A lesson on 'Vranyo' that Russia's debacle holds for Leaders

It seems to be the season of upsets, with underdogs pummelling Goliaths. While this may suggest shock defeats at the FIFA World Cup, I refer to Russian retrograde moves in the Ukraine war, flabbergasting mandarins, analysts, sleuths and soothsayers alike. How could it be possible that a country, allegedly powerful enough to influence US elections, is tottering against one that though well replenished, is arguably an underdog. One of the reasons is vranyo.

Most large armies of the world are administered as burgeoning bureaucracies. There are strict hierarchies, laid down battle drills, elaborate planning frameworks, attacker to defender ratios, equipment readiness status and hundreds of other parameters which go into developing strategic and operational plans. While more dramatic elements such as daredevil strikes and heroic last stands make impressive nationalistic narratives, they seldom affect the outcome of wars, which depend more on “warwithal”, intelligent allocation of troops to missions and logistic support. Senior commanders responsible for implementing their premier's vision base their plans on information fed to them. And that is where vranyo comes in.

The Russian language has two words for lying: 'lozh', which means falsehood, and 'vranyo', which loosely translated is a straight-faced fabrication that both the teller and listener pretend is true while knowing that it is, in fact, a lie. An example would be Pakistan's military denying any knowledge of Osama bin Laden in their backyard or Vladimir Putin's claim of overwhelming support in Russian elections. While all organizations have some degree of embellishment in their upward reporting, those in autocratic environments are especially susceptible because no one wants to be the bearer of bad news. Hitler was notorious for firing generals who pointed out ground reality, so senior commanders just went along with his delusional plans, deploying non-existent divisions for grandiose counter-attacks.

An insistence on a 'zero error, no failure' mindset while ignoring aspects like just cause, morale, troop discipline, their fighting potency, etc, induces authoritarian and hierarchical organizations to fudge reports. During peacetime, aspects such as state of equipment, inventory of ordnance, battle readiness of fighting units, etc, are exaggerated to ensure promotions and job security. On commencement of hostilities, vranyo fogs the radar by deliberately ignoring red flags that challenge the supreme leader's appreciation of the battle.

It is in battle, however, that vranyo manifests itself most sinisterly, when skirmishes are reported as major battles and temporal tactical gains recounted as strategic breakthroughs. Since commanders reinforce successes, inaccurate reporting commits more resources to failures, perpetuating a vicious cycle.

It is clear now that in all three stages of a campaign—planning, preparation and execution—the Russian high command was practising a high degree of vranyo. While it could be argued that Russia miscalculated external factors like the fighting spirit of Ukrainians or the extent of Nato support, there is no excuse for inadequacies of supplies, logistics and combat capability of Russian troops. That was simply vranyo at work, safeguarding seniors, hiding corruption and misleading the nation.

Corporates face their own version of vranyo, where bureaucratic hierarchies distance top leadership from ground reality. Multiple studies reveal that an alarming proportion of employees are disengaged and listless, with only a tiny fraction putting in their best. Yet, parameters of employee morale, brand strength, organizational effectiveness, project progress, etc, are embellished on corporate dashboards. Activity is proffered as proof of outcome and 'busyness' serves as a proxy for productivity. In some cases, insecure leaders catalyse vranyo by underestimating competition, ignoring bad news and quashing dissent by punishing leaders who question them.

The post-mortem of every major fraud, corporate debacle or political scandal shows that despite a multitude of people knowing the truth, vranyo kept it hidden. Bernie Madoff, the perpetrator of the largest Ponzi scheme in history, and Elizabeth Holmes, the once-feted CEO of Theranos, literally played with the lives of millions. That they were eventually indicted is beside the point. What is startling is that despite clear evidence being presented by dozens of investigations and whistle-blowers, a culture of vranyo protected their crimes for years. The board of Theranos—quoted as the most illustrious in US corporate history—had luminaries like George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, General 'Mad Dog' Mathias, William Perry and Rupert Murdoch, among others.

In Indian folklore, good kings supposedly visited their empires in disguise to see the reality of their realms first hand. Other leaders achieve the same by encouraging data-driven debates, candid war-games, bringing in disrupters to challenge the status quo and creating alternatives to official channels of communication. They create an environment of psychological safety where the messenger is rewarded for the accuracy of the message, rather than its alignment with preconceived notions or conformance to hierarchy. Because, as Sun Tzu pointed out, all warfare is based on deception. Not self-deception.

Raghu is Founding CEO of the National Intelligence Grid, distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation and author of 'Everyman's War'.