In a field outside Moscow, workers armed with little more than green fabric and air compressors are creating an imposing weapon.
A sleek, slate-gray MIG-31 fighter jet suddenly appears, its muscular, stubby wings spreading to reveal their trademark red star insignia.
It is a decoy, lifelike in appearance from as close as 300 yards.
This trick is another entry in Russia’s repertoire of deceit and disguise, known as maskirovka, a psychological warfare doctrine that’s becoming an increasingly critical element in the country’s geopolitical ambitions.
“If you study the major battles of history, you see that trickery wins every time,” Aleksei A. Komarov, the military engineer in charge of this sleight of hand, said with a sly smile. “Nobody ever wins honestly.”
Mr. Komarov oversees army sales at Rusbal, or Russian Ball, a hot-air balloon company that also provides the Ministry of Defense with one of Russia’s lesser-known military threats: a growing arsenal of inflatable tanks, jets and missile launchers.
As Russia under President Vladimir V. Putin has muscled its way back onto the geopolitical stage, the Kremlin has employed a range of stealthy tactics: silencing critics abroad, hitching the Orthodox Church to its conservative counterrevolution, spreading false information to audiences in Europe and even, according to the Obama administration, meddling in American presidential politics by hacking the Democratic Party’s computers.
One of the newer entries to that list is an updating of the Russian military’s set of lethal tricks known as maskirovka, or masking.
Russia’s most recent military deployments began with operations involving this doctrine: with literally masked and mystery soldiers in Crimea in 2014, soldiers said to be “vacationing” or “volunteering” in eastern Ukraine and a “humanitarian airlift” to Syria in 2015.
As the Russian incursion in Ukraine unfolded, Moscow sent a “humanitarian” convoy of whitewashed military vehicles to the rebellious eastern provinces. The trucks were later found to be mostly empty, prompting speculation that they had been sent there to deter a Ukrainian counteroffensive against rebels.
The idea behind maskirovka is to keep the enemy guessing, never admitting your true intentions, always denying your activities and using all means, both political and military, to maintain an edge of surprise for your soldiers. The doctrine, military analysts say, is in this sense “multilevel.” It draws no distinction between disguising a soldier as a bush or a tree with green and patterned clothing, a lie of a sort, and high-level political disinformation and cunning evasions.
Thus at a news conference immediately after the invasion of Crimea, Mr. Putin flatly denied that the “green men” appearing on television screens were Russians, saying anyone could buy a military uniform and put it on. It was only five weeks later, after his annexation of the peninsula, that he admitted that the troops were Russian.
And last month, the Ministry of Defense denied Washington’s assertion that Russian warplanes had attacked a humanitarian convoy in Syria. It said first that the trucks could have been hit by a rebel mortar, then that an American Predator drone was responsible and finally that the cargo had simply caught fire.
Maskirovka goes well beyond the simple camouflage used by all armies and encompasses a range of ideas about misdirection and misinformation, as useful today as it has been for decades. Soviet maps, for example, often included inaccuracies that frustrated drivers but served a national security purpose: If taken by a spy, they would confuse an invading army as apparently useful roads, for example, led into swamps.
In fact, nearly every Russian and Soviet deployment over the past half century, from the Prague Spring to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Ukraine, opened with a simple but effective trick: soldiers appearing first in mufti or unmarked uniforms. In 1968, for example, an Aeroflot flight arrived in Prague carrying a disproportionate number of healthy young men, who subsequently seized the airport.
Soldiers disguised as tourists sailed to Syria in 1983 in what became known as the “comrade tourist” ruse. The appearance of mysterious, camouflaged soldiers in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Grozny, Chechnya, presaged wider deployments in 1979 and 1994.
Experts fear that the next theater for such tactics may be the Baltic region, home to significant minorities of ethnic Russians as well as a major Russian military base at Kaliningrad.
The array of possibilities for Russia in the Baltics is vast. Analysts have speculated, for example, that an aging Russian military ship might feign a mechanical breakdown and beach on a Baltic sandbar. Soon, marines would deploy to “protect” it.
That incursion might not be enough to elicit a full-scale response from NATO, but if left to stand, it could undermine the alliance’s credibility, analysts say.
“The fun part about the Baltics, from the Russian perspective, is that NATO’s credibility rests on every useless piece of land, so you don’t have to take more than a tiny slice,” said Michael Kofman, a military analyst at the Kennan Institute in Washington.
Col. David M. Glantz, a leading expert on Russian disguise operations, said Russia viewed war “in many, many facets.”
To be sure, other militaries use decoys. The Russian doctrine of maskirovka, though, differs from deception operations by other major militaries in its blending of strategic and tactical deception, and in its use in both war and peace.
In one storied example, the Soviets decided to call their space launchpad Baikonur, after a small Kazakh settlement of that name a few hundred miles away, hoping that in an attack, enemy bombers might hit the insignificant village by mistake.
“They look at war as chess, and we look at it as checkers,” said Colonel Glantz, a former professor at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
A well-constructed Russian maskirovka ruse, like a good Russian play, typically builds an underlying narrative before introducing the plot twist.
Maskirovka is “designed to manipulate the adversary’s picture of reality, misinform it and eventually interfere with the decision-making process of individuals, organizations, governments and societies,” Dima Adamsky, an authority on Russian psychological warfare, wrote in a paper published last year. The opening moves, if played well, will “appear benign to the target.”
In Georgia, the game had already begun days before Gocha Kojayev, an Interior Ministry officer, and some fellow officers fell victim in the aftermath of the 2008 war with Russia.
Part of a team clearing a battlefield of unexploded matériel near South Ossetia, Mr. Kojayev was sent to collect a small, yellow-painted surveillance drone that had fluttered to earth in an apple orchard — a seemingly harmless object. Indeed, so many drones had crashed in the area that the Georgians had taken to snickering at their shoddy construction.
Sensing danger at the last moment, however, Mr. Kojayev stepped back as a colleague picked up the drone, which was sprung with explosives. Two men were killed, and eight others, including Mr. Kojayev, were wounded.
The earlier crashes had desensitized the soldiers to danger. “This was a trick,” he said. “We thought they were of poor quality, but they were crashing them intentionally.”
Unfurled in the sunny field outside Moscow, a cloth decoy of an S-300 missile system — in the metal version, one of Russia’s most feared weapons ‚ looks like a large, unmade bed of camouflage-colored blankets.
“Pull it a bit this way,” one worker suggested. “Straighten it out here,” another said. With the flip of a switch on an electric air compressor, it bulged, lurched and took its form, like a gigantic marshmallow waiting for a roasting in World War III.
A hot-air balloon enthusiast founded Rusbal in 1993 and later diversified into the inflatable children’s attractions that are springy play areas known as bouncy castles.
In fact, bouncy castle construction inspired the company — and the Russian military — to re-examine a decade-old Russian practice of using bulky rubber balloons for inflatables, leading to a technological advance in decoys around the turn of the millennium.
Although it forms a tight seal that does not require constant inflation, rubber is far heavier than fabric. In a bouncy castle, a continuously running air compressor creates overpressure in a fabric structure that is not airtight. The rubber tanks deflated, or even popped, if hit by a single bullet. But the fabric holds its form even if perforated by a spray of shrapnel.
“There was a lot of skepticism at first,” Maria A. Oparina, the director of Rusbal and daughter of the founder, said in an interview in a cafe in Moscow. Demonstrations, though, impressed the generals.
The company would not disclose how many inflatable tanks it made, because the numbers are classified, but Ms. Oparina said output had shot up over the past year. The contract forms one small part of Russia’s 10-year, $660 billion rearmament program that began in 2010. The factory now employs 80 people full time, most on the military side sewing inflatable weapons.
The company also works for export. It made about $3 million worth of inflatable decoys of the S-300 antiaircraft missile system to sell to Iran, but was left holding the goods when the Russian government suspended the sale of the actual missile system because of United Nations sanctions. The sale was completed this year, but Iran said it had no interest in the decoys.
The tanks and missile launchers are not just blowup, but made to be blown up, with their most obvious use as decoys for drawing expensive, precision fire such as cruise missiles or laser-guided bombs away from real weapons systems.
More subtly, their purpose is to clutter the enemy’s decision making, forcing commanders to waste precious time verifying whether a newly discovered target is real or just hot air. They are intended for quick inflation and deflation: If they are left out for long periods, their airy nature becomes obvious to satellites, Ms. Oparina said, as they tend to blow around in the wind and swell and shrink in size.
The inflatable T-80 tank, one of the company’s standard products, weighs 154 pounds, costs about $16,000, totes in two duffel bags, inflates in about five minutes and vanishes just as quickly. Sold separately: a device for stamping fake tank tracks in the ground.
“There are no gentlemen’s agreements in war,” Ms. Oparina said. “There’s no chivalry anymore. Nobody wears a red uniform. Nobody stands up to get shot at. It’s either you or me, and whoever has the best trick wins.”