Blow-up weapons reveal Russia’s scare tactics

I’ll huff and I’ll puff: Workers inflate a Russian tank next to a dummy fighter jet. © RusBal

Yesterday’s news that Russia was developing a fleet of inflatable jets to wage psychological war on the West came at the end of a critical week, in which some began to fear all-out war.

In an empty field in rural Russia, an MIG-31 fighter jet balloons from the ground as if by magic. It has short wings, a red star on its tail, and the sight causes drivers in passing cars to pull over in shock. But this plane will never see battle, for one extremely important reason: it is inflatable.

The trick is part of a much wider tactic by the Russian government, known as ‘maskirovka’ or masking. The idea is to keep its enemies guessing with lies, disinformation, and false promises. This way, it always has an element of surprise. ‘If you study the major battles of history, you see that trickery wins every time,’ says Aleksei A. Komarov, a military engineer in charge of the blow-up tanks.

The New York Times published an inside look into maskirovka yesterday, following a tense week for Russia and the West.

It began on Saturday, when America formally accused Moscow of hacking into the Democratic Party’s computer networks, leaking thousands of emails, and attempting to ‘interfere’ with the presidential election.

On Sunday Russia moved nuclear missiles to Europe’s border. On Monday the French president Francois Hollande said Russia could face trial for ‘war crimes’ thanks to its actions in Syria. On Tuesday his words were echoed by the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who called for ‘demonstrations’ outside the Russian embassy.

All the while, Russian and Syrian jets continued to bomb Aleppo. On Wednesday and Thursday alone, at least 99 civilians were killed in the city. The UN is now warning that if things continue as they are, Aleppo could be ‘gone by Christmas’.

Tensions have mounted so high that a former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, has said that the world has reached a ‘dangerous threshold... we need to stop’.

Some may call this alarmist, but even the sedate Financial Times agrees. A superpower war is ‘hardly far-fetched’, it wrote recently. And the idea ‘should keep people in Moscow and Washington awake at night.’ Is it really time to start worrying?

Russian roulette

Yes, say some. The USA, Russia, France and Britain all have nuclear weapons; one wrong move could spark a war unlike anything the world has seen before. And while blow-up tanks may look silly, their implications are serious: they are proof that Russia is doing all it can to keep its enemies on their toes. How long before someone trips?

Calm down, say others. Vladimir Putin does not really want a war with America, and vice versa. He wants — if you’ll pardon the pun — to inflate Russia’s sense of importance in the world. It is all about restoring the respect which was lost after the Cold War. He may well bring us to the brink, but he will never jump off the cliff.

You Decide

  1. Are you worried about the escalating tension between Russia and the West?
  2. Which is the most effective form of warfare: psychological, cyber or traditional?

Activities

  1. Write down five questions that you have for Vladimir Putin. Swap them with a friend. What do you think his answers might be?
  2. Imagine that, while fighting in Aleppo, an American missile accidentally shoots down a Russian jet. Write a short story about what would happen during the next 24 hours.

Some People Say...

“There is such a thing as legitimate warfare.”

John Henry Newman

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t understand — what’s the point of blow-up tanks?
Up close they look somewhat farcical. But from a distance, the tanks and fighter jets look quite convincing, especially if viewed from a satellite. This could trick enemy forces — or spies — into thinking Russia’s military is far larger than it actually is. In battle, they could also be used as decoys to draw enemy fire in the wrong direction, or simply spread as much confusion as possible.
Would that really work?
Similar maskirovka tactics have worked in the past — when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, for example, it sent soldiers in plain uniforms. Putin denied Russia’s involvement in a live press conference. It was only five weeks later, once Crimea had been annexed, that he admitted the soldiers had been Russian all along.

Word Watch

Major battles
He’s not entirely wrong — remember the story of the Trojan Horse in Greek mythology? And in the second world war, Britain was expert at spreading false information to deceive Nazi Germany — find out more under Become An Expert.
Hacking
The hack, in July, revealed the Democratic National Committee’s active preference for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders before her nomination. ‘Only Russia’s senior-most officials,’ could have signed off on the attack, said the US government.
War crimes
Russia has been accused of targeting a UN aid convoy during a ceasefire, and deliberately bombing civilians, including children, and hospitals.
Aleppo
Once Syria’s largest city with a more than 2m population, it has been a major battleground in the civil war since 2012. As of the end of September this year, 300,000 people were trapped there, with only 30 doctors.
Soviet
Gorbachev was the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union (led by Russia 1922-1991). His policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) contributed to the dissolution of the communist state.

Subjects

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