool of the state over time, maskirovka can become a self-destructive weapon punctuated by occasional brutality rulers find necessary when they become impatient with the delusions and fear they themselves have nurtured in the people that they suddenly need to solve the errors and problems the dictator gets the state into. As such problems of sclerotic delusion ushered in the Soviet collapse Mikhail Gorbachev illuminated them in an attempt at liberalizing Russia with his glasnost and perestroika programs.
- The Ukraine War as Anvil: Through Putin’s dictatorial arrogance and hubris employing layer after layer of falsehood, he and his entourage got lost in the masquerade with self-deception and delusion leading him to cast Russia and Russians down on a hot burning anvil that is the war of against Ukraine. This error is so large, its effects are impossible to hide. The war in Ukraine is too heavy not to drag the Putin regime underwater, and once Russians know that the Putin regime is the cause of the threat of chaos that threatens to envelop them, what Prigozhin did will likely become a test-run for what is to come even if the ruling circle does not believe it. Russians will act to avoid living in chaotic confusion, loss, and existential misery, and Putin’s error in Ukraine was the one error that is pushing critical mass for regime change or revolution.
- Russian Identity: By lies, falsehoods, pretenses, and half-truths strongman Vladimir Putin has adversely affected the Russian public’s memory of what it means to be qualitatively Russian, that is, the good Russians have to contribute to the world. By distorting Russia and Russians, the police-state product in the Kremlin has gone way past his depth, and it is likely that Russians will realize it during dark infighting episodes, related chaos, and a proliferation of crises.
- Chaos is Russians’ Red Line: The weight of Ukraine as a catastrophic decision imposed on Russians by Vladimir Putin will eventually cause breaks in Russian domestic life that threaten the return of chaos as bad or perhaps worse than that of the 1990s following the loss of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. More maskirovka will not long be able to stave off what Putin has set in motion. Putin will be forced to become more and more draconian toward his own people to stay in power, which will only worsen his position because today’s Russians have higher expectations and greater external world awareness than those in Stalin’s time.