Both Russia and Ukraine are using confusion as well as artillery on the battlefield.
KYIV, Ukraine — In a jerky cellphone video filmed through the window of a bus, the Russian checkpoint in Ukraine’s embattled Kherson region looks abandoned. “Empty,” somebody says in the background, as passengers begin to cheer.
Was this a sign that Russia is retreating from the area — or was it a ruse, meant to lure Ukrainian soldiers into a trap?
It is unclear who shot the video, which popped up widely on social media, or why. But its appearance adds to other suspicious goings-on around the strategic city of Kherson: Russia’s tricolor flags disappeared the same day from administrative buildings, and a Russian general, rather than rallying the troops, suggested obliquely on state TV that the military might need to abandon the city.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is being fought with the blunt force of artillery bombardments, airstrikes and infantry assaults. But it is also a battle of wits — waged between generals sending signals intended to confuse and mislead their enemies — and a contest of feints, parries and continual efforts to set traps.
And the Ukrainians themselves have engaged in their own bits of misleading messaging.
“Trickery is as old as warfare,” said Tor Bukkvoll, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, a military think tank, and an authority on Russia’s special forces. All militaries practice it, he said, but the Russians have put a special emphasis on deception in their military doctrine.
Russia’s hold is faltering in and around Kherson, on the western side of the broad Dnipro River. The Ukrainian military, using precision rockets provided by the West, has mostly destroyed the bridges over the river, setting the stage for a possible rout of the soldiers who remain on the west bank. But Ukrainian commanders and military analysts alike say they are seeing signs of a Russian psychological warfare operation in the swirl of conflicting signals.
Russia’s military and civilian leadership has for a month been telegraphing an intention to retreat from Kherson. They have withdrawn military equipment, told civilians to leave the area and removed items perceived as culturally significant to Russians — like the bones of Prince Grigory Potemkin, a Russian noble and lover of Catherine the Great who had advocated joining this area to the empire.
If the Russians went through the trouble of evacuating Potemkin’s bones from a cathedral crypt in Kherson, the gesture seemed to suggest, the Russian army must truly believe the city would soon fall to the advancing Ukrainian army.
Nothing of the sort, Ukraine’s southern military command and military intelligence agency responded in public comments to the Russian moves, which also included evacuating two statues of Russian notables and wide-scale looting of homes and stores by Russian soldiers.
In fact, Ukrainian military officials say, Russia has deployed additional forces to the western bank of the river and is preparing for urban combat.
“They are very deliberately trying to convince us that they are withdrawing” to lure Ukraine into a premature offensive on the city, Natalia Humeniuk, the spokeswoman for the southern command, told a Ukrainian television news broadcast over the weekend.
“We see objective data they remain in place,” she said, in comments suggesting that an imminent Ukrainian attack was unlikely — yet another potential example of military misdirection, this time from the Ukrainian side. “Powerful defensive units are dug in, heavy weaponry remains and firing positions set up.”
It is also possible that the Ukrainians so distrust the Russians that they see treachery at every turn, in what could well be the day-to-day confusion of war or a chaotic, if actual, Russian retreat, rather than a master stroke of psychological warfare.
“The situation in Kherson is clear as mud,” Michael Kofman, a military analyst with CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Va., wrote on Twitter. “I think this is a fog of war issue right now, with contradictory” indications, he wrote, but signs pointing to an eventual Russian withdrawal.
The Russian military, and the Soviet military before it, have shown a longtime interest in operations oozing with deceit and disguise, developing a repertoire of tricks taught in military academies for decades and put to practice in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Syria and Ukraine.
Nearly every Russian and Soviet deployment over the past half century, with the notable exception of this year’s invasion of Ukraine, opened with soldiers appearing first in civilian clothing or unmarked uniforms. In 1983, the Soviet Union deployed troops disguised as tourists to Syria during the Lebanese civil war, in what became known as the “Comrade Tourist” ruse.
But just as the Russian military’s bloody operation in Ukraine has floundered, its vaunted reputation for cunning has been dented in this war as the Ukrainians themselves have fought back with their own trickery.
In September, the Ukrainian military caught Russian forces off guard in a lightning offensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region after it had telegraphed for months an intention to attack in the south, in the Kherson region.
“What strikes me now is how thoroughly they have been tricked themselves” in the war in Ukraine, Mr. Bukkvoll said of the Russian army. “I think they feel tricked, and that would be a motive as well for trying a trick of their own.
Interpreting Russian public commentary has become part of the art of war for Ukraine and its allies. An ulterior motive is always assumed.
Last month, the collaborationist governor of the Kherson region, Volodymyr Saldo, announced a plan to evacuate 70,000 civilians from the western bank of the Dnipro River, saying the Ukrainian military intended to blow up the nearby Kakhovka dam, and flood cities and towns. Russian television showed crowds of civilians packing onto ferries crossing the river.
Ukrainian officials quickly discounted Russian concern for residents’ safety, midway through a war of indiscriminate Russian bombardments that have killed civilians. And within days, the Russian military appeared to show its hand — and its own fears of subterfuge — saying they would consider residents who remained in the city possible collaborators.
The Ukrainians, meanwhile, saw just more subterfuge. They said Russian forces were ready themselves to blow up the dam to cover a retreat.
The Institute for the Study of War, an American analytical group, interpreted Mr. Saldo’s claim as laying the ground for a “false flag” operation, a trick in which Russian forces would destroy the dam yet make it appear that Ukrainian forces were to blame.
Ukrainian commanders interviewed recently at frontline positions said they pay little heed to Russian public statements, ever mindful of possible trickery. Their battle plans, they said, were built instead around intelligence assessments of Russian force strength, gathered from drones and spies.
The Ukrainian military has publicly put forward what it says are its next steps: advancing troops to within howitzer range of the Russian pontoon bridges over the Dnipro and subjecting them to round-the-clock bombardment, to more thoroughly sever supply lines before risking a ground assault. That suggests a drawn-out battle, not an imminent assault.
Or does it?
It would be hard to find answers in the dueling public statements of commanders and officials on each side, none of which seem to fit for people trying to build morale to lead soldiers into battle.
On the Russian side, General Sergei Surovikin has been projecting an air of gloom and doom, saying last month, “the situation in Kherson is tense, we do not rule out difficult decisions.” And Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Russian occupation government in Kherson, said flatly of the Russian army, “most likely, our forces will leave to the eastern bank in Kherson region.”
On the Ukrainian side, the director of the country’s military intelligence agency, Kyrylo Budanov, highlighted his enemy’s strength. The Russians, “are creating the illusion that everything is lost,” he said. “Quite the opposite, they are deploying new military units and preparing the city’s streets for defense.”
Out on those streets, according to a resident named Ihor who was reached by phone, Russian armored personnel carriers wheel about, with groups of soldiers carrying rifles riding on the roofs. Asking that his full name not be used for security reasons, he added that soldiers were looting electronics stores and private apartments, carrying away appliances.
Whatever the Russians’ intentions, he said, order is unraveling. “It’s all very hard, all very tense,” he said. “It’s scary.”