Sep 15, 2023
- Russia has proven vulnerable to deception during the Ukraine war.
- Ukraine has used decoys, cellphone data, and a range of other ploys to ensnare Russian troops.
- Problems with Russia’s command structure and equipment leave it vulnerable to deception.
Deception has been at the heart of some of history’s most successful military campaigns, and it’s an art Ukraine has excelled at in its battle to resist and drive out Russian forces.
In many ways, it’s had to. At the outset of the full-scale invasion, Russia’s vastly larger army and equipment reserves appeared ready to quash any resistance.
Ukraine therefore had to rely on its improvisational skill to offset the imbalance, exploiting Russian mistakes and using deception and cunning to inflict blows on the invaders.
As a report by the UK think tank the Royal United Services Institute found last year, Russian forces have been vulnerable to deception — not because its soldiers are stupid, but because of weaknesses in how they are organized and structured.
It said the Russian military lacked tactical commanders with the experience to spot dubious intelligence, or to sense when a situation contains a hidden danger.
“Deception has succeeded against Russian forces at all echelons and across all three service branches,” the report said.
Ukraine, too, suffers from leadership failures, but it has been admired for its canny ability to adapt, innovate, and quickly seize the advantage on the ground.
Meanwhile, Russia frequently finds itself the agent of its own disasters.
A fleet of ailing UK farming trucks deceives Russian snipers
Ivan Oleksii, a 25-year-old esports analyst, told Insider in December that he was buying old British farm trucks and refitting them for military use in Ukraine.
The trucks, he said, had a crucial feature enabling them to deceive Russian snipers — the driving seat was on the right-hand side, unlike other European vehicles where it’s on the left.
Oleksii said his team often put dummies on the left side to aid the deception, saving the lives of Ukrainian troops driving the refitted vehicles.
Russian troops use cell phones – making them easy targets
The Russian military has had serious problems supplying troops with communications equipment during the war, meaning some have had to resort to using their own phones to communicate.
This has allowed Ukraine to detect their positions using cellphone data, and target them in missile strikes.
In January, Ukraine killed 89 Russian troops who had gathered in the east Ukrainian town of Makiivka in one of the single biggest losses of life during the conflict.
The Kremlin said Ukraine had been able to identify the location of the troops because some were using cell phones at the site.
Even top commanders in the early weeks of the conflict had to resort to using cell phones to communicate on the battlefield, with Ukraine successfully targeting one general and his staff in a March 2022 strike after detecting his unsecured phone signal.
It’s a problem Russian troops still face, with Russian mercenary group Rusich recently posting on Telegram that communications equipment shortages exist across the Russian front line.
The wooden decoy Russians blew up with a $35,000 drone — and crowed over on social media
Earlier this year Lieutenant Commander Oleksandr Afanasyev and his fellow soldiers spotted a Russian reconnaissance drone scoping out their equipment, stationed at a cluster of farm buildings near Lyman, in the Donetsk region.
A Russian drone had earlier damaged a tank there, and Afanasyev wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again. So he and the others installed a wooden version of the tank made out of empty 155mm shell boxes.
Soon after, a drone strike took it out.
Russian social media unknowingly celebrated the strike, sharing the video and saying that a “tank” was destroyed with a Lancet drone, a weapon with an estimated price tag of $35,000. The video earned a share from Russia’s top propagandist, Vladimir Solovyov.
Russians also celebrated taking out a radar array — which again turned out to be fake
Ukrainian soldiers in the field are not the only ones turning out decoys. Ukrainian steel company Metinvest says it’s creating convincing fake howitzers, mortars, and radars — anything that might be an enticing target for Russia.
According to the company, Russian forces recently blew up what they believed was a valuable Ukrainian P-18 Malakhit radar array in the Donetsk region, celebrating the feat in propaganda videos. But Metinvest, in remarks Insider was unable to independently verify, said it was actually a plywood and metal replica.
The company says over 250 of these decoys have so far been handed over to the Ukrainian military.
When a Russian journalist posted a picture of a Wagner Group base online and got it blasted to pieces
Sometimes it is just Ukraine taking advantage of a situation.
In eastern Ukraine’s Popasna, a base used by the mercenary pro-Russian Wagner Group was bombed to rubble by Ukrainian troops in April 2022.
As Wired reported, Ukrainian officials hinted strongly that the location had been revealed through analysis of a pro-Russian journalist’s social media posts. One since-deleted image even included the base’s exact address, according to Wired.
Russia has been aware of the power of open-source intelligence for some time, launching a ban on its soldiers posting their locations to social media in 2019, as Task & Purpose reported. But this isn’t always enough.
Ukraine also isn’t immune. According to the Center for Information Resilience, Russian forces were able to identify and strike a munitions factory in Kyiv in April 2022 with the inadvertent help of footage from a Ukrainian news channel.
Russian forces fire on a Ukrainian flag, exposing their position
Recently, a Ukrainian flag attached to balloons was flown over the town of Avdiyivka to mark the 245th anniversary of its founding. As it traveled toward the occupied city of Donetsk, in east Ukraine, the Russian military opened fire on it, a Ukrainian official said.
The official, whose claims have not been independently verified, said this allowed Ukraine to identify the Russian position. Ukraine’s 110th brigade then “worked effectively to attack the Russian soldiers,” he said.
When Ukraine made a big noise about a counteroffensive in the south — and surprised everyone by going east instead
In perhaps the most striking recent example of military deception, Ukraine’s sweeping counteroffensive in the fall of last year astonished onlookers as it retook a wide swathe of land surrounding the eastern city of Kharkiv in just a matter of weeks.
Analysts have called it “the Kherson ruse” because part of the counteroffensive’s success depended on convincing the world that Ukrainian troops were going to push toward the southern city of Kherson instead.
According to Modern War Institute scholars Huw Dylan, David Gioe, and Joe Littell, Ukraine started loudly signaling that it was going in the direction of Kherson, to the extent that several Western media outlets began confidently predicting the push — and Russia started redeploying its troops southwards.
“In this case, the Kherson front was dangled as the intended target and Russian commanders took the bait,” the scholars wrote.