As mentioned in an earlier post, I felt I should return to this subject given events in the Crimea. While Shadow Warfare deals with the long and convoluted history of “deniablity” in American covert action, we also briefly contrast it with the totally different approach followed by the Soviet Union – which has now become an MO for the Russian Federation.
There never was any doubt during the Cold War that both the U.S. and the Soviets engaged in military support for their surrogates. At its most basic level that meant shipping weapons to them. The Soviets solved the problem in a very pragmatic fashion, liscencing production of their hardware to various “eastern bloc” nations – who simply sold the materials to “approved” nations or groups. Shipping was by eastern bloc or independent commercial vessels. So yes there were Soviet developed weapons in massive quantities all around the world but hey, its just business – our friends need the money. On the other hand, the U.S. came up with extremely complex protocols for using extensive series of cut outs, and affiliated commercial companies to do the same thing. Much more involved, much, much more expensive and with far greater exposure to pure graft. So when weapons appeared with American surrogates they were not US military weapons, they were “sanitized” deniable weapons. Which of course led to some rather humorous situations – when weapons in Interarmco Company crates – known to be servicing the CIA – were found in Indonesia, Interarmco said they were not to blame, the CIA had stenciled their name on the Agencies own supplies to “frame” Interarmco for supplying the rebel Army officers.
Perhaps the most convoluted example of the whole concept occurred under the Reagan administration, in deniable warfare in Afghanistan. The U.S. was actively spending its own tax dollars buying weapons from the Communist Chinese to be shipped to Afghan insurgents to kill Communist Russians. Just let your mind dwell on that for a bit.
Of course when you need to use your own people in covert actions, things got even more complex. The US came up with a process for “detailing” service people to the CIA – again, complex and relatively expensive. The Soviets just had their people take off their uniforms (Russia is doing it even more cheaply, same uniforms, just strip the insigne) and go… If they were discovered, it was simply a matter of denial. We absolutely knew that Russian and Chinese pilots were flying MIG’s in Korea – they simply denied it. Later, great efforts would be made to capture Russians or even North Vietnamese in Laos. But when North Vietnamese were captured; it was simply denied. As it turns out, denial is just a lot simpler than deniablity. And for practical purpose, neither ever really fooled anybody.
Was a plan for landing a brigade of fighters at the Bay of Pigs deniable – with tank landing craft, a flotilla of ships, paratroop drops and air support. Not really, in reality it never could have been other than in some convoluted world of “deniablity”. Is the fact that thousands of Russian special forces troops with extensive ground and ground support, suddenly showed up in the Crimea, deniable. Not really, but the Russians are well practiced and proficient in stone faced denial so they just bull ahead – if their calculus of force says it will work, they just do it.
As Shadow Warfare illustrates, deniablity is an interesting concept but we see it as basically flawed. Its seems to be awfully tempting though… On the other hand the Russians seem to be stuck in their “old school” practices as well. So far they have avoided simply rushing full tank columns across the Ukrainian border, relying on massive military “exercises” for intimidation – perhaps that will remain an “improvement” in their “best practices”, but given their history, if Putin decides the tanks are needed, I’m betting they’ll show up (perhaps with Crimean markings though?).
For a little context on the whole thing, you might want to read the following essay – which seems to me to illustrate how skilled Mr. Putin is at crafting his own history. But then you do really need to be good at that if you just stick with plain denial: