The August War between Russia and Georgia


Initially, Georgia’s attack on the capital of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia on August 8, 2008, seemed like it would lead to yet another bloody, drawn out Caucasus war.

However, the quick, energetic, and sustained intervention of Russia (the guarantor of peace in South Ossetia since 1992) escalated by August 11 into a powerful blitzkrieg against Georgia proper. Commentators who until recently described the Georgian Army as the “best” in the post-Soviet space were at a loss for words.for the Russian Armed Forces.

Indeed, upon his seizure of power in the “Rose Revolution” of 2003, Mikhail Saakashvili devoted exceptional efforts to the creation of a fighting armed force that could return the separatist autonomous republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to the Georgian fold. Moreover, Saakashvili wagered on the broadest possible alliance with the United States and NATO, and on the formation of the Georgian Army according to Western models, with significant US military assistance.

Significant funding went into force generation: during Saakashvili’s rule, Georgia broke world records for defense spending, which grew by 33 times to reach about $1 billion per year in 2007-2008. Last year’s defense budget was 8 percent of the Georgian GDP. Only Saudi Arabia, Oman, and North Korea spend more as a proportion of their national wealth. Georgia has recently made massive purchases of military equipment, including Soviet-made arms from Ukraine and Eastern Europe, as well as modern Western and Israeli equipment. A significant part of the new Georgian army got real field experience in Iraq, in cooperation with the US Army.

The creation of Saakashvili’s army was accompanied by a powerful PR campaign within Georgia and abroad. The Internet was inundated with photos and videos of maneuvers and combat preparations by young Georgian men in American uniforms and helmets. Saakashvili himself took great pleasure in participating in military parades of battalions dressed in American uniforms, marching in an American style along the streets of Tbilisi with American rifles in their hands. The virtual image of a modern “Western Army” was created, just like in Hollywood films. Georgia became a kind of window display for military reform in the Western style.

In the end, Saakashvili seems to have become the victim of his own militaristic self-advertising, convinced that the new Georgian military machine was sufficiently effective, capable, and powerful to impose a final solution on the rebellious autonomous regions. The temptation to use his pretty toy soldiers became increasingly hard to resist; indeed, overwhelming, when he launched upon his fateful military adventure in South Ossetia in August.

The attack on South Ossetia was not spontaneous. Over the course of several days in early August, the Georgians appear to have secretly concentrated a significant number of troops and equipment (the full 2th, 3th and 4th Infantry Brigades, the Artillery Brigade, the elements of the 1th Infantry Brigade, the separate Gori Tank Batallion – total the nine light infantry and five tank battalions, up to eight artillery battalions – plus special forces and Ministry of the Internal Affairs troops – all in all, up to 16,000 men) in the Georgian enclaves in the South Ossetian conflict zone, under cover of providing support for the exchange of fire with Ossetian formations.

On August 7, at about 22:00, the Georgians began a massive artillery bombardment of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, and by dawn the next day began an attack aimed at capturing Tskhinvali and the rest of the territory of South Ossetia. By 08:00 on August 8, Georgian infantry and tanks had entered Tskhinvali and engaged in a fierce battle with Ossetian forces and the Russian peacekeeping battalion stationed in the city.

In these conditions, on the morning of August 8, the Russian Government, headed by Vladimir Putin and Dmitriy Medvedev, decided to conduct an operation to prevent the seizure by Georgia of South Ossetia, characterized as a “peace enforcement” mission. Later that day, three tactical battalion groups from the 135th, 503rd and 693rd Motorized Rifle Regiments of the 19th Motorized Rifle Division (based in Vladikavkaz) of the 58th Army of the North Caucasus Military District were deployed in battle formation to Java and Gufta, and by the end of the day had cleared the roads and heights around Kverneti, Tbeti, and Dzari districts, and as far as the western edge of Tskhinvali. Russian Air Force also took action.

Meanwhile, Georgian forces were engaged in positional battles in Tskhinvali and its environs, but with the entry of Russian forces they stood no chance of success. Nonetheless, the slow passage of Russian forces toward Tskhinvali through the narrow Roki tunnel and along the narrow mountain roads, as well as the difficulties of quickly concentrating a significant quantity of Russian troops from various regions of the North Caucasus, created the impression of slow Russian deployment and the clumsiness of the Russian command.

The fact is that they were compelled by circumstances to introduce their forces into battle batallion by batallion. For this reason, on Saturday, August 9, a fierce battle took place in the region of Tskhinvali, and the Georgians were able to mount several counterattacks, including some with tanks. They even resorted to ambush and partisan tactics, which succeeded in wounding the commander of the 58th Army Lieutenant General A. Khrulyov.

By the morning of August 10, the Georgians had captured almost the whole of Tskhinvali, forcing the Ossetian forces and Russian peacekeeping battalion to retreat to the northern reaches of the city. However, on this very day the accumulation of Russian forces in the region finally bore fruit, and the fighting in South Ossetia reached a turning point. Toward the evening of August 10, Tskhinvali was completely cleared of Georgian forces, which retreated to the south of the city. Georgian forces were also repelled from the key Prisi heights.

The bulk of Georgia`s artillery was defeated. Meanwhile, Ossetian forces, with the support of Russian divisions, took Tamarasheni, Kekhvi, Kurta, and Achabeti on the approach to Tskhinvali from the north. Georgian forces in several of Georgian enclaves were eliminated.

By the evening of August 10, Russia had six regimental tactical groups (135th, 503rd and 693rd Motorized Rifle Regiments of the 19th Motorized Rifle Division from North Ossetia, the 70th and 71th Motorized Rifle Regiments of the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division from Chechnya, and mixed from the 104th and 234th Paratroop Regiments of the 76th Pskov Air Assault Division), units of the 45th Reconnaissance Paratroop Regiment and the 10th and 22nd Special Forces Brigades, as well as significant artillery and air-defense forces. Two Chechen companies from the Zapad and Vostok Battalions and regimental tactical groups of the 98th Ivanovo Airborne Division, deployed to the battle zone too. The total number of Russian forces in South Ossetia reached about 10,000 men and 120 tanks.

At the same time, Russia opened a “second front” in Abkhazia, deploying up to 9,000 men from the 7th Novorossiysk and 76th Pskov Air Assault Aivisions, the elements of the 20th Motorized Rifle Division and two batallions of the Black Sea Fleet Marines. With their support, Abkhaz forces began to dislodge the Georgian forces from the Kodori Gorge.

The Russian Black Sea Fleet left Sevastopol on the evening of August 8 and established a de-facto sea blockade of the Georgian coast. The Russian Task Force included the Moskva guide missile cruiser, the Smetlivy destroyer (Kashin class), the Mirazh (Nanuchka III class) guide missile corvette, the R-239 and R-334 (Tarantul III class) guide missile corvettes, the Aleksandrovets and Murmanets (Grisha V class) corvettes, three minesweepers, three large tank landing ships, a transport, and a rescue ship. On the evening of August 9, the Mirazh corvette probably sank one Georgian patrol cutter with two Malakhit (SS-N-9) anti-ship missiles in what amounted to the Russian Navy’s first real sea battle since 1945.

Russia’s Air Force carried out attacks on military targets all across Georgian territory, completing several hundred sorties using Su-24M Fencer frontal bombers, and Su-25 Frogfoot attack planes, and the Tu-22M3 Backfire long-range bombers. That said, the use of air power was limited by political considerations. There were no attacks on Georgian infrastructure, transport, communications or industry, nor any on government buildings.

The distance of targets from Russian bases also complicated matters. In addition, Russian helicopters had a hard time flying over the Caucasus passes, and thus extensive use of helicopters by Russia began only after August 10-11, once a temporary landing/take-off strip was set up in South Ossetia. The overall losses of Russian Air Force amounted to one Tu-22M3 long-range bomber, one Su-24M Fencer frontal bomber, one Su-24MR Fencer E reconnaissance plane, and four Su-25 attack planes. Moreover, the Russian Army launched 15 Tochka-U (SS-21) short-range ballistic missiles against military targets and a few new Iskander (SS-26) short-range theater ballistic missiles.

Having lost its control over the bulk of South Ossetian territory, Georgian forces began to regroup at Gori. Meanwhile, Georgian units and artillery continued to shell Tskhinvali from a number of high points, and displayed fierce resistance in a number of Georgian enclaves. However, by the end of August 11 South Ossetia was completely cleared of Georgian forces, and Russian units had moved into Georgia proper by the next morning, establishing a demilitarized buffer zone as much as 25 km wide to prevent any further artillery attacks on South Ossetia. Georgian units resisted stubbornly in the area around the village of Zemo-Nikozi, repelling the Russian attack for a short time, but were soon wiped away.

Georgian defenses and the entire army soon began to collapse. From the morning of August 12 onward, the Georgian army began to retreat toward Gori, a retreat which soon grew into a panicked flight from Gori, almost all the way to Tbilisi. Along the way, the Georgians abandoned a significant quantity of ammunition and military equipment, especially the artillery brigade.

On August 11, Russian forces entered Georgia proper from Abkhazia virtually unopposed. Having taken the city of Zugdidi, Russian units (paratroops from the 7th Division) spread across almost all of Western Georgia on raids aimed at destroying heavy weapons at Georgian military bases in Senaki and Poti.

At midday on August 12, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev decided to cease the active phase of the peace-enforcement operation. That evening, Saakashvili signed a preliminary ceasefire agreement that French President Nikolas Sarkozi had just brought from Moscow. Russian formations concentrated along the southern borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, exercising partial control of the demilitarized zone. Meanwhile, active raids on Georgian territory to capture and destroy Georgian weapons, and the “demilitarization of the Georgian armed forces,” continued. From August 13 to 15, Russian paratroops raided Poti again and again, destroying almost all of the docked ships and boats of the Georgian Navy, and took away a quantity of valuable military equipment. In the same days, Russian forces entered Gori and Senaki and began to seize rich trophies from Georgia’s military bases. Other Russian raiding units neared within 20 km of Tbilisi. This all occurred in the context of the complete paralysis of a demoralized Georgian Army, and the conclusion of individual agreements with local Georgian authorities and commanders on nonresistance against the Russian forces. The remaining combat-capable units of the Georgian Army (including the 1st Infantry Brigade hurried back from Iraq) concentrated at the northern approach to Tbilisi in expectation of a Russian attack on the capital. The morale of even these troops was reportedly extremely low.

As announced on end of August, the Russian armed forces sustained official losses of 71 dead, five POW (including two pilots) and 356 injured. However, these figures do not include losses to Ossetian forces and various volunteers (probably, up 150 died). Russian and Ossetian forces lost a few tanks and infantry combat vehicles. Losses to the Georgian side are not yet clear, but estimated at over 500 killed and up to 1,500 injured, with more than 100 POW (though the Russians have acknowledged taking only 15).

Georgia has entirely lost its air and naval forces and air-defense systems. Reportedly, Russian forces captured and destroyed a significant portion of the Georgian army’s arsenals. The Russians seized up to 150 units of Georgian heavy weaponry, including 65 T-72 tanks (including 44 in operational condition), 15 BMP armoured infantry fighting vehicles, a few dozen armored perconnel carriers, vehicles, guns and SAM systems. Russia seized a large quantity of automobiles and small arms, including American M4A3 carbines. Several Georgian tanks, armored vehicles, and guns were completely destroyed in battle.

Thus, not only did Saakashvili’s adventure end in total failure, but Georgia suffered a heavy military defeat. The new Georgian Army clearly did not live up to the ambitious hopes of its leaders. While Georgian servicemen displayed an adequate level of military training and perseverance at the tactical level, at higher levels of command the performance of the Georgian Army was less than satisfactory. The tenacity of the Georgians in South Ossetia can be explained by local and ethnic motivation, typical of interethnic conflicts. But once the ethnic motivation is gone, servicemen quickly lose morale. Typical Caucasus emotionality quickly turned into panic and demoralization when faced with a clearly superior enemy. The unit command of the Georgian Army was unable to maintain discipline, and lost control when under stress and when its communications were attacked. A widespread sense of the futility of fighting against the powerful Russian Armed Forces may also have contributed to the collapse of morale.

A clear analogy can be drawn between the fate of the Georgian Army and the collapse of the armed forces of South Vietnam in 1975. Like the Georgian Army, the South Vietnamese Army was built, trained, according to the American model and was well equipped. However, when they fought against the forces of North Vietnam, which combined local combat techniques with Soviet and Chinese organization and tactics, the outwardly impressive South Vietnamese forces proved to be much less effective than expected and fell apart after several defeats. In Georgia, as in South Vietnam, the imitation of Western methods of organization and force generation failed to match Western levels of military effectiveness. The creation of an effective national military machine requires long-term work on the part of the state, and an ability to take national characteristics into account. In and of themselves, “Western” standards of force generation do not guarantee superiority over “non-Western” armies. Those who believe in the a-priori superiority of the West in military affairs have learned yet another unpleasant lesson from the Georgian affair.

But one should not, however, discount the strength of the Georgian Army, in spite of what happened. On the whole, the Saakashvili regime developed Georgia’s military capacity in a sensible manner, showing an admirable concern for the armed forces. From a technical point of view, the focus on acquiring heavy, self-propelled artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems and air-defense systems proved to be entirely justified, and it was precisely these weapons that inflicted the greatest damage on the Ossetian and the Russian forces. The acquisition of UAVs was similarly justified, along with night vision, modern communications, radio-technical reconnaissance and electronic warfare equipment. In these categories, the Georgian Army was perhaps even better equipped than Russian Army. The emphasis placed by Western military instructors on the individual training of soldiers also seems to have paid off. But, on the whole, the Georgian Army needed more time to ripen. Saakashvili’s rash decision to throw this army into battle prematurely, leading to confrontation with the Russian Armed Forces, led to its fateful demise.

As for the performance of the Russian Armed Forces, the speed of their reaction was clearly unexpected, not only by the Georgians, but by the West as well, not to mention a few pessimistic observers within Russia itself. Three tactical battalion groups from level-ready units were introduced into South Ossetia in a matter of hours. Within three days, a powerful alignment of forces and equipment was assembled under extremely difficult natural conditions, capable of effective action and inflicting quick defeat on a numerically equivalent enemy. The Russian forces may have demonstrated insufficient coherence at the tactical level, but their superiority over the Georgian forces in terms of combat capability and effectiveness is indisputable. Russia has thus demonstrated that it has units and groups ready for combat operations, as well as an effective military command.

The traditionally weak aspects of the Russian Army, such as night operations, reconnaissance, communications, and rear support, remained as before, though in view of the enemy’s weakness these weak points did not play a significant role. There is no doubt that these issues will have to be examined as a first priority in view of the results of the campaign, as well as issues concerning counter-battery combat.

Victory over the Georgian Army during the peace-enforcement operation of August 2008 should not be a cause for euphoria in Moscow, but rather a stimulus to accelerate military transformation and the mass procurement of modern armaments.

Republished, with permission, from the Moscow Defence Brief, published by the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies