“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Seventy-nine years ago what was arguably the single greatest battle of the Second World War took place in roughly the same area where battles are occurring again today.
Across a broad front in eastern Ukraine and southwestern Russia, stretching from Bryansk in the north to Izyum in the south, German and Soviet forces faced each other in the summer of 1943, with a substantial bulge in the lines in the area around Kursk. It was this bulge that was targeted by German commanders for envelopment and destruction.
The campaign commenced in the first week of July with a massive German counter-offensive, and continued for several weeks. Several hundred thousand soldiers and thousands of tanks and armored vehicles took part, with massive maneuvers and counter-maneuvers over an expansive landscape of forests, fields, and rolling hills.
Much has been and could be written about the conduct of this battle, but this essay will focus on an aspect of the campaign that was unprecedented: it was the first battle in which the Soviet concepts of maskirovka were aggressively incorporated into every stage of the planning and execution of their operations.
Maskirovka is a Russian word meaning literally “masking” or “disguise”, but in the context of Russian military doctrine, it incorporates a wide spectrum of undertakings designed to deceive the enemy regarding strengths, weaknesses, disposition of forces, and the intentions of those forces.
In its simplest expression, it echoes the famous dictum from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War:
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
In the summer of 1943, the Soviet army was the stronger force in comparison to the Wehrmacht. For this reason, Stalin was aggressively pressing his generals to go on the offensive. But Soviet commanders, cognizant of German preparations for a large counter-offensive, argued against this strategy. On April 8, 1943, overall commander Georgy Zhukov wrote to Stalin:
“I consider it inexpedient for our troops to launch a preemptive offensive in the near future. It would be better for us to wear down the enemy on our defenses, knock out his tanks, bring in fresh reserves, and finish off his main grouping with a general offensive.”
Glantz, David M., Soviet Military Deception in the Second World War, p. 148
The top Soviet commanders rushed to Moscow to plead their case to Stalin in an April 12th meeting. General Shtemenko, 1st Deputy of the Operations Department, later wrote:
“Ultimately it was decided to concentrate our main forces in the Kursk area, to bleed the enemy forces here in a defensive operation, and then switch to the offensive and achieve their complete destruction.”
Ibid, p. 148
The trick was going to be to assemble and conceal the forces for the envisioned counter-attack within the front-wide defensive preparations – to give the Germans the impression that they had been considerably weakened, and were therefore assuming a purely defensive posture until their offensive potential could be reconstituted.
Bear in mind, up until this point in the war, the Soviets had never undertaken a summer offensive, and therefore their apparent move to the defensive in the summer of 1943 was entirely consistent with prior practice.
Their employment of maskirovka would be of utmost importance in their preparations.
“… staffs prepared detailed maskirovka plans which included the concealment of preparations, creation of false troop concentrations, simulation of false radio nets and communications centers, construction of false air facilities and false aircraft, and the dissemination of false rumors along the front and in the enemy rear area. These plans emphasized secret movement of reserves, hidden preparations for counter-attacks and counter-strokes, and concealed locations of command posts and communications sites.”
“To deceive extensive German air reconnaissance … army commanders established 15 false airfields, complete with mock-up aircraft, runways, control towers, and aircraft shelters, and installed numerous mock-up tanks to simulate armored assembly areas. German aircraft responded by bombing these false airfields nine times.”
Ibid, p. 152
Lieutenant General I.S. Konev described the situation:
“The enemy thought that we were preparing only for defensive battle. Possessing a huge number of tanks and guns of a new type, the Germans hoped that it was impossible to stop them.
“Thus, as the enemy prepared, we prepared. The main thing was not to conceal the fact of our preparations, but rather the force and means, the concept of battle, the time of our counter-offensive, and the nature of our defense. Very likely it was the only unprecedented occasion in military history, when the strong side, having the capabilities for offensive action, went over to the defense.”
Ibid, p. 154, emphasis added
In addition to the masking of force preparations and concentrations, once the battle had commenced, the Soviets employed substantial offensive movements in other areas of the front to draw off German forces from the primary target of the major Soviet counter-offensive:
“The absence of any sizable element of these panzer forces would virtually condition Soviet success. The Soviet solution was to lure these units to other sectors of the front. Experience had shown that simulations or simple feints might not serve this purpose. What were required were full scale offensive preparations, if necessary in full view of German intelligence, and offensives of sufficient strength and credibility to both attract and tie up those German operational reserves until requisite damage was done in the key strategic sector …”
Ibid, p. 174
And what was the “key strategic sector”? Well, in an example of historical rhyme, the great armored battle that unfolded in the vicinity of Kursk developed as a diversion from the primary Soviet objective: to defeat and displace the primary locus of German power in and around Kharkov.
“Surprise was essential for Soviet forces to achieve victory around Belgorod and Kharkov, and surprise had to be a product of maskirovka. The Soviets applied maskirovka in all of its varied forms to deceive the Germans regarding the timing, strength, form, and location of the major Soviet counter-stroke.”
Ibid, p. 174
Well, a full description of the elaborate maskirovka employed in the Battle of Kursk is beyond the scope of this article. I simply wanted to introduce and elaborate on some of its fundamental aspects in order to suggest possible parallels between what was done then and what is happening now in Ukraine.
There has been much ecstatic jubilation among Ukraine-supporters, and anguished hand-wringing among Russia-supporters, that somehow Russian forces were “surprised” and “humiliated” by the recent Ukrainian counter-offensive near Kharkov.
Let me therefore be perfectly clear: the notion that the Russian high command did not see this coming is, in my estimation, utterly absurd.
They observed its preparations over the course of many weeks. They knew much of the NATO-provided equipment shipped into Ukraine since the spring was not being used yet in battle, and had instead been diverted and hoarded to provide the backbone of firepower for an eventual counter-stroke.
They also knew that substantial numbers of the remaining cadre of Ukrainian professional soldiers had been pulled from the front lines to form the core of this attack, and that they were being supplemented by a significant infusion of “foreign volunteers”.
They knew that the cream of the thousands of new Ukrainian conscripts had been sent to Poland and Britain for rapid training according to NATO standards.
They knew NATO commanders had effectively assumed operational command of this force, and were calling the shots as to when and where it would be deployed.
And they must have deduced, because this force was not present in the Kherson region for the limited counter-attack that took place there earlier in August, that the southern operations were most likely a diversion from the primary objective, which would be in the Kharkov region.
Indeed, as the true nature of the events of the past two weeks comes into clearer focus, I am now persuaded the Russians acted deliberately to entice the NATO commanders of this reconstituted Ukrainian force with some low-hanging fruit to blood their untested army.
More importantly, from the Russian perspective, providing NATO commanders a temptation they could not resist would draw this fresh army into the open field of battle where it could then be isolated and ultimately destroyed.
Therefore the Russians commenced, several weeks ago, to withdraw all but a token force from the area containing the towns of Balakliya, Kupyansk, and Izyum – thereby presenting an irresistible opportunity for the commanders of this NATO-trained, NATO-equipped, and NATO-led force to demonstrate, as they imagine it, the superiority of western combined-arms warfare.
The subsequent attack achieved seemingly extraordinary success against the relative handful of Donbass militia and Rosgvardia troops left to defend Balakliya and Kupyansk. The Ukrainians and their “foreign volunteer” shock troops advanced mostly unopposed and occupied a fairly significant piece of real estate extending all the way to the Oskol River.
Relatively little soldier against soldier fighting has occurred. In fact, Ukrainian reports euphorically trumpeted the fact that the Ukrainian advance could not even keep up with the speed of the Russian retreat!
The “glorious victory” of this quasi-NATO army has – at least for the time being – launched the western media narrative into an unprecedented spasm of triumphalism.
Delusional reports of hundreds of abandoned tanks, thousands of casualties, and tens of thousands of captured Russian soldiers are circulating widely, willingly believed by those whose biases find them pleasing.
Western think-tank marionettes and retired-generals-for-hire move from one mainstream news studio to the next spouting fantastical nonsense about next liberating the Donbass, then Crimea, followed by deposing Putin and hauling him before a tribunal at The Hague.
And if that were not enough, many have even begun to openly discuss the evergreen western pipe dream of dismantling Russia altogether; cutting it up into a dozen or more smaller republics that will then obediently fall in line with the rest of the “rules-based world order”.
It’s all quite breathtaking to behold.
Few seem to be aware that the triumphant army that marched forth into the power vacuum the Russians created for them has been continually savaged by long-range artillery fire and airstrikes, which have already inflicted nearly 20% casualties upon the relatively exposed force.
Few seem to appreciate that the pace of the initially rapid advance has now effectively ground to a halt, caught between the Oskil River to the east and the Seversky-Donets to the south, and it has proven unable to achieve appreciable success against the concentrations of Russian forces it is now encountering on the other sides of those rivers.
And no one seems to be asking the most pertinent question: What is the Russian’s next move?
There seems to be a pervasive assumption that this apparent battlefield “victory” has been so humiliatingly complete that the Russians have been ruined; psychologically broken; that they are no longer capable of operations; that they are now a beaten, trembling mob of frightened “orcs” nervously awaiting the next train back from whence they came.
Those cheering as the victory parade rolls down the streets of Kiev, London, and Washington appear to have forgotten that Russia’s “special military operation” up to this point has employed a minor fraction of its military capability, and that the Russian objective, from the beginning, has not been to conquer territory, per se, but to comprehensively destroy Ukrainian military capabilities.
I believe the Ukraine fan base is engaging in an orgy of premature exultation.
I am persuaded the events of the past few weeks have been largely orchestrated pursuant to Russia’s ultimate objectives.
I am convinced the Russians remain masters of the art of maskirovka, and that the current masters of empire in Washington, London, and Brussels – as did their forebears – significantly underestimate Russian strategic acumen, operational capabilities, and relentless resilience.
Even as NATO commanders in Kiev clink champagne flutes filled to the brim with looted Dom Perignon, and congratulate each other on a brilliantly conceived and expertly executed plan, I strongly suspect the other shoe is about to drop – and when it does, I expect it to fall like a thunderbolt.