Russia, Manila and “Maskirovka” – the art of military deception

Ever since President Duterte announced his intention to pivot towards and Russia, the Kremlin has started to take a close interest in the Philippines.

At the moment, two Russian warships are docked in ready for joint exercises, and a presidential visit to Moscow is being planned for April or May.

So, what are the Russians up to? Is it simply a chance to rub the White House’s nose into the widening diplomatic rift with the Malacañang? Are they actually, out of the goodness of their hearts, wanting to help improve the Philippine Navy? Or is it something deeper, darker and more devious?

The fact is, nobody outside Putin’s inner circle could possibly answer these questions, because of the traditional military doctrine of “Maskirovka” — the Russian art of deception.

The word literally means “masquerade” and encompasses everything from field camouflage to media manipulation. It also means that Russian leaders feel no obligation to speak the truth at any time. During the annexation of Crimea, Putin flatly denied that the “little green men” were in fact Russian troops. Five weeks later, with the Crimea fully occupied, he casually admitted that they actually were. By then it was too late, and the lie had served its purpose.

The doctrine also involves wrong-footing opponents and keeping them guessing. Just the other day, Putin responded to the USA expelling a group of diplomats by inviting America’s consular staff to a Christmas party at the Kremlin. “Bring your kids,” he said. “We will have very fun! Ho ho ho!” By acting in exactly the opposite way to what was expected, he completely blind-sided the White House and left America looking pretty silly.

Sometimes, it seems Maskirovka leads diplomats to tell lies just for the sake of it.

Yesterday (Wednesday, January 4) Russian ambassador Igor Khovaev told a press conference that the arrival of the anti-submarine ship Admiral Tributs and sea tanker Boris Butoma hadn’t been reported by the Filipino media.

The room erupted, as dozens of voices expressed the contrary. Soon, a television journalist pushed to the front of the pack and handed the ambassador his smartphone, with the story clearly on the screen.

Holding the phone, and without missing a beat, the ambassador said he had meant just the newspapers. “Today I have read all local newspapers, and I was very surprised.”

Cue hell breaking loose again, as a pack of affronted print journalists surged forward, smartphone first.

Again, without even batting an eye, the ambassador waved away their rebuttals, saying that it was only Reuters and Associated Press that covered the ‘goodwill visit’.

“No local publication, no local journalist, wrote anything about this port call by a detachment of Russian vessels. I was really surprised,” he said.

“I don’t understand why other foreign information agencies cover these friendly visits, but local mass media keep silent. In my humble view, it looks a bit strange.”

It’s not difficult to prove this lie. You can check the story that we at PLN published here or read it on every other Filipino newspaper website.

However, the ambassador was only just beginning to hit his stride, so he attacked the two famously objective press agencies too. “Unfortunately the coverage by the Associated Press is not really objective. It’s not really unbiased.”

He then pointed to a detail of the AP report in which a Russian rear admiral was quoted as saying that Filipinos “can choose to co-operate with the United States of America or co-operate with Russia.”

“But it’s not true at all,” he said. “It’s not true. So at least diplomatically speaking, this phrase was taken out of context. In my humble view, it’s an example of dishonest journalist,” he said.

It’s impossible to know if the rear admiral had been quoted dishonestly, or if it was a failure of translation, or if it was exactly as reported. If it was correct, could it be that the sailor was asked to say that, so it could later be denied? That would be a classic bit of Maskirovka.

The ambassador went on from disclosing this smoking gun of journalistic malpractice to coach the assembled hacks in how to do their jobs. “So I’m kindly asking you, our Filipino partners and friends, please don’t mislead the public. Please refrain from any misinterpretation.

“This visit by a detachment of Russian vessels has only one message – a message of partnership and friendship, and nothing else.

“We have nothing to hide from you. We don’t have any hidden intention. We have no hidden agenda.”

Oh dear, oh dear. When you hear words like those falling from the lips of a Russian diplomat, you know damn sure they’re up to something…