If the Russian side had the intention to bring Georgia to its knees, then it thought the goal had been achieved. Alas, this time it was Russia which was wrong – the military victory did not translate into a political one.
The 2008 August War – as the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia is called – has drawn unjustifiably little attention in the military analysts’ community, even though it was one of the most genuine lessons in conventional warfare of the past twenty years, has busted quite a few myths and dogmas, and not just from a political perspective, but also in terms of military aspects. I have discussed the 2008 August War many times in the media as well as in several lectures, and even though I do not always represent the politically correct standpoint – i.e. being supportive to Georgia – it has always been because I am interested in war as a process, not war as international politics. Even though Clausewitz has said that war is the continuation of politics by other means, the military still analyses war based on tactics, technology and principles of warfare.
That is why this writing discusses neither the international situation that led to the war nor the outcomes of the war, but rather the military capabilities that both sides possessed and the technology and tactics that were used. Since we have less information about Russia, the main emphasis will therefore be on Georgia. Moreover, we (i.e. Estonia) would have good reasons to compare ourselves to Georgia if we were to discuss the topic of the so-called Russian danger. Besides, I no longer served in the military intelligence in August 2008, so I have not got an in-depth overview of the changes that had taken place in the Russian military up to that point and what exactly happened in the North Caucasus Military District of the Russian Federation. What we do know is that it is definitely the most capable military district of the Russian army, as the district has actual military experience from Chechnya as well as Dagestan.
The main question – why?
First, I have to admit that to this day it is relatively difficult to obtain information about what really happened at any given moment in 2008. I had the possibility to work as a Defence Attaché in Georgia for more than a year and I must confess that the otherwise hospitable and friendly Georgians clammed up every time the topic veered towards the August War. Those no longer in active service were more outspoken, but those still in the force gave without exception the standard answer – the Big Russia attacked and the Small Georgia could not stand up for itself, and regardless of that it was a victory, because Putin was unable to oust Mikheil Saakashvili and conquer Tbilisi.
We shall return to wins and losses later, but such a reply did not help me get an answer to my main question: ‘Why?’ Why was there no contingency plan, why was the Roki Tunnel not blown up, why was there no guerrilla warfare, why did mobilisation fail, why did the Georgian army retreat after achieving military success, why were such a large amount of vehicles left to the enemy, and a whole lot of other whys.
While serving as an Attaché, I could certainly sense some changes in the post-war Georgian armed forces, such as increased attention to training officers. Knowing the officers’ background during the war, it was a thoroughly reasonable step. I partook in quite a few meetings and myself arranged for our military personnel to visit Georgia, the topic of the visits being the lessons of the 2008 war. Once again – those parts of the visits were usually restricted to relatively weak and superficial presentations, all interchangeably similar to one another. A bigger breakthrough – if one could call a breakthrough the fact that the Georgians opened their mouths – took part in autumn 2012 after the parliamentary elections, when the Saakashvili-led party United National Movement lost to the coalition of the business tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream. As Ivanishvili subsequently became Georgia’s Prime Minister, many viewpoints changed, attitudes towards the 2008 war among them. That is why we now know what (at least part of) the Georgians really think of the war.
Even then, some of the information must be handled with a certain reservation, because a genuinely Georgian hunt for war criminals has begun in Georgia; in other words, the elite of yesterday is being blamed for all the seven deadly sins, including treason and co-operation with Russia.
Political background – only just a bit
Every war needs to have a motive, a reason. Since wars today are waged mostly to gain influence, we should briefly touch upon the situation in the South Caucasus. One way or another, the area has been in Russia’s sphere of influence already for a couple of hundred years. Having a say in the transit of local oil and natural gas is definitely important to Russia. Oil and natural gas come from Azerbaijan, but also from Iran.
Although the Azeri economy is too big a mouthful for Russia, the latter keeps Azerbaijan on its leash through the military prism – the years-long conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is an excellent alley for achieving that. Russia provides the poor Armenians with weapons, as well as selling armaments to the Azeris, keeping the quantities relatively equal so that neither side can get the upper hand right away. Even though Azerbaijan is quite a headache for Russia, it is in no rush to join the West and can still quite easily be controlled by Russia, because Azerbaijan knows full well that if it were to chum with the West, it would not receive any weapons from either the West or the East – weapons that Baku thinks it needs.
Armenia is a poor and isolated country. The quarrels with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and with Turkey about the genocide have put Armenia in a very tight spot where they basically have no allies in the entire region. Georgia does try to be the conciliator and the mediator in the region, but being poor itself, it cannot support the even poorer Armenia with much of anything. That is why the fate of Armenia depends largely on Russia.
This is a vicious circle – as far as the West is concerned, Armenia is overly under the influence of Russia; however, Armenia cannot really help it because no other country but Russia supports it. Russia on the other hand needs such a bridgehead in the region. Even though Armenia does not have a common border with Russia, Moscow can influence the politics in the region solely by requiring transit routes to Armenia through third countries.
Iran cannot be entirely ignored, either. Although Russia supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, the relations between the two countries have considerably improved by this point. Russia knows how to support countries that the rest of the world boycotts. Russia has always had some influence in the Middle East, even if it is achieved through weapons exports. Due to the events in Syria and Egypt, the situation has become more complicated these days – Russia is losing its positions and therefore has to get a stronger grip on what is left.
Georgia is located in the middle of everything described above. Although Georgia became independent after the breakup of the Soviet Union, ties with Russia remained strong. Georgia became a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which consists of the former Soviet republics under the leadership of Russia. Georgia also waged two civil wars at the beginning of the 1990s – 1991–1992 with South Ossetia and 1992–1993 with Abkhazia – as a result of which the two territories severed ties with the central government. They became Russia-controlled territories similar to Transnistria in Moldova.
Russia managed to keep Georgia in its sphere of influence precisely through such hotbeds of tension and economic dependence. Even if some Georgian president got out of hand (for example Zviad Gamsakhurdia), he was replaced (for example with Eduard Shevardnadze). After Saakashvili’s rise to power, however, Georgia took a sharp turn towards the West, which certainly angered Russia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, still waging war with the central government, gained an even more important role in that power play.
On the one hand, Russia was able to exhibit care and compassion towards the people living in those territories, the majority of whom took Russian citizenship as a result of Georgia’s less than professional domestic politics. On the other hand – and Russia knows it full well – there is a question mark hanging over Georgia’s attempts at NATO membership while the country has not resolved its domestic political issues. At the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it quite bluntly that a country with unresolved internal strife cannot be invited to become a member of NATO. Such opinions were quite probably the impetus behind the decisive actions attempted by Georgia’s leaders. Russia was also most certainly aware of this. Conflicts with Georgia on the borders of the separatist regions continued and Russia was edging towards official recognition of the regions, comparing this to the decision that had been made regarding Kosovo. Under the guise of peacekeeping, however, Russia maintained a permanent military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Abkhazia or South Ossetia?
But let us return to the war. By August 2008, both sides had undertaken multiple military manoeuvres and fought quite a few battles both in the media and on the border. Even though negotiations had been held to resolve the situation, no solution had been reached, although Russia had at one point stated its position that if there were to be talks about returning territory to Georgia, then they could only be about South Ossetia. In the case of Abkhazia, a solution was out of the question. Georgia had had success in regaining central control over Adjara in 2004; however, the subsequent decision to send special forces into South Ossetia ruined all the chances to negotiate with Russia, since Russia blamed Georgia for violating the Sochi agreement. Russia made abrupt changes to its South Caucasus policy and began to exhibit a clear-cut position that in the case of a dispute it would apply the principles outlined in its White Paper – Russia will not exclude using military power, should its security face a threat emanating from a bordering state (which would be a danger to Russian borders and the interests of its citizens, instability stemming from the weakness of the bordering country’s government).
Nevertheless, even in June 2008 all the signs showed that even if war were to erupt, it would happen in Abkhazia. It was in Abkhazia that Russia established numerous military-strategic structures and increased its contingent to 3,000 men. Its preparations for war in Abkhazia could also be deduced from the sending of a 300-strong railway military force to Abkhazia at the end of May with the objective of returning to service all the sections of the railways that had fallen into disrepair. As is well known, railways are the main strategic means of transporting troops and equipment in Russia.
The Georgians were not sitting on their hands, either, and made many reconnaissance flights over Abkhazia using UAVs bought from Israel. The Russians finally shot down two of the UAVs. It is difficult to tell whether that was the result of Israel passing the UAV codes to Russia or just Russia’s successful air defence; in any case Georgia stopped the flights after the incident in May 2008, but after losing the first drone it sent 12,000 soldiers to Senaki (a town near the Abkhazian border) in April.
The situation changed in June. It was on the border of South Ossetia where skirmishes between Georgian armed forces and separatists became more frequent. The Ossetians attacked the Georgian-populated villages in South Ossetia, which was met with Georgian mortar fire from behind the line of control. In this ever more tense situation, on July 15 Russia began its large-scale military exercise Kavkaz 2008, with approximately 8,000 soldiers taking part. The exercise continued until 2 August and after its conclusion the military units remained in the vicinity of the South Ossetian border.
Coinciding with Kavkaz, Georgia began its military exercise Immediate Response 2008, with 1,650 Georgian and American soldiers participating. After the conclusion of the exercise Georgia concentrated its troops near the South Ossetian border.
The situation became even tenser. On 1 August, a bloody skirmish erupted between the two sides, with 11 dead and 21 wounded. Over the next days, up to 35,000 civilians were evacuated from South Ossetia (according to some sources) and both sides began preparing for war.
Who started the war?
In the absence of an unambiguous declaration of war, there is always the question of who started it. We Estonians think that in the case of the August War of 2008, Russia was the aggressor. At the same time, there are those who claim that Georgia started the war. Indeed, considering the complicated situation in South Caucasus in the summer of 2008, it is difficult to say exactly who started the war. In fact – we should first agree upon how we define starting a war.
At the Caucasus security conference of 2012 I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation by Andrei Illarionov, Caucasus analyst of international renown, where he explained why in his opinion it was Russia who started the war. His main argument was that any military operation begins with an order. It is known precisely when the Georgian forces were given an order to begin a military operation, which was on 7 August around 14:00 in the defence council of the Georgian parliament. It was then that the Georgian forces received an order to enter South Ossetia and restore Georgian rule in the area. The order was therefore offensive, as much as I understand. There is no exact information about the Russian order. Illarionov believes that taking into account the various signs, the order was given on 5 August, the signs being the evacuation, mobilisation in Ossetia, and other signs (the arrival of the press in the region). Now the question arises – what was the order exactly? It could not have been offensive, because Russia was already in control of the South Ossetian territory. Had the order been of the offensive kind, the Russian forces would have entered Georgian territory at a more convenient location and launched an attack towards Tbilisi. That did not happen. The Russian forces entered the Roki Tunnel when the Georgian artillery was already bombing Tskhinvali. Therefore, there must be a mistake in what Illarionov is saying or there are nuances that he did not to mention. As long as I do not know that, I cannot agree with him.
As far as provocations are concerned, however, I agree that the Russian side or rather the Ossetians with support from the Russian forces conducted a multitude of provocations during the summer of 2008, which led to the war. Incessant border violations and intervening in another country’s internal affairs can be very provoking, as well as continuous fire over the line of control, installing mines on the roads on the other side, and much more.
In fact it seems that neither side believed up to the last minute that they would be at war. The Russian side could not believe that the Georgians would launch an attack after such a demonstration of power from the Russians. The Georgians in turn thought that Russia would not dare to pick a fight with them, because Georgia was friends with the Great America. By 2008, the United States had become Georgia’s most important military partner. The interest in the partnership was mutual, because Georgian armed forces were in need of Western modernisation, the main partner thus far, Turkey, having only supported Georgia overly through the prism of its own political ambitions that also included a certain religious nuance.
Georgia is a very religious, Orthodox Christian country, and while other faiths are tolerated, there is a lack of tolerance towards other faiths being cultivated at state level. It is interesting how many people I’ve spoken to about the cooling of the Georgian-Turkish military co-operation who mentioned right at the outset that the Turks wanted to build mosques at military barracks and that this caused the Georgians to be more reserved.
Be that as it may, but when the United States expressed interest in military co-operation with Georgia, the latter considered them the best possible strategic partner. The US had certainly its own interests in Georgia, first and foremost transit to Afghanistan, which the United States and many other Western countries route through Georgia. Of course, there had to be other interests as well, Georgia’s proximity to the problematic Iran and the simmering Syria are among those that we can suspect today. One must also mention Georgia’s contribution to international military operations. In August 2008, there was a battalion-sized Georgian contingent deployed in Iraq.
The Russian analysts were obviously able to assess the international situation adequately and calculated that should Georgia send its regular forces to attack the newly independent South Ossetia and should Russia react to it with a military counterstrike, it would not cause a war between great powers, because first there will be a dispute as to who the aggressor is – Russia or Georgia itself. Even if we posited that South Ossetia is part of Georgia, it is unacceptable to use armed forces against the civil population living on the country’s own territory without declaring a state of emergency. These calculations proved to be correct – by the time the international community had formulated a position, Georgia had already lost the war.
The Georgian side has repeatedly claimed that by August 2008, there was basically a staff of the Russian regular forces’ brigade set up in Tskhinvali, and that there were not one but two battalions stationed in the peacekeepers’ base there. In addition to that, the Russians had allegedly transferred a unit the size of a regiment to the Dzhava base north of Tskhinvali immediately before the beginning of the war. The Georgians claim that they gave the order to enter South Ossetia only after the Russian forces were exiting the Roki Tunnel, and even then only to defend the villages with ethnic Georgian population around Tskhinvali and to stop the occupation forces from moving further south. Everything, however, turned out different in reality – the units were given orders to occupy and take control of Tskhinvali.
Military capabilities of the adversaries
As already mentioned above, in August 2008, the modernisation and ‘westernisation’ of the armed forces was underway in Georgia. In addition to the American and Turkish instructors, training was received from Germany and other countries. Weaponry was mostly Soviet, modernised by the Ukrainian and Israeli weapons industries. Military expenditure was high (six per cent of GDP in 2007), but the defence forces needed to be built up. Georgia had decided in favour of a professional army supported by the National Guard and the reserve forces (conscription had not been discarded, the recruits simply were not serving in the operational units).
Nonetheless, the Georgian defence forces were far from ready to wage a war. Training was conducted mostly at troop and company level; there were no larger joint exercises meant to train for operations and to rehearse co-operation with other branches. The only unit that more or less met NATO requirements was the 1st Infantry Brigade that was for the most part made up of the battalion deployed in Iraq. The officers’ education was questionable – enormous staff turnover rate, clan-based leadership and constant changes in command did not allow for the forming of an officer corps capable of actually conducting battles. On the eve of the war most brigade commanders and other senior officers were replaced, resulting in an almost complete inability for military leadership. The commander of the Georgian armed forces’ joint staff (Georgia does not have a commander of the defence forces), General Zaza Gogava, may have been an officer with a terrific career in counter-terrorism and special forces, but he had no experience in the co-operation of the different branches and armed services of the armed forces, not to mention the fact that military operations were often conducted directly from the political level. This left an impression that the military was expected to be totally subordinate to political decisions and not express any initiative of its own.
The National Guard and the reserve forces, for a time even mobilised during the war, completely lacked in leadership and purpose. They were not given any tasks of territorial defence or organised activity. Support units did exist, but they had inadequate wartime assignments and no heavy weapons or vehicles. Equipment and ammunition had to be transported to the location mostly from the Tbilisi region. Basically, it can be said that Georgia had a large amount of professional soldiers in three armed services, plus the infantry, tank units and artillery that did not co-operate much with one another. In addition to that there was a special forces brigade, which mostly meant well-armed and well-equipped soldiers, who were good snipers and were able to call in indirect fire strikes if necessary, but who lacked the necessary skills and orders to perform operations behind enemy lines, such as the ability to conduct mine warfare and perform demolitions, set up ambushes in mountain passes etc.
After the exercises, both sides began concentrating their forces in the vicinity of the South Ossetian border. Georgia deployed an artillery brigade in Gori (some 20 km from South Ossetia), which had normally been located in two different locations. The 2nd and 3rd infantry brigade was brought to the vicinity of the border, as well as the 4th infantry brigade that had recently been transferred from the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence. Some other units were also deployed in the region. All in all, there may have been approximately 12,000 men on the North Ossetian border by the beginning of August, about 80 tanks, more than 130 armoured vehicles (BMP, BTR, Cobra), 114 artillery systems (mostly of the 122 mm D-30 variety), almost 30 multiple rocket launchers (colloquially known as Katyushas), various air defence systems (including up to two battalions’ equivalent of Buk-1M air defence systems), nine Su-25 airplanes and some Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters. The total size of the Georgian armed forces at that period was estimated at approximately 20,000 men, with the addition of 100,000 men from the reserve and the National Guard, according to the official data.
After the Russian exercise Kavkaz 2008 ended on 2 August, the majority of the Russian units did not return to their permanent bases, remaining in the vicinity of South Ossetian border instead. Those were mostly the units of the 58th Army of the North Caucasus Military District, but some other units that had taken part of the exercises remained in the region as well, such as the battalions of the 76th and the 98th Air Assault Division, the infamous Chechen special forces (spetsnaz) battalion Vostok, and a subunit of the spetsnaz brigade from the Moscow Military District. Together with the so-called peacekeeping battalion located in Tskhinvali, the size of the Russian contingent in the South Ossetian region at the end of the war was approximately 14,000 men.
During the conflict, the Russians presumably brought approximately 100 tanks (of which 35 were the aging T-55 and T-62s), 200 artillery systems (mostly of the 152 mm 2S3 variety), 30 multiple rocket launchers, a few hundred armoured vehicles (motorised rifles units are transported on armoured personnel carriers), combat aircraft (Su-24, Su-34, Su-25, Su-27, and Tu-22), helicopters (Mi-24 and Mi-8) and even operational-tactical missile systems Tochka-U and Iskander. Later, when a second front was opened in western Georgia, about 10,000 soldiers, 30 tanks, a few hundred armoured vehicles and 120 artillery systems were added to that number.
Even though the 58th Army is one of the most experienced in the Russian armed forces and has been through thick and thin in all the Caucasian wars, the state of that military unit in 2008 was far from good. Although the official version of the August War talks about the 58th Army’s involvement, in reality only two motorised rifles regiments of the 19th motorised rifles division and two motorised rifles regiments of the 42nd motorised rifles division of that army took part of the battles, and also one artillery regiment. Let it be said that even those units were not manned to the full extent. The transition to professional manning model caused problems with the personnel and discipline. Throughout the course of the war the Russian units had problems with proceeding on foot and with elementary safety procedures. Many Russian soldiers lost their lives in accidents, including traffic accidents. As Russian soldiers were not inclined to get off their armoured vehicles, the Ossetians were used as infantry in their stead.
The weaponry available to Russians on the eve of the war was relatively old and partly in bad shape. Some of the tanks and other armoured vehicles had to be taken from storage, since vehicles returning from the exercise needed maintenance. This is how such antiquated military vehicles as the T-55 and T-62 ended up on the battlefield. There were also problems with individual equipment and weapons. There were not enough bulletproof vests, no night vision equipment and not enough communication devices. The Russians have admitted that while the Georgians had sufficient night vision devices to engage in warfare even in the dark, the Russian units almost completely lacked such devices.
The situation was not any better in other armed services. The Russian Air Force did have enough planes, but those were borrowed from other regions and there were not enough pilots. That is why it was the regiment and squadron commanders as the most experienced pilots who flew sorties on the first days of the war, and the Georgians shot a couple of them down. Pilots who had returned to civilian life were rushed back into service. For example, one pilot of a downed Tu-22 said upon capture that he was recruited into the war straight from his job as a subway train operator, where he was earning some money to augment his pension. Before returning to service, he had not flown for 20 years. By estimation, out of the almost 90 Russian planes that were used in the conflict, only 40 aircraft belonged to the 4th Air Army (officially it had 315 aircraft), all the rest having been borrowed from other regions.
The war, however, was not only between the Russians and the Georgians. The South Ossetian fighters must not be forgotten. This is the strange paradox of the war of 2008 – although one would think that it was Georgia who had a good chance to engage in unconventional (i.e. guerrilla) warfare in addition to conventional warfare, it was actually the so-called Russian side that did it. This was facilitated by the Ossetian units, among them the so-called South Ossetian OMON and the peacekeeping battalion Alanya. Even though the Russians had provided the Ossetians with heavy weaponry, the latter preferred to use light weapons. That is why their 15 tanks, 25 artillery pieces and 30 mortars played no role at all in the war. A larger role, however, was played by the fighters armed with anti-tank systems and light weapons, up to 3,000 men in total. They were responsible for the majority of Georgian tanks that were destroyed.
The Abkhazian forces that entered the war later consisted of approximately 3,500 strong light infantry. In addition to them, the size of the Abkhazian reserve was estimated to be about 18,000 men; however, it was not mobilised during the war.
Even though the total numbers seem to be against Georgia, it only became thus by the end of the war. The Russians and the Abkhazians opened the second front only on 10 August, on the third day of the war, by which time Georgia had declared that it had ended military activities. Up to that point Georgia had superiority in manpower, because Russia could only bring reinforcements through the Roki Tunnel, a bottleneck that hindered quick deployment of the units. There are reports that at least three Russian soldiers died of oxygen shortage in the Roki Tunnel on 8 August – that is how intensely the tunnel was used. Regardless, the Russians were able to deploy 3,000 to 3,500 soldiers, 30 tanks and a similar number of cannons through the tunnel every day. Therefore, if we were to add to those numbers the 1,000 peacekeepers already in Tskhinvali and their 25 artillery systems and about 80 armoured vehicles, we can see that the Georgians must have had at least twofold superiority on land by the end of the first day of the war, although the Russian Air Force was already dominating the skies.
The war itself
I shall not describe the course of the war in detail; that has been done enough. Instead, I would like to focus on what actually happened, debunk some myths and discard some old rules.
The Georgians’ war plan was simple. Artillery units were placed on Georgian controlled heights southeast and southwest of Tskhinvali, and they planned to surround the city with two infantry brigades so that the third brigade could storm the city and take it under its control. According to the original plan, the occupation of Tskhinvali was to proceed without casualties. The Russian peacekeepers were also to be spared, but a couple of soldiers were killed in the artillery fire that began on the night of 8 August and that only intensified the Russians’ pretext to use countermeasures. In addition to that, the Georgians did not account for the Ossetians’ military formations that put up very stout resistance in the city from the very beginning.
The operational space for the three brigades was very limited; moreover, the leadership of the brigades had been replaced a few days before the war and they lacked in experience and understanding of the subunits (and one can say in trust, as well). Georgian military people have claimed that the order to occupy Tskhinvali came unexpectedly and from the political level, and that getting entangled in urban combat slowed down the battle tempo. Regardless of that, they were able to achieve success quickly. By nine o’clock on the morning of 8 August, the Georgian forces were in control of the majority of villages surrounding Tskhinvali and by 14:30, Tskhinvali itself was also almost completely occupied by the Georgians. The order received from the political level had therefore been immediately fulfilled and the Georgian units became passive, because no additional tasks followed.
One can only imagine the units simply idling, having marched past Tskhinvali from east and west, while at the same time the 2nd infantry brigade (the unit formerly in the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs) was fighting battles in the city. The 4th infantry brigade that had moved past Tskhinvali from the west was not even preparing to defend against the Russian units already drawing closer from the Roki Tunnel. This resulted in huge losses. When talking about mistakes, the Georgians themselves have said that the leaders of the brigade were completely devoid of any experience, but serious shortcomings in intelligence certainly posed problems as well.
The South Ossetian terrain north of Tskhinvali favours the weaker side – the roads meander on hilly terrains and mobility is limited. By the 2008 war, Georgia had disposed of its mountain units and the Special Forces had not been trained for war in the mountains. During the course of the war, they did not take control of the road from the Roki Tunnel to Dzhava, nor was anything done about the Roki Tunnel. That enabled the Russian forces to start entering South Ossetian territory en masse.
I have spoken with some foreign instructors who were training the Georgian army at the time, and they told me how they had insisted and repeated to the Georgians, ‘Blow up the tunnel, blow up the tunnel!’ The Georgians, however, did nothing. I have also conversed on the topic with the Georgians and inquired why they left uncovered the most important connection that the Russians used, and I received various replies. The Georgians have admitted that the somewhat widespread notion about the Roki Tunnel being too massive to blow up is erroneous. The calculations had actually been made and there was even a plan, but once again, the higher-ups did not authorise it.
It is possible that the plan foresaw setting up roadblocks and starting negotiations with the Russian forces after Tskhinvali had been taken. That would however only have worked if the city had been occupied quietly and quickly. In that case, the Russians’ belated ‘mission’ would have looked like a clear case of aggression and would have shown the situation in a completely different light. Alas, the Georgian side did not take into consideration the Ossetians, who continued to offer stiff resistance even when the focus should already have been on the Russians. That is why the Georgians depended on each hour gained that separated them from the clash with the Russians, and that grace period could only have been bought by blowing up the Roki Tunnel or blocking the road passing through the gorges.
The vanguard of the Russian forces apparently emerged from the Georgian side of the Roki Tunnel at approximately 5.30 in the morning. It appears that the Russian invasion plan was not really well prepared; in any case the vanguard was lacking in intelligence units, heavy armoured machinery and air defence. The first units to pass the tunnel were mostly on wheeled vehicles – BTRs and lorries. That was because wheeled armoured vehicles need less maintenance and move faster on roads. As the airspace was at that time still under the control of the Georgian aircraft, the helter-skelter of light units was rushed to move forward as fast as possible. Thus, the company-sized vanguard unit moved forward, crossed the Gupta bridge and reached Dzhava, to the south of which there were already the Georgian forces.
The Russian command gave the company orders to engage in combat with the Georgian brigade, which was a curiosity according to the principles of warfare – engaging a unit with an enemy force ten times its size. The terrain, however, supported such an operation, and as the Georgian side was relatively passive (its objectives as described in the orders had basically been achieved), the Russian plan worked. Fixing the Georgian brigade allowed them to resume bringing in additional units. Alas, that did not proceed entirely without disturbances. At eight o’clock in the morning, the Georgian Grads (multiple rocket launchers), the range of which allowed them to fire at the road between Roki and Dzhava, hit the Russian convoy that consisted mostly of lorries and destroyed a large number of vehicles. Traffic on the road was paralysed for many hours. The Gupta bridge was destroyed in an air raid. The Georgians were not however able to destroy both bridges in Gupta and the Russian forces were able to use the other one for moving forward.
One of the most important changes occurred on 8 August at 9:45 in the morning, which the Georgians deem to be the reason for their defeat. The Russian Air Force stepped in. Essentially at the same time the Georgian aircraft stopped flying, because the Russians had clear superiority in numbers. As the Russians did not have any intelligence units on the ground and neither did they have very much artillery, in the beginning the Russian pilots had to carry out the tasks of finding and bombing the Georgian positions. In principle, one starts bombing the enemy’s positions only after their air defence has been stamped out. The Russians did not have time for that, for they needed to quash the fire from the Georgian artillery batteries, which was endangering the activities of the Russian and Ossetian units. Ignoring the principles of air combat cost the Russians three aircraft already on the first day. That in turn made the pilots cautious and the sorties to the positions of the Georgian units were no longer very effective during the following days. The sorties were carried over further into the Georgian territory where there were no air defences. The Russian planes bombed the oil pipeline and airfields, as well as convoys moving on the roads.
There has been much talk about how the Russian side used the Tochka-U and Iskander operational-tactical missile launch systems to destroy the Georgian command posts already on 8 August. This is untrue. The Tochka-U deployed in Vladikavkaz were used to destroy the Georgian airfields, the Iskander was supposedly used for shooting at the oil pipeline. Due to the inexact data of the Russian intelligence, the missiles did not cause much damage. Likewise, there was no attempt to stamp out communications during the war, as has been suspected. Mobile telephones were used a lot, but the main reason why radio communication did not work was that there was so much of it that it began to interfere with itself.
The effectiveness of the Georgian artillery has received much praise. The interesting fact is that although the Georgian artillery was the single most important target for the Russians, they were unable to hit them. However, they had their own drawbacks. The Georgians did not dare deploy artillery on South Ossetian territory, which meant that while the forces proceeded, the artillery became ineffective due to its limited range (15 kilometres). That is why rocket artillery gained in importance, as it enabled to fire behind Dzhava. Rocket artillery, however, lacks in accuracy.
On the afternoon of 8 August, the Georgian success began to wane. One brigade was still engaged in combat in the city, one had concentrated in the north between Gupta and Tskhinvali, and the third was located east of Tskhinvali. The Russians, taking advantage of the situation where the Georgian brigade under Gupta was still engaged in combat with the Russian vanguard, began moving southward on the Djara road west of Tskhinvali in order to reach the Georgian artillery and enter Tskhinvali from the west. Access to the city was made possible when the Ossetians destroyed three Georgian tanks on the Djara road. At 18:44, the motorised rifle units of the second echelon of the vanguard invaded Tskhinvali. At 20:00, the Russians also occupied the village of Hetagurovo, thereby creating a wide enough corridor between the main units and the units engaged in combat in Tskhinvali. The Georgians were suddenly in danger of being surrounded and began pulling their units out of the city.
The next morning, the Georgian command made another effort to occupy the city. Alas, the Russians, having been reinforced by additional heavy vehicles, launched a massive attack of their own. Essentially, a meeting engagement ensued in Tskhinvali, where the Georgians lost 12 tanks. It has been said that the tanks ran into problems with their autoloading mechanisms as well as with fuel – the commanders had brought the vehicles into battle with their fuel tanks half empty. I must stress that as far as I know, no tanks were destroyed by another tank in the August War. Tanks were destroyed either by aircraft or infantry. This is another piece of evidence that a tank (or an armoured vehicle) is not only a powerful military vehicle, but also an easy target. A complete lack of co-operation between infantry and tanks also proved fatal to the Georgian tanks. The Georgian units, completely lacking experience in urban warfare and co-operation, had to yield, and by 17:00 they were pulled out of the city. The Russian units made it to their peacekeepers who were on the defensive, and pulled all their units out of the city. The armed forces of both sides had essentially left Tskhinvali by 19:00 on 9 August and the city was left to the Ossetian units.
Georgia’s main concern was to get its units out of the danger of being surrounded. By the late hours of the same day, the Georgian forces had retreated from South Ossetia. Over the next days, military activity subsided. Around Tskhinvali, the Russian units were searching for possible Georgian units left behind, the Ossetians were cleaning and securing their positions in the city, and part of the Russian units, the Chechen battalion Vostok among them, were attempting to move ahead towards Gori. They ran into a Georgian ambush, however, and the front stayed put essentially for the three following days, although the ambush did not cause excessive casualties.
The actions of the Russian Special Forces and the Russian Airborne Troops in the August War have been mentioned many times. However, it must be said that the Russian side virtually did not use them in combat. There are no data about the use of the Spetsnaz, and the Airborne Troops only arrived in South Ossetia on 10 August, by which time all the main battles had already been fought.
After the difficult first day, the Russian Air Force began bombing Georgia on a wider scale – Gori, Tbilisi and other settlements. It has been said that the Russian pilots had trouble navigating, because they had old maps and therefore often missed newer objects.
On 10 August, a second front was opened. The Russian Black Sea Fleet was blockading the Georgian ports. 4,000 Russian soldiers landed in Abkhazia and in co-operation with the Abkhazians, a military operation was launched against the Georgian military bases in West Georgia during the following days (first and foremost targeting Senaki). Alas, the Georgian command had ordered the units to abandon the bases and that is how the Abkhazian and Russian fighters were able to occupy the city of Senaki with ease and to simply loot the base. The same happened in Poti where the entire Georgian fleet was located. As the personnel had left, the Russians simply sank three of the Georgian naval ships docked there.
By 10 August, the Georgian military unit to Iraq returned and was immediately named the 1st Infantry Brigade. The brigade was promptly dispatched to the front in the Gori region, where its objective was to safeguard the retreating brigades’ movement towards Gori. The Georgian government had also declared general mobilisation and although it was successful, there was nobody who would work with the reservists and organise them. The men were transported to the front and left to their own devices, after which most of them simply walked home in the surrounding chaos.
It is obvious that by that time, control over the armed forces had been completely lost. It is difficult to tell when exactly it happened, but it seems that there was no unified military leadership already by the evening of 9 August. During the following days there was already talk about organising the defence of Tbilisi, but the armed forces were already scattered and control over them was relatively non-existent. Luckily, 11 August saw the commencement of peace talks that Russia initially did not want to know anything about. Even though the President of Russia declared on 12 August that he had ordered all the military operations to stop, the Russian forces proceeded to move ahead, now already on the Georgian territory, because no official order to stop had been received. As there was no enemy to stop them, they acted according to the doctrine – when the enemy gives up their territory, it must be taken. Over the next few days, the Georgian forces retreated from Gori and other cities in the conflict area, which the Russians occupied, finally ending up only 55 kilometres from Tbilisi. The war was over and it was time for the politicians to return the situation to peaceful conditions.
It is actually amazing that the Russian forces achieved such success in South Ossetia. In the morning of 8 August, the Georgian forces outnumbered them manyfold, but as the Georgians were concentrated to a relatively small area, it was possible to fight with company-sized units. That worked for the Russians, because on 8 August, they did not really have any larger units than those companies. So, one side can have three brigades and the other perhaps a couple of battalions, but if war is waged with company-sized units in tight spots, the greater manpower does not translate into success. The principle of warfare that the attacker has to have at least three times as many men as the defender does not apply here.
Both sides had completely inadequate command and control. The Russian side has claimed that they were able to successfully use battalion-based command and control, but in reality it was the same old regiment-based command and control and information did not really trickle down to the subunits. Luckily for the Russians, their military doctrine foresees moving forward in the initial direction when no new orders come from the above, which is why they were able to gain initiative from the passive Georgian units. The Georgians were following political orders and there was no contingency in case things turn bad. The military leadership had no experience, the majority of the brigade commanders had recently been replaced and the first setbacks resulted in a fluster, during which the military was commanded by various politicians, at one point even the mayor of Tbilisi. By giving up their initiative, the Georgians gambled away their chances on more than one occasion.
The Georgians failed to properly consider the Ossetian units. One can actually say that if there were any winners, then it was them first and foremost. The Ossetians fought battles across the spectrum, both conventionally and as guerrillas. It can therefore be said that if anybody engaged in non-conventional warfare at all, it was the Russian side.
The lack of unconventional warfare capabilities was one of the Georgians’ major weaknesses. Their special forces unit was utilised as regular infantry, while it could have harassed the Russian units on the road between Dzhava and Roki. Connecting roads between the brigades and Georgian territory were left essentially uncontrolled, which enabled the Russian forces to wedge between them with relative ease. Neither the Georgian National Guard nor the reserve had received any real military training and the Georgians did not have the foggiest idea about territorial defence.
Even though the Russian Air Force was able to conduct 22 sorties already during the first day of the war, in my opinion, the contribution of the Russian aircraft has been blown out of proportion. Their actions were important to the Russians on the first day, because the Russian side lacked military intelligence and artillery and those tasks fell to the aircraft. Regardless, inadequate co-operation between the Russian Air Force and land forces has been discussed frequently; in addition to that, the bombers often missed their targets. As both sides made extensive use of armoured vehicles in the war, the Air Force had certainly more targets. That is because a tank is a far better target for a bomber than dispersed infantry. Still, it seems that the Russian Air Force did not play a very large role in influencing the results of the battles.
Some words about the technology. The Georgians used tanks and armoured vehicles modernised in the Ukrainian and Israeli arsenals, plus modern communications and surveillance devices. The Russian side came on stage with quite mediocre technology, with some machinery hailing almost from the Stone Age. That ‘ancient’ technology, however, often turned out to be more reliable than the Georgians’ modernised and hot-rodded military vehicles. The Georgians abandoned many Ukrainian modernised tanks on the battlefield, because their state-of-the-art loading systems broke down. The BMP infantry fighting vehicles that had been equipped with new turrets were also a disappointment – the turrets got stuck and their turret rings did not withstand the vibration caused by the firing.
All these circumstances put together, plus the motivation of the soldiers, created the situation where Georgia lost the military operation. When Vladimir Putin quipped in 2012 that the Russian forces could have occupied Tbilisi had they wanted to, he was not simply bragging, because in all probability they would have been able to do it, as the Georgian forces had basically dissolved by 15 August. Tbilisi was not captured because capturing Tbilisi was not the objective. If the Russian side had the intention to bring Georgia to its knees, then it thought the goal had been achieved. Alas, this time it was Russia which was wrong – the military victory did not translate into a political one. Even though Georgia’s becoming a member of NATO was postponed indefinitely, Georgia’s political orientation remained Western and the country did not fall into Russia’s sphere of influence.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.