(W)Archives: Implausible Deniability


Ukraine is being conquered by “little green men” who are all pro-Russian and many of whom seem to be wearing matching uniforms and carrying matching small arms. Supporters of the Russian position, of course, maintain that these are merely “concerned citizens.”

No. Greenpeace are concerned citizens. The Concord Coalition are concerned citizens. These are Russian troops.

With his brazen denials of the blindingly obvious, Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer, has given intelligence specialists a new concept: implausible deniability. Apparently the denial is only retracted after the operation is successfully completed. This seems to be a powerful idea. Only the intellectually dishonest and the unconscious have any doubt about who is doing what to whom in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the West and the Ukrainian government seem paralyzed by the fear that forceful counteraction against the little green men could spark a war with Russia. In other words, Putin’s use of implausible deniability has forced us to act as if a war with Russia is not already underway.

If only the idea of implausible deniability had existed in 1961. On April 17 of that year, a group of Cuban émigrés, trained by the CIA, landed at the Bay of Pigs hoping to spark an uprising that would bring down Fidel Castro’s regime. Instead, the Cuban army and air force moved with dispatch and crushed the invaders on the beach. One of the key problems for the invading force was that President John F. Kennedy declined to authorize an air strike aimed in large part at destroying the Cuban air force’s ground attack capability. His reasoning? It would have been impossible to plausibly deny that these would be American planes.

You can see the issue of the cancelled second strike and the concern about plausible deniability laid out in Volume 1, Part 1 of the CIA’s now declassified post-mortem on the Bay of Pigs covert action. Perhaps the willingness to brazenly lie and not care that everyone knew the truth would have spared the United States one of its most humiliating moments on the world stage and led to freedom in Cuba. This seems to be Putin’s formula and it’s working for him.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Image: Google, Terrametrics