Suppose you want to invade Russia. But, beating it in a conventional or nuclear war isn't possible for your people for some reason.

What if, instead, you line up 500,000 soldiers to move to Russia with civilian cover stories, blend in, and at the right moment, emerge everywhere at once with the benefit of surprise, and take over, dropping their cover and becoming an invading/occupying Army (a bit like the lizard people TV mini-series V, but with humans, not lizard people). Put another way, something a bit like a supply it yourself Fifth Column.

Could it be done?

How quickly could it be put in place without being discovered?

Are there any historical precedents for similar tactics being tried and either working or failing?

(Of course, Russia is just a concrete example. It could be India, or Brazil, or Nigeria, instead, for example.)


11 Answers 11


Russia has one of the most liberal immigration policies in the world (a measure Putin's government implemented to counteract its plummeting population due to demographics), but a half-million people in a short period of time is a bit excessive. Still, somewhat theoretically possible.

There are two problems you're going to have to deal with. Russia has one of the strictest gun control regimes on the planet. Aside from shotguns and rifles that people in the rural area have limited permission (note: not right) to possess, there are no legal privately owned firearms. So where this army getting its weapons? And where are they keeping them?

The second issue is maintaining secrecy. There's actually math that can be used to calculate how long a secret can be kept before it can be expected to get out.

On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs

Conspiratorial ideation is the tendency of individuals to believe that events and power relations are secretly manipulated by certain clandestine groups and organisations. Many of these ostensibly explanatory conjectures are non-falsifiable, lacking in evidence or demonstrably false, yet public acceptance remains high. Efforts to convince the general public of the validity of medical and scientific findings can be hampered by such narratives, which can create the impression of doubt or disagreement in areas where the science is well established. Conversely, historical examples of exposed conspiracies do exist and it may be difficult for people to differentiate between reasonable and dubious assertions. In this work, we establish a simple mathematical model for conspiracies involving multiple actors with time, which yields failure probability for any given conspiracy. Parameters for the model are estimated from literature examples of known scandals, and the factors influencing conspiracy success and failure are explored. The model is also used to estimate the likelihood of claims from some commonly-held conspiratorial beliefs; these are namely that the moon-landings were faked, climate-change is a hoax, vaccination is dangerous and that a cure for cancer is being suppressed by vested interests. Simulations of these claims predict that intrinsic failure would be imminent even with the most generous estimates for the secret-keeping ability of active participants—the results of this model suggest that large conspiracies (≥1000 agents) quickly become untenable and prone to failure. The theory presented here might be useful in counteracting the potentially deleterious consequences of bogus and anti-science narratives, and examining the hypothetical conditions under which sustainable conspiracy might be possible.


TLDR version: the more people involved, the faster someone will blow it. Using some of the examples in the article, counting just the 500,000 soldiers it will be a near certainty the operation will be blown in under 3 years. There's 50% odds it will be blown within one year. And that doesn't count the people staying at home who know about the operation.

So, realistically, no.

Additional Note

In the comments below are comparisons to real life-operations such as D-Day. That isn't a valid comparison for several reasons, chief among them being that while the details of Operation Overlord were a secret (times, locations of the attack, and so on) the existence of an imminent invasion was not, and could not be. Everyone knew it was coming, and the general area of where it would happen. There was no way to hide the fact an invasion was being prepared, and it wasn't even tried.

In comparison, the postulated scenario of infiltrating a large force is a conspiracy; it's not a matter of simply keeping secret the detailed plans of the operation, it's keeping the very existence of the operation itself a secret. Merely knowing that it's going on blows it.

Making D-Day equivalent would be saying that not only did the Germans not know where the invasion was going to happen and when, they didn't know there was an invasion force collecting in England, nor indeed that there was actually a war going on.

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    $\begingroup$ Plans of D-Day were known to a very limited number of people until the very last days, while the Underground Railroad and large insurgencies were/are not secret per se. Everybody knows about the existance of insurgencies in, e.g., Myanmar, but only a small number of local villagers loyal to the insurgents know where the insurgents hide. $\endgroup$ – ain92 Mar 7 '19 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ @ohwilleke, everyone knew that D-Day was coming, just not the exact time or place. It was impossible to keep the fact the Allies were planning to land in northern France a secret; there were half-hearted attempts to suggest Norway, for instance, but no one seriously bought it. What you are suggesting isn't trying to conceal the exact when/where of D-Day, it's trying to conceal the fact there's going to be an invasion at all, which was utterly impossible. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Mar 7 '19 at 17:11
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    $\begingroup$ The deception on when and where the D-Day landing was going to be was one of the greatest pieces of counter-intelligence ever perpetrated. Keeping in mind that Germany was bombing England every night and the staging ground for the invasion was also in England. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Mar 7 '19 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison: Having written papers discussing the D-Day Deception, Hitler was so convinced that D-Day was a feint for the "real" invasion, that by the time he broke off troops from the anticipated point, the Normandy Beach Head was too entrenched to push back. The Allies achieved this by staging a fake Invasion army at the closest English land to France (Normandy was actually quite far from Pas De Calis, the closest French land to England, and England in general). General Patton lead the ruse, because the Germans respected him and figured he would be the obvious leader of the invasion.+ $\endgroup$ – hszmv Mar 7 '19 at 22:41
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    $\begingroup$ + (In Truth, Patton was still in trouble for the slapping incident. Naming him as commander of the fake army served purpose to punish Patton, and please Hitler). The Brits had managed to flip a spy sent by the Germans (GARBO) who's XX spy ring was made of 20 entirely fictional spies who GARBO reported back to Hitler. GARBO was awarded Britian's highest military honors for his work... and Germany awarded him the Iron Cross! He is the only WWII participant to receive the highest military honors from both an Allied and Axis power. Hitler did not think a Normandy Invasion would happen. $\endgroup$ – hszmv Mar 7 '19 at 22:46

Short answer is no, but the longer answer is far more interesting.

First of all, if you're looking at a simple, knock down, drag out fight with the military in question, let's assume you need equal numbers to the military in question.

There is a really cool graph out of the world bank that shows the percentages of population in the military across the world, and by country, over time. The current average is around 0.9%, but let's assume that you want to get 1% of Russia's population being made up of your fifth column.

Russia's population is currently around 145m, meaning you need 1.4m, maybe 1.5m sleepers in the country. Based on some statistics I pulled off the internet, in 2017 Russia admitted around 250k immigrants that year.

Based on this model, assuming you can take EVERY immigration place in the Russian admission program, it's still going to take you 6 years to embed your sleeper force.

BUT; if you want an army and not a network of terror cells, you also need equipment. You need guns (of course), possibly tanks, planes, missiles, and LOTS of computers. You need infrastructure like training bases, etc. Otherwise, all you're doing is engaging in a guerrilla war in the streets, and that's still going to need lots and lots of small arms.

BUT; you also need a plan. Just going street to street and taking the country is (in a word) dumb. You want to take critical infrastructure, especially communication infrastructure, and neutralise your enemy's capacity to fight back. That means taking their bases et al. For that, you really want to embed your army in their army.

That means infiltration, having kids that are born in Russia, and getting them ALL to join the military. That's on average a 30 year investment or so to get the outcome you're after.

I'd argue that there's more efficient ways to do it, but it does have one single benefit that ties in nicely with Sun Tzu; you'd have your army literally living off the enemy lands once you've started your covert invasion.

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    $\begingroup$ There's also the laughable idea that you're somehow going to have 1.5M children of immigrants in a foreign military force without any of them getting caughts and revealing the scope of your military. $\endgroup$ – Nzall Mar 7 '19 at 11:42
  • $\begingroup$ From the source you cited, in 2016 Russia had 1.9% of its population in the military. If you want to match it 1:1, this is 2.8m soldiers you'll need. $\endgroup$ – Legisey Mar 7 '19 at 12:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Legisey that's right, but as I said in my answer I applied the global average for the figures because I felt that it was a better fit for taking out naval forces and many air force personnel who would be involved in a ground war. But if you were matching person for person you'd be right, making it closer to 12 years to bring your numbers up via the model I described. $\endgroup$ – Tim B II Mar 7 '19 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ In this analysis a large state with a small military looks promising, e.g. Indonesia or Brazil. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Mar 7 '19 at 15:03

The biggest problem that you're going to face is secrecy

I probably don't need to point out that 500,000 people is a large number. Each one of those soldiers is a detection risk. If any one of them acts suspiciously enough to be picked up by the Russian intelligence operations. Even worse, each one of your soldiers is a defection risk.

And once you've lost the element of surprise, every part of your plan works against you. Your soldiers are isolated, difficult to contact, and in a foreign country. They'll be easily picked up one by one, and by the time it comes for you to trigger the attack, you'll have no army.

Even if every member of your army has ironclad loyalty and master level acting skills, you'll still get discovered

Wikipedia places the population of temporary migrant workers at about 7 million. That means that 500,000 additional people is about a 7% increase in that count, not exactly a drop in the bucket. Especially since the increase is coming entirely from a single country.

Even if some of your soldiers arrive through other channels, you simply can't conceal the movement of that many people, and the powers that be are going to notice. Especially when they notice that your armed forces are vanishing mysteriously.

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    $\begingroup$ "Especially when they notice that your armed forces are vanishing mysteriously." yeah, I was thinking about that in relation to something else. Even assuming your soldiers have ironclad loyalty and master level acting skills, they still need to arrive in Russia which includes a background check. So you'd have to have a bunch of people forging documents for them and making up backgrounds. Are all of these people master level forgers and writers, too? Surely even a bad immigration officer in Russia would eventually go "hold on, this doesn't make sense" after seeing a thousand bacckgrounds. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Mar 7 '19 at 5:31
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    $\begingroup$ And somebody at some point would look just a little bit into this mass exodus from the country and see that, gee, the army is getting depleted. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Mar 7 '19 at 5:32
  • $\begingroup$ @VLAZ Right, the departing side secrecy Issue is big. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Mar 7 '19 at 14:37

Infiltration might work for small targets, but a whole country is too big of a chop for it to work alone.

First of all, if you want to be secretive, you cannot board 500000 soldiers on the smallest number of flights, so you would have to dilute them among normal passengers. Let's say you use 50 soldiers per flight. It takes 10000 flights to carry the entire group, and assuming you fly to the major 3 cities, with a flight every day, it will take you a bit more than 9 years just to infiltrate them.

Then you need to provide them logistic support: they will have to be provided weapons, instructions, means of sustaining, a believable façade to ensure they can stay that long in a foreign country without looking too suspicious and without leaking any info outside or defecting. Oh, of course you need that façade also before they depart. Formally they never worked for the army (and I doubt your own government will be happy with having 500000 secret soldiers).

Then, when the day X comes, you cannot hope for them to take over the country without giving them some sort of support: air supremacy is a must in modern warfare, and you have infiltrated only soldiers.

  • $\begingroup$ What if most were guest workers for a single project with heavy equipment to hide weapons in - e.g., mostly covers as a huge Chinese labor crew supposedly building a high speed rail line for Russia at a discount price? This also explains the sudden deficit of skilled people in the source country and makes it easier for the Army to stay organized as a unit. Language gaps could also reduce the secrecy risk without looking suspicious. A Trojan horse writ large. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Mar 7 '19 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ @ohwilleke That is a lot of equipment. I doubt more than 100k of those 500k are actual soldiers. IE the Tooth to Tail Ratio. So either they are just guys with a gun and a little ammo or they are an entire army. An entire army needs massive amounts of equipment and logistics. I cannot even think of a project that would have that many workers anyways. The "workers" would still have to actually work for a little while, so they would need their actual tools and materials in addition to their gear. It would be quite difficult to not only get the actual gear but the military gear in undetected. $\endgroup$ – user2259716 Mar 7 '19 at 20:48

Complementing all fine answers above, all historical precedents I can think of are Coups in African countries by mercenary groups sponsored by foreign powers in the last half-century.

Seychelles 1981 - 50 "we're tourists" mercenary team attempts and fails to oust the Goverment.

Equatorial Guinea 2004 - more "we're tourists" guys blown out while waiting for weapons shipment.

Maldives 1988 - Another bunch of "we're tourists" infiltrators (it's a classic now) with backup from a simultaneous landing succeeding to take over the capital city before been kicked out by Indian Army help.

There are other might-be examples, but too little information available on them to decide if they fit your criteria. Overall they match responses so far, any attempt you make will fail because secrecy will be blown beforehand or invading team will be too weak to actually take control of the territory & prepare defenses for a counterattack.

  • $\begingroup$ Hmmm. . . . There is a place where the tourist plan might work: KSA. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Mar 7 '19 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ @ohwilleke, the problem with that idea for Saudi Arabia (assuming that's who you mean) is that most of the significant military bases are not in areas where tourists would be expected or even allowed. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Mar 7 '19 at 22:32
  • $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison If all the places where tourists were allowed to go (e.g. Mecca, Medina, the Capital, a few other cities) were seized and controlled, the military would be impotent. It is like a wall, designed to keep invaders out, not to purge the area inside of an occupying army. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Mar 7 '19 at 23:46
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    $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison I do not think any army would stay put. What OP proposes is basically a Coup d'etat by an external agency, but coups only succeed when they have massive social support or indifference to the ousted regime. A foreign agent successfully pulling one will trigger any surviving army in bloodthristy mode, or make civilians look for weapons. Then your 50 to 500k isolated, no logistics, no big provisions garrison is in huge problems. $\endgroup$ – Seretba Mar 8 '19 at 9:45
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    $\begingroup$ @ohwilleke On KSA example, I understand most senior positions in the Army and Goverment are related to ruling family. Eliminate the higher echelons in both then go to the second cousin once removed of the guys you just disposed of, who happens to be leading a Brigade, to join you; see what happens next :-) $\endgroup$ – Seretba Mar 8 '19 at 9:51

Even the United States (a very large, immigrant nation) has a total of about a million immigrants per year and the biggest single sending country (Mexico) sends less than 200,000 per year. While you may be able to send a small group of elite soldiers this way, anything like a full-scale invasion army would be pretty obvious.

It would also be very hard to maintain discipline among troops that are not constantly living together. In a group of hundreds of thousands there is bound to be a few that would fall in love or find religion or go over to the the enemy or get drunk and blab about the invasion.


Yes, it can be done, it just takes a very long time.

It will be more or less difficult depending on the target country.

Your troops will have to blend in with the country's normal population, as tourists, guest workers, whatever.

Here's the plan:

  1. Emplace a small network of deep cover intelligence agents in the country through normal secret agent methods.

  2. Have the network corrupt politicians and law enforcement officials to enable large sections of the country's borders to be unmonitored.

  3. Have the network foment grievances among different groups of people in target country. Use any precedent or cause that will sound plausible to the targeted groups. Class warfare, ethnic strife, religious disputes, economic woes, anything to get a group of people to be sympathetic to illegal activity and against their own society.

  4. Start infiltrating your troops through the unmonitored border into the target country over time, like 50,000 a year. Send them into the areas infested with the grievance groups your network has created. Have your grievance groups infiltrate law enforcement, the military, the media, and the political system.

  5. Have your network create organized crime groups supposedly in service to the causes of the grievance groups (terrorist groups do this to make money for their operations). Have the organized crime groups generate funding and form a network able to move weapons and equipment.

  6. Have your grievance groups foment an atmosphere of civil strife throughout the target country to stress the political and social systems. Demand redress for all manner of grievances. Use the media to constantly propagandize the public that the society is bad and has to be radically changed.

  7. When you have enough troops in the country, say after 15 years, send all your grievance groups into the streets all at once to commit civil unrest until the government gives them all the different things they want or resigns. Once the country is in chaos and the cops are stretched to the limit, have commando teams attack the power grid and cut power to the major cities and blow up transportation links so the authorities can't effectively move forces.

  8. Then, have your secret army attack military bases to neutralize or capture vehicles, heavy equipment, and strategic weapons. The authorities will not immediately understand that the secret army is a different force than their own citizens who are doing civil unrest, and they will not respond with the necessary force for a period of time. In this period of time, your secret army captures military bases and arms itself with the target country's tanks, helicopters and artillery. Your secret army attacks the target country's air force bases, destroying the target country's air force on the ground and depriving any surviving loyalist aircraft of critical ground support.

  9. Capture the media. Propagandize the people that it's all the authorities fault, and that the grievance groups just want what they rightfully deserve. Broadcast fake stories about government troops committing atrocities against the defenseless public. Have your commandos put on government uniforms and commit some atrocities if necessary. Broadcast fake reports about the grievance groups winning and taking over throughout the country.

  10. Have a corrupted politician or well-known grievance group leader go on national media and call for peace, while your secret army attacks disorganized and unprepared government troops and cops. Have your commandos assassinate all the loyal politicians it can, so those positions can be filled with your corrupted politicians or with grievance group leaders.

  11. Broadcast fake media reports of government troops surrendering or refusing to fight against the grievance groups. Broadcast fake reports of the well-known grievance group leader being swept to power by popular demand. Meanwhile you move in massive reinforcements for your secret army along with units of your country's military as 'peacekeepers' doing 'humanitarian relief'. Your commandos, secret army, and your official army launch an all out attack on all remaining government forces.

  12. Once your forces control the streets, betray the grievance groups. Have your secret army and your 'peacekeepers' blow them away while wearing government uniforms. Broadcast fake reports of government forces working with 'peacekeepers' to 'restore order'.

  13. Arrest the well-known grievance group leader you've been pumping up in the media, and have a corrupted politician go on national media, blame the whole thing on that guy and the grievance groups, and announce that martial law is in effect until 'order is restored', and that government forces are now ordered to work with the 'peacekeepers' to 'restore order'. Exterminate the grievance groups and all the traitors who helped your forces.

  14. Have the corrupt politician create a new force to help 'restore order'. This new force just happens to be your secret army, which now has government authority.

  15. Crush all resistance, make your corrupt politician the 'supreme leader for the duration of the emergency', and enjoy the spoils of your conquest.


You could write a book with a different scenario. American tries to invade Russia, so that they try to send 500,000 brainwashed soldiers. Although they were told what to do when the time comes but before that they can't remember what's the actual mission is because of the device that is inside their head. When the time's up, the American send signal to Russia and all the undercover soldiers will be awake and they started to kill every Russian.

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    $\begingroup$ So an army of mancuhria candidates... interesting... $\endgroup$ – Efialtes Mar 7 '19 at 11:27
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    $\begingroup$ If you're going to brainwash people, just do it with natives from the country. Since you have the tech to do that and on a mass scale, it should be simple in comparison to either kidnap or otherwise get natives to brainwash. Maybe open a secret brainwash centre in the country itself to save on the trips. Disguise it as something else that isn't too suspicious and you might even get people to willingly come to you. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Mar 7 '19 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ @VLAZ Open a modelling agency. Brainwash the beautiful young women. When they are activated they will be with rich/powerful men. VR tech demos can be used to reach a lot of people and to mask the weird equipment. Lot of ways to reach people covertly. This is a feasible idea. $\endgroup$ – user2259716 Mar 8 '19 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ @user2259716 sure, if we go down that route, you can probably also use stuff like video games and self-help sources to program people without being next to them or in the same country. However, it all hinges on having the science and tech to brainwash people into the perfect sleeper agents, as well as what the limitations of that process are. Unfortunately, that's not OP's premise. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Mar 8 '19 at 16:18

You cannot take over but you can do a LOT of damage.

Maybe a look at threats to America. Set a date for everyone to move. Open borders. Sneak in 5-6 nukes in trucks over more obscure roads. Set the nukes in trucks to detonate just outside the five or six top military bases. Sneak in other insurgents as you can (walk over the border). Have some target dams and power production facilities. Have others identify and be ready to poison the water supplies (my brother was over the water department of a small city and all that kept people out of the water tanks was a padlock). Target some major bridges and communication towers. There is actual insurgent training facilities found here and just over the Mexican border. You will not be able to win with the undercover army but the first blow can be HUGE.


An alternative reason it won't work... Immersion and conversion.

Country A sends a spy to Country B. The spy is Joe. Joe lives in B, talks with people, becomes one with the people. Joe starts to sympathize with B. Then, they decide that their new friends are better than their old ones. Now, they are a fan of B.

Joe now tells B about A's plans. Operation blown.

This is something that actually happens. Defections happen.


russia has strictest gun laws in the world, there are only few people in rural areas who own shot guns and rifles, first off all it wil not be possible for undercover army to get visa and if they get where do they live anonymously?

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    $\begingroup$ I disagree that this doesn't answer the question. It could have been a better answer, though, by fleshing out the details. Shah's offering a frame challenge. When you have a moment, Shah, take our tour and look through our help center to better understand our expectations. Thanks! $\endgroup$ – JBH Mar 9 '19 at 17:59

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