May 25, 2009

The Russian Bear on the Warpath Against Georgia

The Russian-Georgian conflict, which had been going on for years, escalated into a full-scale war in August 2008. The Five-Day War was, and still is, remarkable and significant in many different ways.

2009, Kaarel Kaas
Ministry of Defence Yearbook 2008
The Russian-Georgian conflict, which had been going on for years, escalated into a full-scale war in August 2008. The Five-Day War was, and still is, remarkable and significant in many different ways.
First, this was the first time after the disappearance of the Soviet Union from the face of the earth that modern Russia used military force against another sovereign country. It is hard to underestimate the political meaning and weight of this fact. The unprecedented events that happened in Georgia in August sent a clear signal to the world: if necessary, Russia will engage in full-scale conventional warfare against other sovereign countries in order to pursue its political interests. Before August, this was just a hypothesis; today, this is a reality of life.
Second, this was Moscow’s first major military operation against a conventional target in the past few decades. So far, the nature of Russia’s involvement in the armed conflicts that accompanied the disintegration of the Soviet Union had been partly determined by the fact that its security services participated in the conflicts. In addition, Russia’s operations in Chechnya – and, by now, also in other regions in the Northern Caucasus – have for more than 14 years rather resembled a counter-insurgency campaign than a war. The inability of the Russians, with their massive superiority in terms of troops and firepower, to establish themselves in Chechnya for so many years has evoked strong scepticism in both Russian and Western experts about the overall fighting capability of the Russian armed forces. However, the Russian-Georgian war demonstrated that Russia can plan and execute a comprehensive military operation.
This all leads to the third important aspect of the Five-Day War: it was so much more than just an ordinary military operation. The military operation was only one phase in a longer-term anti-Georgian campaign. Military force is only one instrument among many and its use is not an end in itself. The Russian general staff and the armed forces clearly followed a wider strategic and political ‘game plan’, which allowed Russia to use in a coordinated manner all the measures at its disposal against Georgia, from proposing draft resolutions in international organisations to cyber attacks against Georgia’s IT systems.
Russia’s capability to plan and to orchestrate such a strategic operation, including the use of military force, is a new and – compared to its past performance – more dangerous development. This also means that the Russian armed forces and their leadership have lost their former semi-autonomous status and that they did not form a ‘state within a state’ anymore.
General planning of the operation
Russia’s military attack against Georgia was well-planned and well-prepared at an overall level. Russia managed to reposition to South Ossetia and Abkhazia a significant part of its combat forces stationed in the North Caucasus Military District (including two regiments of the three regiments of the 42nd Motorised Rifle Division; Chechnya is under the control of this division). Moreover, Russia deployed nearly half of the contingent of its airborne troops1, two spetsnaz (special forces) brigades (according to public information sources, the Russian armed forces have in total nine units of this kind)2, one marine regiment of the Black Sea Fleet and other smaller units. On the night of August 7, most of the combat-capable vessels of the Russian Black Sea Fleet left their bases in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk and headed for the Georgian coast3; military transport aircraft had carried out more than 100 flights to deploy airborne troops to the area of operations;4 in addition to the troops that were already stationed in Abkhazia and around 350 armoured vehicles that had been brought in earlier, a 9,000-strong contingent was sent to Abkhazia.5 In the morning of August 8 at 9:45, the Russian Air Force started a systematic bombing campaign against targets on Georgian territory.6
The staffs concerned must have planned this for months – they had to formulate an overall operations plan, to move in the stocks necessary for the battle, to plan and to allocate the aviation resources for the deployment of troops to Georgia and other logistic capabilities, to produce a target list for the air force, and so on. The Russian planners managed to do all this and, more importantly, the right units reached the right geographical locations at the right time. And this was the biggest trump of the Russians in the Five-Day War – the scope and intensity of their attack exceeded the forecasts made by the Georgian leadership and the Western countries. The Russians achieved a strategic advantage by way of using the element of surprise. And what followed was shock, chaos and utter confusion. As it turned out, this full-scale conventional military attack served an asymmetric purpose.
However, it should be pointed out that most of the units deployed against Georgia were from the North Caucasus Military District. According to Russian military experts, the district’s military capabilities are the greatest in Russia because its units and leadership have considerable experience in fighting. If Georgia had been situated somewhere else, it would have been much more difficult to build up forces of similar strength. Besides the spetsnaz brigades, the only units that participated in the August War and that actually had to be repositioned were from airborne troops. If another crisis had erupted just before, during or after the August War, there would have been only one airborne division and brigade at the disposal of the Russian military leadership to solve such a crisis7. All other troops had been rounded up to fight a small nation of 4 million people.
Tactical shortcomings
While the Russians were successful in creating the element of surprise in terms of strategy, the execution of the operation revealed several shortcomings of the armed forces. For example, the Russians had underestimated Georgia’s air defence capabilities. They either did not know that Tbilisi had at its disposal the Buk-M1 medium-range anti-aircraft missile systems (in total four batteries with eight launcher mounts)8 or did not think it was necessary to take these into account. In addition, it is likely that Moscow was unpleasantly surprised by the SPYDER medium-range anti-aircraft missile systems that Georgia had acquired from Israel. These grave mistakes in interpreting and analysing intelligence material led to the Russian Air Force losing four (according to official sources in Moscow)9, seven (according to non-official military press in Moscow) or even nineteen aircraft (according to official sources in Tbilisi).10 However, if Georgia had had a well-integrated anti-aircraft system, Russia would have incurred much greater losses; the more so as the Buk-M1s are not modern Western missile systems, but remnants of Soviet technology.
Despite its overwhelming air superiority, the Russian Air Force could not completely control the airspace in the area of operations. On August 8, Georgian fighters (Su-25KM Scorpions) successfully conducted an air strike near the Gupta Bridge against a Russian army column on its way from the Roki Tunnel to Tskhinvali. Furthermore, as late as on August 11, six Georgian attack helicopters were on a strike mission against Russian positions around Tskhinvali.11
Up to the end of the active military campaign, the Russian media was spreading news about Georgian fighters that the Russians had shot down in Georgia. If Tbilisi’s fighters stayed on the ground after the first day of the conflict, it seems that only one conclusion is possible: it must have been the Russian Air Force that bombed the columns and positions of the Russian Army by mistake, while the tactical air defence units of the Russian Army shot down the fighters of the Russian Air Force. Of course, it is hard to obtain independent, not to say official, confirmation of this hypothesis.
One of the aircraft shot down by Georgian air defence forces was a strategic bomber, a Tu-22M3, which must have been dispatched to a reconnaissance mission to enemy airspace due to inadequate situation analysis. The Russians had no satellite intelligence, no unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and no on-line information from battlefield surveillance. It was partly for this reason that Georgian artillery managed to inflict serious losses on the Russian army columns moving from Roki to Tskhinvali12. The adjustment of fire by Georgian artillery units was carried out on the basis of on-line information transmitted by their UAVs, which is why Russian air assault and artillery units could not suppress them.
Indirect fire support and air forces played an important role in this conflict on both sides. The Georgian casualties were particularly heavy13 when the Russian Air Force attacked the Georgian troops that were retreating from the Tskhinvali region and when the Russians carried out intensive artillery strikes.14 According to Russian experts, however, the coordination between the Russian army and the air force was poor, which is why the air assault forces could not fulfil the ‘requests’ of the army accurately and on time – the main reason being that the air force did not have its own fire control staff on the ground, embedded with the units engaged in fighting.15
In addition to the above shortcomings, the Russians could not conduct military operations at night (due to the absence of night-vision equipment), they suffered from temporary communications interruptions (which sometimes forced unit commanders to use mobile phones), servicemen did not have adequate personal protection equipment (which is why some infantry soldiers preferred not to come into close contact with Georgian fighters wearing bullet-proof vests), and so on. Compared to the Second Chechen War, the Russians went to war against Georgia with better motivated and better trained troops, but, in principle, this was still the same army using the same equipment that entered Afghanistan almost 30 years ago to fulfil its ‘international duty’.
Yet the Russians managed to force the Georgians to retreat, taking – from a military perspective – at least a tactical victory, although they did not achieve the alleged main objective of the August War – that is to effect a regime change in Tbilisi. Moscow’s success in this respect was, however, as much dependent on the quantitative superiority of the Russians as on the inexperience of the Georgian defence forces. For example, the 4th Georgian Infantry Brigade that inflicted the heaviest losses on the Russians had been formulated as recently as in 2007 and before the August War it had completed training only at the platoon level…
This article represents the author’s personal views only.
Russian forces in the August War
South Ossetian Sector
19th Motorised Rifle Division
– 135th regiment
– 503rd regiment
– 693rd regiment
42nd Motorised Rifle Division
– 70th regiment
– 71st regiment
76th Air Assault Division
– Joint battle group formed on the basis of the 104th and 234th regiments
98th Air Assault Division
– Regimental battle group
45th Separate Reconnaissance Regiment (Special Operations) of Airborne Forces
– 22nd brigade of GRU special forces
– 10th brigade of GRU special forces
– 2 companies of the GRU special forces battalion Vostok
– 1 company of the GRU special forces battalion Zapad
Abkhazian Sector
– Units of the 7th Air Assault Division
– Units of the 76th Air Assault Division
– Units of the 20th Motorised Rifle Division
– 810th Separate Naval Infantry Regiment
– 2 companies of the GRU special forces battalion Vostok
The Black Sea Fleet
– Guided missile cruiser Moskva
– Destroyer Smetlivy
– 1 Nanuchka III class corvette
– 2 Tarantul III class corvettes
– 2 Grisha V class corvettes
– 3 minesweepers
– 3 large landing ships
– 1 transport ship
– 1 rescue ship
Sources: Moscow Defense Brief, Независимое Военное Обозрение, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Parliament of Georgia, Kommersant-Vlast.
About the author
Kaarel Kaas is a junior researcher at the International Centre for Defence Studies, working on a defence and force planning project, and an editor of the foreign policy monthly Diplomaatia, published by ICDS. His research interests include Russia and its military developments.
From 1998 to 2003, he worked as a reporter for the daily Postimees, covering mainly Estonian politics, defence and security issues. From 2003 to 2006, he was a foreign editor of Postimees, covering international politics and often visiting conflict zones all over the world.
1 Rumours about the possible liquidation of the 106th Guards Airborne Division in the first half of 2009 started to spread at the end of 2008. If this happens, the Russian airborne troops will be comprised of only three divisions and one brigade. See “Расформировывается Тульская дивизия ВДВ – источник,” Interfax-AVN, 24.10.2008; “Из ВДВ уволят свыше трех тысяч десантников – источник,” Interfax-AVN, 10.12.2008.
2 The Military Balance 2008, The International Institute for Strategic Studies.
3 Александр Широкорад, “Вопросов больше, чем ответов,” Независимое Военное Обозрение, 31.10.2008. See also Mikhail Barabanov, “The August War Between Russia and Georgia,” Moscow Defense Brief, 3/2008.
4 “Псковские десантники пришли в Цхинвал,”, 09.08.2008.
5 “Russian Grouping in Abkhazia Is Under Gen. Shamanov’s Command,” Interfax-AVN, 12.08.2008.
6 Hans-Henning Schröder (ed.), The Caucasus Crisis. International Perceptions and Policy Implications for Germany and Europe, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, November 2008, p. 51.
7 Ordinarily, a Russian airborne division includes two airborne and/or air assault regiments, an artillery regiment and staff, communications and other units. As a rule, one division is comprised of 5,800-6,800 troops.
8 Said Aminov, “Georgia’s Air Defense in the War with South Ossetia,” Moscow Defense Brief, 3/2008.
9 Ibid.
10 “Chief of Staff Testifies Before War Commission,”, 29.10.2008.
11 The Caucasus Crisis, p. 53.
12 At the end of August 2008, the Russian Ministry of Defence officially announced that the Russians had suffered 71 dead and 356 wounded. In October 2008, ICDS interviewed several Georgian officials and military personnel in Tbilisi and they estimated that the Russians had lost approximately 1,600 dead.
13 168 dead. See “Chief of Staff Testifies Before War Commission,”, 29.10.2008.
14 ICDS interview in Tbilisi in October 2008.
15 Анатолий Цыганок, “Уроки пятидневной войны в Закавказье,” Независимое Военное Обозрение, 29.08.2008.

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