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A blooming cherry tree is seen not far from the Tidal Basin on Sunday in Washington.

A blooming cherry tree is seen not far from the Tidal Basin on Sunday in Washington. (Matt McClain/Washington Post)

Russian troops in Ukraine have scrambled to avoid detection and attack by using tree branches and straw, even swaths of carpeting, to conceal tanks and other armored vehicles, in what analysts call a surprising lack of sophistication for such an advanced military and further evidence of how ill-prepared some commanders were for the sustained fight that has unfolded.

Camouflage, whether for personnel or equipment, is a fundamental part of warfighting, even as technological advances such as drones, satellite imagery and infrared scopes have made it harder to hide on modern battlefields. It works by distorting shapes and reducing heat signatures, in effect fooling the eye to create doubt and confusion.

Yet to some observers who’ve closely tracked the conflict in Ukraine, Russian forces, despite their military superiority, have exhibited a breathtaking degree of amateurism. They point to videos circulating on social media showing an array of contrivances.

In one, purportedly captured mid-firefight by a Russian soldier seeking cover amid a cluster of idling armored transports, a patchwork of what appear to be pine saplings is visible along one of the vehicle’s flanks. It’s a sight that “smacks of desperation,” said Mike Jason, a retired U.S. Army armor officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. military tactical procedure, Jason noted, is to shroud entire vehicles with lightweight camouflage netting when they’re not moving, even if it’s only for short durations. Ukrainian units have been seen using combinations of netting and foliage to help break up the shape of armored vehicle hulls. Pine saplings, Jason assessed, are “better than nothing,” but would seem to indicate the unit involved lacks a basic competence for using camouflage or simply didn’t have the right equipment to begin with.

Other imagery to emerge from Ukraine shows armored transports with what resembles barnyard hay strewn across their tops. In still another video shared on social media, Russian troops can be seen covering a vehicle with rugs or another type of heavy cloth.

This could be an attempt, Jason surmised, to reduce or distort heat signatures, which antiarmor weapons - like the U.S.-manufactured Javelin missiles being supplied to Ukraine - use to lock onto their targets. An altered signature could make it more challenging for a gunner to distinguish between a Russian armored vehicle and a civilian car, though a trained scout would oscillate between a thermal scope and binoculars to pick up other evidence of enemy activity, he noted.

The U.S. military is emerging from its own complacency after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where vehicle camouflage in a fight against insurgents was often an afterthought. New training indicates a return to fundamentals like using camouflage netting, Jason said. Netting and other fabrics can help with concealment, and using foliage to distort the contours of vehicles can help gives crews vital seconds to react to an engagement or attack themselves. But they are of limited use in the age of drones and satellite imagery, Jason said, making camouflage an endeavor meant mostly to deceive human eyes.

The Russians’ apparent lack of modern camouflage netting is the latest example in what analysts call a string of tactical missteps since the invasion began late last month, affirming beliefs in the United States and in Europe that President Vladimir Putin and his senior military commanders failed to anticipate the strong resistance their troops have faced.

To the bewilderment of many Western observers, Russian soldiers have shown a tendency to speak on unsecured radios and cellphones, allowing enemy intelligence to intercept their communications. Military planners also have failed to distribute enough fuel and food, prompting troops to abandon vehicles in place and, in some cases, surrender.

Just as confounding, analysts say, is that Russian units are in fact versed in camouflaging their vehicles, and there is evidence they have done so in past military exercises. As recently as 2018, Russian state media touted its military’s advanced camouflage prototypes, which it said were capable of duplicating environmental surroundings.

Rob Lee, a Russian military expert and a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the uneven use of camouflage in Ukraine may point to commanders’ lack of preparation and guidance to subordinates, or attest to their overconfidence from the outset that this fight would be easy and that the Ukrainian government would fall quickly.

It has become clear, Lee said, that commercial and smaller tactical drones provided to the Ukrainians by Turkey are enabling them to spot Russian units for artillery and airstrikes, potentially prompting some to resort to ad hoc solutions such as outfitting their vehicles with bits of shrubbery or simply taking them off road and hiding among the trees.

“Russia,” he added, “doesn’t have a good response.”


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