McMaster Gives a Belated Russian Lesson

It's time for Americans to add a new Russian word to their strategic lexicon.

H.R. McMaste delivers his speech on day two of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich on February 17, 2018. (Thomas Kienzle/AFP/Getty Images)
H.R. McMaste delivers his speech on day two of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich on February 17, 2018. (Thomas Kienzle/AFP/Getty Images)

In the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and ever since, thousands of English words written by Russians pretending to be Americans have infiltrated social media in the United States. But very few Russian words — that is, words originating in Cyrillic — have made it into the national conversation. Kompromat is one of the few Americans might recognize. That’s the word for compromising material, like salacious videos or proof of dodgy financial transactions, which were used in the past by the KGB (and continue to be used today by Vladimir Putin’s intelligence agencies) to blackmail or influence implicated parties. Another is polezny durak — useful idiot — a Soviet term that has long since slipped into the English dictionary.

But just because we don’t know that many poleznye— useful — Russian words doesn’t mean they’re not out there; and learning more about them can help us understand the psychology that guides Russian efforts to befuddle the American psyche and sabotage the U.S. political process. Last weekend at the Munich Security Conference, H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump’s now-embattled national security advisor, dropped a heavy-duty cluster of Cyrillic syllables. Referring to the concerted and ongoing Kremlin campaign to influence the American electorate through information warfare, he called it an example of “modern-day maskirovka.”

This was an extremely helpful addition to America’s strategic lexicon. Or it will be, once Americans understand what it means.

Certainly, Russophone listeners on the ground in Bavaria would have known what McMaster was talking about — particularly Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who scornfully dismissed charges of Russian interference as “blabber.” Like most people at the conference, though, Lavrov would have paid more attention to the English phrase McMaster uttered just after he dropped “maskirovka” — his declaration that, in the wake of special counsel Robert Mueller’s release on Feb. 16 of a grand jury indictment charging 13 Russian citizens and three Russian entities with interfering in American electoral politics, the evidence for Kremlin interference was now “really incontrovertible.”

When Lavrov dismissed those charges as “blabber” (different publications variously translated that colorful word, trepotney, as “blather” or “claptrap”), he was participating in a form of maskirovka himself by indulging in a time-honored, dust-in-their-eyes Russian tradition known as vranyo. The word vranyo is arguably better known in Western circles than maskirovka. You could say vranyo means “lies,” but in his 1983 book, Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams, published at the waning of the Cold War, two years before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, David Shipler, the longtime Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, gave a more nuanced explanation of vranyo. He wrote:

A Russian friend explained vranyo this way: ‘You know I’m lying, and I know that you know, and you know that I know that you know, but I go ahead with a straight face, and you nod seriously and take notes.’

This week’s news suggests that McMaster soon will be pushed out of the White House, in part for stating the politically inconvenient truth about Russian meddling — though the Defense Department, in the tradition of vranyo, will find other pretexts to give Trump cover for the decision. In the United States since 2017, spokespeople for Trump — from Kellyanne Conway (who coined the phrase “alternative facts” on Jan. 22, 2017, as she defended the president’s lies about his inauguration attendance) to Sean Spicer to Sarah Huckabee Sanders — have energetically adopted the policy of vranyo. The list of Trump-era American exponents of vranyo could go on for pages, headed by the president himself, who continues, like Lavrov and like the former Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, to deride Russian interference as a “hoax” — or, as Kislyak put it, “fantasies” — despite a mountain of persuasive evidence to the contrary.

Vranyo is a component of maskirovka, which itself is a hard-to-translate umbrella term for a range of Soviet-era military strategies intended to confuse and deceive the enemy by misrepresenting reality and masking (“mask” is the etymological root of the word) the nature of the threat that Russian forces represent. Multifront maskirovka allowed Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s Red Army to destroy the German 6th Army at Stalingrad in 1942 and 1943 by building false airfields and phony bridges to draw German fire (the Soviets staffed the locations with dummy soldiers to confuse reconnaissance), hiding heavy equipment with tarps, disguising an ammunition supply point as a farm village, making tanks look like hay carts, and disseminating fake news by radio, sometimes imitating German channels.

A 1986 report by the U.S. Army Center of Military History described the main point of this tactic: “[T]he Soviets recognized deception as the primary way to achieve surprise. According to the Regulations of the Red Army in 1939, deception involved concealment, simulation, misinformation, and demonstrations or feints. All of these methods were contained in the single Russian word maskirovka. The Soviets have retained this basic definition to the present time.”

Although maskirovka came into being as a military term in the 20th century, its tradition has roots that reach back centuries, at least to the reign of Catherine the Great. Legend has it that Catherine’s advisor (and lover) Grigory Potemkin wanted the empress to think her victory over conquered lands in the Crimea was more significant than it really was. To convince her of this, he is said to have prinked up phony villages like theater sets along her projected route (not unlike the fake settlements the Red Army built a century and a half later to outfox the Germans) so that when her entourage drove past, she would see in the distance what appeared to be a worthy trophy. Fakery intended to impress has a Russian word of its own: pokazukha, which is part of the maskirovka bag of tricks. Perception, as any good propagandist knows, is reality. And “perception management” via propaganda is the chief weapon of contemporary maskirovka in the Russian espionage playbook.

A cursory inspection of Mueller’s Feb. 16 indictment demonstrates that maskirovka is alive and well in Putin’s Russia and that it was deployed most effectively in service of helping achieve the November 2016 surprise in the United States: keeping Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton out of the White House.

Accusing Russian operatives, mobilized by the Kremlin, of engaging in a campaign of propagandistic warfare, disguised and abetted by information technology, is not “blabber” (or “claptrap,” “blather,” a “hoax,” or “fantasies”) — it is an accurate description of what happened and what is still happening. A number of parties are successfully pursuing this modern-day maskirovka on multiple fronts: not only Putin’s Soviet-style network of operatives in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and foreign outposts but Americans, unwitting or witting, who use maskirovka’s evasions and camouflage to disguise present realities not from the foe but from the American people and, in some cases, from themselves.

The Russian people (and the Soviet people before them) are better equipped to defend themselves against this newfangled, tech-assisted onslaught of old-fashioned disingenuousness than Americans. Last weekend, a Russian teacher, Marat Mindiyarov, who had worked for three months at a disinformation “troll factory” operating out of St. Petersburg in 2014 and 2015, told the Washington Post that he was surprised at how gullible Americans had been, falling for the fake news and disinformation planted on American social media by Russian manipulators. Americans, he suggested, “aren’t used to this kind of trickery. They live in a society in which it’s accepted to answer for your words.” Russians, he said, were warier. He himself quit the job “for moral reasons. I was ashamed to work there.”

Success at maskirovka, whoever is practicing it, requires shamelessness. And to detect it, you must first suspect its existence and correctly understand its source. Americans are playing catch-up at this game, but the maskirovka emanating from the White House complicates their chances of figuring out the rules in time.

The long history of the deployment of flattery and deception to serve autocratic power — whether in Russia or anywhere else — is not in dispute. And a nation that does not acknowledge the presence of maskirovka when the mask is exposed is a nation complicit in its own deception.

Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based journalist and translator, and teaches at the New School in New York. She is the author of the book of neologisms, Wordbirds.