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.
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, 429th, and 503rd Motorized Rifle Regiments of the 19th Motorized Rifle Division (stationed 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 seven full regimental tactical groups (135th, 429th, and 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 one regiment 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 150 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. The same day, Russian forces entered Gori 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 for the Russian Armed Forces.
Georgia’s Air Defense in the War with South Ossetia
Said Aminov, Editor of the Air Defense News website: www.pvo.su
The Georgian air-defense system represents a symbiosis of what it inherited from the collapse of the Soviet Union and new acquisitions from former Warsaw Pact and Soviet successor states.
During Soviet times, the 19th Tbilisi Air-Defense Army of the Soviet Air-Defence Troops was deployed in Georgia (reduced to an Air-Defense Corps in 1991). It included three SAM brigades in Tbilisi, Poti, and Echmiadzin, armed with S-75 (SA-2) and S-125 (SA-3) SAM systems, a separate SAM regiment armed with S-75 SAM systems (SA-2, deployed in Gudauta, Abkhazia), and a separate SAM regiment near Tbilisi, equipped with S-200 (SA-5) long-range SAM systems, as well as two radar brigades. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, some of the Soviet Armed Forces, including air defense, did not fall under Georgian jurisdiction, but remained under Russian control. During the early 1990s, all of the aforementioned air-defense divisions on Georgian territory were dismantled and their equipment transferred to Russia for scrapping. Nonetheless, Georgian forces seized some air-defense equipment from the Russian military, including at least one S-75 and two S-125 SAM battalions, as well as a few P-18 Spoon Rest radars. These systems were put into service to form the base of the air defenses of the Georgian armed forces. The Georgians used the S-75 SAM battalions in the war with Abkhazia in 1992-1993 and shot down a Russian Su-27 fighter near Gudauta on March 19, 1993.
The S-75 battalion was removed from service in Georgia, but the two S-125 Neva-M low- to high-altitude SAM systems battalions was deployed in Tbilisi and Poti (a total of seven quadruple rail launchers) and those in service with the Georgian Air Force had been modernized by Ukrainian specialists by 2005.
Georgian Army received several short-range air-defense systems in the first half of the 1990s from the arsenals of the former Soviet Army located in Georgia but transferred to Russian jurisdiction. These included KS-19 100-mm anti-aircraft guns, S-60 57-mm anti-aircraft guns, ZU-23-2 twin 23-mm anti-aircraft guns, ZSU-23-4 Shilka quad 23-mm self-propelled anti-aircraft gun systems, Strela-2M (SA-7), Strela-3 (SA-14), and Igla-1 (SA-16) man-portable SAM systems (MANPADS). However, a significant proportion of these arms was lost by Georgia during its unsuccessful war with Abkhazia. Some of the ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns were mounted on MT-LB armored multipurpose tracked vehicles.
With Mikhail Saakashvili’s assumption of power in 2003, Georgia began the rapid development of its military capacities with the aim of acquiring the means to regain the separatist Abkhazian and South Ossetian regions. To neutralize Russia’s potential to interfere in its operations against Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia began to purchase modern air-defense systems.
First, Georgia acquired a 9К37М1 Buk-M1 (SA-11) battalion of low- to high-altitude self-propelled SAM systems composed of three batteries (each battery includes two self-propelled launcher mounts and one self-propelled loader-launcher) from Ukraine in 2007. These were delivered together with 48 9М38М1 surface-to-air missiles.
Georgia noted this transfer in its official report for 2007 to the UN Register of Conventional Arms. Other than Russia and Ukraine, only Finland, Cyprus, and Egypt possess Buk systems in several different versions. The Russian army is currently acquiring the latest version, the Buk-M2 (SA-17), and a large export contract of Buk-M2E to Syria is in the pipeline. According to subsequent internet reports from Ukraine, the Buk-M1 systems were delivered by sea to Georgia on June 7, 2007. In July 16, 2008, photos of Georgian Buk-M1 systems used during tactical training in Western Georgia dating from August 2007 appeared on the Internet. According to a Ukrainian source, on June 12, 2008, another battery of Buk-M1 systems was delivered to Georgia.
Second, Ukraine delivered eight self-propelled launcher vehicles 9К33М2 Osa-AK (SA-8B) low-altitude SAM systems (two batteries) and six (ten, according to some sources) 9К33М3 Osa-АKM self-propelled launcher vehicles update SAM systems. The Buk-M1 and Osa-AK/AKM systems were deployed by the Georgian Air Force in Gori, Senaki, and Kutaisi.
Third, Ukraine sold Georgia two modern 36D6-M radars that were deployed in Tbilisi and Savshevebi near Gori. The 36D6-М is a mobile, 3-D air surveillance radar, developed by the Iskra company in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine. The 36D6-M radar is a deep modernization of the ST-68U (19Zh6) Tin Shield radar, taken into service in 1980 and used with the S-300P (SA-10) SAM system. The 36D6-M radar has a range of up to 360 km.
Fourth, Ukraine delivered at least one Kolchuga-M passive electronic monitoring radar system, capable of passively detecting modern aircraft, including those using stealth technology. According to information published recently in Ukraine, it is possible that another four Kolchuga-M and one Mandat electronic warfare systems, all produced in Donetsk at the SKB RTU and the Topaz Company, were delivered to Georgia in May of 2008. Earlier, Ukraine was severely criticized by the United States for having sold Kolchuga systems to China, Iraq, and Iran.
Fifth, the Ukrainian company Aerotekhnika upgraded the obsolete Georgian P-18 Spoon Rest radars to the P-180U version, which amounts to a qualitatively new and modern 2-D air surveillance radar system. At the time when it attacked South Ossetia, the Georgian Air Force had four P-180U radars deployed in Alekseyevka (near Tbilisi), Marneuli, Poti, and Batumi.
In 2006, company Aerotekhnika united Georgian military and four civilian air-traffic-control radars and the Kolchuga-M system into a single Air Sovereignty Operations Center (ASOC) early warning and command control tactical system. The central command center of the ASOC was located in Tbilisi, and as of 2008 was connected to a NATO Air Situation Data Exchange (ASDE) through Turkey, which allowed Georgia to receive data directly from the unified NATO air-defense system.
According to the Russian Defense Ministry, Ukraine either delivered or planned to deliver 50 9K310 Igla-1 (SA-16) man-portable SAM systems and 400 9М313 surface-to-air missiles, with missile seekers, upgraded by the Ukrainian Arsenal plant.
Several East European states also participated in the renewal of the Georgian air defense system. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, Bulgaria delivered 12 ZU-23-2М twin 23-mm anti-aircraft guns and 500 9М313 surface-to-air missiles for Igla-1 man-portable SAM systems. According to the UN Register of Conventional Arms, Poland delivered 30 Grom man-portable SAM systems (a improved Igla-1) and 100 surface-to-air missiles, and it is possible that such deliveries took place in 2008 as well. Reports have circulated that Georgia acquired Soviet era man-portable SAM systems from other countries as well.
Finally, there are reports that Georgia acquired one battery of the new Israeli Spyder-SR short-range self-propelled SAM system in 2008. The Spyder-SR SAM system, developed by Rafael company, uses Python 5 and Derby air-to-air missiles in a surface-to-air role. There has been no official confirmation of any such deliveries to Georgia, but Jane’s Missiles & Rockets magazin cited a Rafael representative to report that the “Spyder-SR has been ordered by two export customers, one of whom now has the system operational.”
The Russian Ministry of Defense also reported that the Georgian Army acquired the Skywatcher army air-defense early-warning and command control tactical system produced by the Turkish Aselsan Company in 2008.
Thus, by the time Georgia invaded South Ossetia, its air defenses had acquired significant capability to detect, locate, and destroy air targets. The Georgian forces that advanced into South Ossetia were the equivalent of about a large division (nine light infantry and five tank battalions, up to eight artillery battalions, plus special forces and Ministry of the Internal Affairs troops), were protected by an air defense echelon that included one Buk-M1 SAM system battalion, up to three Osa-AK/AKM SAM system batteries, a large number of man-portable SAM systems, as well as a few С-60 57-mm anti-aircraft guns, ZU-23-2 twin 23-mm anti-aircraft guns, and ZSU-23-4 Shilka quad 23-mm self-propelled anti-aircraft gun systems. Thus, the air-defense system of Georgian attack groups was about the equivalent of a best frontline Soviet divisions during the late 1980s – early 1990s.
The confrontation with Georgia’s air-defense system proved to be a serious trial for Russia’s military aviation, especially since it seems that its capabilities were initially underestimated. Meanwhile, Georgia’s air defenses reportedly relied on data received from the Kolchuga-M passive electronic monitoring radar systems, minimizing the use of active radar, while the Georgian Buk-M1 and Osa-AK/AKM self-propelled SAM systems used ambush tactics. This made it more difficult to defeat the Georgian air-defense systems. According to unofficial reports, the Georgian Buk-M1 SAM systems shot down four Russian aircraft on the first day of battle on August 8: three Su-25 Frogfoot attack planes and one Tu-22M3 Backfire long-range bomber.
Moreover, according to unofficial sources, Russia lost another three airplanes (one Su-24MR Fencer E reconnaissance plane on August 8, one Su-24M Fencer frontal bomber on August 10 or 11, and one Su-25 attack plane on August 9) as well as perhaps one Mi-24 attack helicopter.
Both Su-24 were probably shot down by Georgian Osa-AK/AKM SAM systems or man-portable SAM systems, and the Su-25, according to several reports, fell victim to friendly fire from a MANPAD wielded by Russian servicemen. Aсcording to the Sukhoi Company, three Russian Su-25s also was hit by Georgian SAM and MANPAD missiles but was able to return safely to base. For their part, Russian Army air-defense forces claimed shot down three Georgian Su-25 attack planes.
From the crews of the downed planes, two Russian pilots (of the Su-24MR and the Tu-22M3) were taken hostage, and exchanged for Georgian prisoners on August 19. According to unofficial reports, another five Russian pilots (of the Su-25 shot by friendly fire, the navigator of the Su-24MR, and three crew from the Tu-22M3) died.
At the time of writing, the Russian Defense Ministry officially recognized the loss of only three Su-25 attack planes and one Tu-22M3 long-range bomber, and considered them defeated by Buk-M1 SAM systems. The training of Georgian personnel in the use of the Buk-M1 SAM systems took place in Ukraine, and Ukrainian military instructors may have supervised their use in combat.
Although the Russian press and even high-level Russian military officials have made statements about the possible transfer of S-200 long range SAM systems and modern Tor (SA-15) low-to-medium altitude self-propelled SAM systems, such reports have not been confirmed.
One can conclude that following the unpleasant surprise arising from Georgia’s effective use of Soviet-made SAM systems on August 8, the Russian armed forces threw all of the resources at their disposal against Georgia’s SAM and radar systems. Both S-125M SAM battalions, the majority of Georgia’s military and civilian radars, as well as the most part Buk-M1 and Osa-AK/AKM SAM systems were destroyed. It would appear that the only remaining threat to Russian planes and helicopters in the last days of combat came from Georgian MANPADs.
Russian forces were able to seize five Osa-AKM self-propelled launch vehicles, a few ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns and a few ZSU-23-4 Shilka self-propelled anti-aircraft gun systems as trophies from the retreating Georgian forces. Near Gali and Senaki, Abkhaz and Russian forces captured minimum one Buk-M1 battery, as witnessed by published photos. According to one unofficial source, Russian forces were able to capture or destroy almost all of the self-propelled launcher mounts for the Georgian Buk-M1 SAM systems.
The war in South Ossetia marked the first time when air power faced off against new-generation SAM systems, like the Buk-M1, which were brought into service in the 1980s. In all previous military campaigns, such as the War in Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967, 1973, and 1982, combat actions in Chad and Libya in the 1980s, the NATO campaigns in the former Yugoslavia of 1994 and 1999, and the Wars in the Persian Gulf of 1991 and 2003, the air-defense systems in question were all designed in the 1950s and 1960s (this excludes, of course, the use of modern MANPADs). Moreover, in Georgia, the Russian Air Force for the first time in its history fought against modern air-defense systems, and relatively modern and numerous SAM systems at that.
This unprecedented experience of Russian aviation over a territory protected by a range of air-defense systems will be studied in detail, and should serve as a stimulus for the cardinal modernization of the Russian armed forces. It is obvious that the Russian Air Force must devote greater attention to the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), including the renewal of tactics, electronic weapons and increased military training in this area.
The Ossetian War
We begin by setting the stage. The region of South Ossetia is largely surrounded by nearly insurmountable mountains. Except for groups of mountain infantry without much by way of heavy equipment, and the odd mountain goat, the eastern and western sides of the roughly oval-shaped quasi-republic are quite impenetrable. In the south, a single pass leads into the region from the Georgian town of Gori, coincidentally Iosif Stalin’s birthplace; this pass eventually exits into a hilly countryside and empties into something like a bowl-shaped depression, in the middle of which lies Ossetia’s capital city of Tskhinvali (also pronounced “Tskhinval”) – pre-war population of between 20 and 30 thousand. Beyond Tskhinvali, a single road leads north towards the only route navigable across the region’s northern border by any sort of transport – the Rok Tunnel, which had been cut through miles of rock back during the Soviet days and connects directly with North Ossetia, an autonomous region of the Russian Federation. The remainder of South Ossetians are scattered in villages around Tskhinvali, although before the war several ethnic Georgian enclaves also remained.
To the west, across the mountains, lies Abkhazia. It, too, has only a single navigable route leading into it from both the north and south, although the region’s western border is the Black Sea itself, easing navigation somewhat. The southern route crosses the Kodori Gorge into Georgia proper, where it first encounters the town of Sugdidi.
Georgia itself is also roughly oval-shaped; to the south and west of Sugdidi are the main ports of Poti and, further south still, Batumi, which is especially vital to Georgia’s oil transportation industry, while about 50 kilometers to the east of Gori is Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. From Gori to Tskhinvali to the Rok Tunnel is another 50 kilometers at the most – similarly from the regional center of Kutaisi to Sugdidi, through the Kodori Gorge and into the Abkhazi capital of Sukhumi. Finally, it should be noted that much of Georgia proper – from Poti and Batumi in the west to Tbilisi in the east – the terrain is generally even – far more suitable for mobile operations than the hilly Ossetia ringed by mountain ridges.
Deployment of the opposing sides prior to the conflict was as follows.
The Georgian military before the conflict numbered approximately 20,000 combat troops, with another 10,000 logistical and administrative personnel and a further 7,000 of Interior Ministry troops (glorified SWAT teams with armored vehicles). Equipment was generally of Soviet make, with official pre-war strength at 82 T-72 and 110 T-55 tanks of all marks with first-generation ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor); about 150 BMP armored fighting vehicles, another 80-100 medium and heavy APCs and at least 100 light wheeled APCs; roughly 40-50 self-propelled (all 152mm) and 130 towed (about 100 122mm, the rest 152mm) artillery pieces, plus 35-45 multiple rocket launch systems; 15-20 combat aircraft plus another 15 light jet trainers and roughly 80 helicopters of all types.
That’s the official Georgian data per Tbilisi’s various disclosures, e.g. to the UN. Unofficially, the numbers vary somewhat; for example, Russian data as of July 20 suggested that the Georgians had 165 T-72s (75 T-72M, the rest T-72 B1 and AV; the AV model has first-generation ERA, the T-72M is the export version with downgraded weapon systems, and the B1 has improved armor and fire control systems plus ERA but drops the ATGM capability) and 40 T-55-AM tanks (the modernized version but with a weaker engine than the current upgrade of T-55s), rather than 82 and 110, respectively ; 373 artillery pieces of all types excluding multiple rocket launchers rather than the 170-180 implied above; just over 20 combat aircraft (mostly Su-25s) plus 33 light attack aircraft (L-159 ALCA) and 25-26 rather than 80 combat helicopters; and a number of missile boats and patrol ships.
The numbers above should also be viewed in light of the following disclosures about arms shipments to Georgia over 2004-2008: 10 UH-1-H helicopters and 230 wheeled vehicles (including 15 Hummers delivered by AM General, LLC – a firm whose financials I know as intimately as is possible…) from the U.S., with 15 UH-60 Blackhawks on tap; 7 152mm self-propelled guns, 16 ZSU-23 AAA guns, and 300 RPG-7s, 500 “Igla” MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) and 150 “Kornet” and “Konkurs” ATGMs, 4 SU-25 attack aircraft, two light troop ships, 10 thousand crates of AK-47 assault rifles and RPG 22s plus ammunition, and 650 tons of ammunition from Bulgaria; 66 APCs, 1186 AMD-65 assault rifles, 44 PKM machine-guns, 600 82mm mortar rounds and an unspecified amount of 7.62mm ammunition from Hungary; 1 missile boat and 2 patrol ships plus 60 mortars from Greece; 14 thousand AK assault rifles from Lithuania; 60 RN-94 APCs, 2 UH-1 helicopters, one patrol ship, 2,500 MP5A1(k) SMGs, 1,500 G3 A3 assault rifles, 4,000 122mm rockets and 20,000 155mm artillery shells, plus a large amount of 7.62mm ammunition and hand grenades from Turkey; one multiple rocket launcher with 4 Mirage fighter aircraft, 2 missile boats and upwards of 60-65 “Mistrale” and “Mistrale-2” MANPADS from France; 120 T-54 or T-55 and 55 T-72 tanks, plus 24 “Dana” 152mm self-propelled artillery vehicles, 25 M-75 120mm mortars, 200 “Strela” MANPADs and more than 40 tons of ammunition of all types from the Czech Republic; 8 “Hermes-450” and “Skylark” unmanned recon aircraft from Israel; 45 120mm and 25 82mm mortars plus 500 262mm rockets from Bosnia & Herzegovina; 20 million 7.62mm bullets, plus 1,000 HEAT and 1,690 APFSDS tank shells and other ammunition from Serbia; 31 T-72s, 20 BTR-80s, 40 BMP-2s, 12 152mm “Akatsia” self-propelled artillery vehicles, 9 Mi-24, 2 Mi-8MT and 2 Mi-4 helicopters, 40 tons of ammunition, multiple other specialist vehicles and at least three “Buk”-M1-2 medium-range mobile SAM systems (basically a next-generation version of the SA-11) from the Ukraine.
I’m not including hundreds of radios, a SIM-3C-10 computer platoon training simulator from Estonia, tons of spare parts, assorted odds and ends like engineering equipment, and, of course, training. The U.S. alone still had 95 advisors and 130 “civilian contractors” in Georgia when things broke out.
The bottom line is – we’re talking about potentially enough heavy equipment for a U.S. mechanized division plus some “walking” infantry formations (or, put differently, five mechanized brigades – which, coincidentally, corresponds to the nubmering that the Georgian army uses, i.e. 1st Brigade through 5th Brigade). Not inclusive of the 2,000 or so troops sent to Iraq at some point in the past few years (one of the five brigades, but without most of its heavy equipment). Precise comparison is difficult to make due to the variations in just how many AFVs and IFVs the Georgians could have had at the outset. Plus a small-ish airforce, almost all of it ground-attack oriented; it should be noted that during the Soviet days, Tbilisi was the home of the USSR’s main Su-25 manufacturing plant, which explains why such a small republic had 20 of the things still operational (at least 5 upgraded by the Israelis with new avionics and targeting systems). [For those who don’t know – the Su-25 is the Soviet version of the A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft, except it looks more like a conventional fighter-bomber, and has had considerably more combat experience. Specifically, flying 60,000 sorties for 21 combat losses during the Afghanistan bru-ha-ha in the 1980s, then thousands more during the many wars that followed the USSR’s collapse, e.g. the two Chechen conflicts, as well as 900 sorties during the Iran-Iraq War. Basically very effective at wiping out ground troops and armor when the pilot has any degree of skill, but not a totally unforgiving bird either.]
On the other side of the mountains, we have Abkhazia with between 5,000 and 10,000 regular troops (the number varies year-to-year) plus 28,000 reservists; roughly 60 tanks, about 40 of them T-72s and the remainder T-55s; 116 APCs and BMP IFVs; 85 artillery pieces and mortars (total); 5 SU-25 aircraft, about a half-dozen other fixed-wing and 2 rotary aircraft, and 21 patrol boats. Think – a brigade, maybe two, with modest armor and artillery support.
Finally, pre-war South Ossetia – a region with a total population of significantly lower than 120,000 (just how much lower depends on whether one counts the ethnic Georgians, most of whom have now surely fled; 70,000 to 80,000 is likely the “real” number here) – had 3,000 regular troops and 15,000 reservists (pretty much any male old enough to hold a gun and not yet so old as to preclude him from using it effectively), plus 200 “militarized SWAT” and 900 police; nominally 75 T-72s and 12 T-55s, 80 BMP-1 and BMP-2 IFVs and 85 BTR-70 and BTR-80 APCs; 42 122mm and 152mm “Gvozdika” and “Akatsia” self-propelled artillery vehicles plus another 80 towed artillery and mortar pieces; a few ZSU-23 “Shilka” and towed 100mm AAA, plus “Igla” MANPADS, an unspecified amount of RPG-7 and RPG-22 weapons, and 4 Mi-8 helicopters. There may have been a few more combat helicopters, including – ground reports indicate – at least 3 American UH-1s (don’t ask me how they got there…). Basically, one brigade, plus or minus. As it turned out, “minus”, due to the issue with Ossetia’s tanks and BMPs (see below).
These are totals, of course. Recall that the leading edge of any engagement actually involves considerably fewer troops and tanks on either side.
And oh yes – the Russians. The Russians, as it happened, had designated the entire area as the “Caucasus Military District”, with the bulk of the military forces therein provided by the 58th Army, with air support provided by the 4th Air and Air Defense Army. The 58th’s somewhat-dated OOB included the 19th Motor Rifle Division, the 205th Motor Rifle Brigade, the 136th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, the 135th Motor Rifle Regiment, the 291st Artillery Brigade (equipped with towed 152mm 2A65 guns); the 943rd Multiple Rocket Launcher Regiment (220mm “Uragan” MRLS); the 1128th Anti-tank Regiment; the 67th AA Rocket Brigade (first- and next-generation SA-11); and the 487th Helicopter Regiment (Mi-8 and Mi-24 “Hind” helos). The 19th Motor Rifle includes 3 Motor Rifle regiment (each with a tank battalion), a separate tank regiment (mostly T-72s, I believe), an “Akatsia” 152mm SP artillery regiment; and organic air defense. Prior to the conflict, apparently the 58th Army was reinforced with some of the newer weapon systems in the Russian arsenal, such as the S-300 long-range SAM, the new MRLS system (forgot the designation, but makes the 220mm Uragan pale by comparison), etc. The 4th Air Army has several regiments of Mig-29 (F-16-like) and Su-27 (F-15-like) fighters as well as Su-24 (F-111 equivalent), Su-25 (A-10-like) and Tu-22 bombers and recon aircraft, plus Mi-24 Hinds and a bunch of transport helicopters.
Oh yes – the final piece of the puzzle were the peacekeeper battalions – 500 Russians and 500 Georgians deployed in each “separatist region” – lightly armed, with only a few BMPs and transport helicopters in each.
Prior to August 8, the Georgians moved two combat brigades with perhaps half the republic’s total number of tanks and IFVs, and what looks to be most of their artillery (certainly all of their MRLS systems) up from Gori and towards the gorge that led to Tskhinvali. Additional light infantry forces were activated in the Georgian enclaves inside South Ossetia proper. By this time, there had already been sporadic exchanges of fire between Georgia, Abkhazia and Ossetia for roughly a week, though nothing serious; the Abkhazians did, however, shoot down at least three of the Georgians’ unmanned recon aircraft. Meanwhile, the Russians, not being blind, moved five battalions from the 19th Motor Rifle Division closer to the Russian entrance of the Rok Tunnel, and placed the remainder of the 58th Army on yellow alert. Apparently, several other Russian units were activated at this time, namely the two ethnic Chechen battalions (“East” and “West”) and certain air assault formations. In addition, about half of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, having recently conducted maneuvers off the Abkhazian and Russian coastlines, remained in the area, within a few hours of the Georgian ports.
For their part, the Ossetians placed their forces on red alert and began evacuating civilians from the region (especially Tskhinvali) during the last few days before the war; while the Abkhazi activated their military units but did nothing else for the moment.
The conflict began some time after midnight on August 8. The Georgians claim that they crossed into South Ossetia in response to an Ossetian attack; even if this had been the case, then the massed Georgian forces had been waiting for just such an opportunity – given their carefully prepared plans (see below).
The precise sequence of events here diverges based on whom one asks; the Georgians maintain that they first atempted to rush Tskhinvali with a column of troops and tanks, while the Ossetians suggest that the artillery and rocket barrage hit the town first. Notably, the Georgian artillery was already in position to open fire on Tskhinvali at the first sign of resistance before the conflict began, and so the Ossetian version rings truer. Regardless, it is indisputable that in the dawn hours of August 8, parts of Tskhinvali were pounded by Georgian artillery and rocket launchers deployed on the heights east, south, and west of the town, while a large group of Georgians smashed their way in along the southern road. Simultaneously, at least one or two reinforced battalions of the Georgians, plus an unspecified number of “Georgian special forces” (in practice, as it turned out, Georgian soldiers who had been trained not only how to march in time but also to fire their weapons in the general direction of a target) and a couple of artillery batteries attempted to cut the Tskhinvali-Rok Tunnel road some 10-20 kilometers north of the town itself. Other Georgian forces fanned out to attack Ossetian villages around Tskhinvali.
Georgia’s plan was, per maps and documents that were later captured by the advancing Russians, to capture Tskhinvali within the first 5-6 hours of the conflict (another reason for why I would think the artillery barrage preceded the column that went into the town, since theoretically that makes more sense than calling in massed artillery bombardments after you’re already enmeshed in street battles), establish a firm roadblock north of the town, use the daylight hours of August 8 to rush through most of the remaining Ossetian territory, and present the presumably stunned and bamboozled Russians not only with a fait accompli but also with the daunting proposition of having to smash their way into South Ossetia through a blocked-off choke-point under fire from tanks and artillery. At which point, too, they would be under untold political pressure from the U.S. to keep their paws off the “Democratic (capital D) Republic of Georgia”.
It was a sound plan. It was a cunning plan. It was, for lack of a better descriptor, a stunningly brilliant plan. With only a few minor problems.
Problem 1. The Ossetians themselves.
It should be noted at this point that the Ossetians as a whole are a very proud people. Martially so, as well. It is said that during World War 2, the Ossetians earned the distinction of having the highest number of Heroes of the Soviet Union per capita, out of all of the USSR’s 100 plus nationalities, including the Russians themselves. [The “Hero of the Soviet Union” is the rough equivalent of the Victoria Cross or the Congressional Medal of Honor – with potentially half or more of the awards being made posthumously.] Separately, the Ossetians are not a stupid people, certainly not in matters of war.
Somehow or another, it turned out that virtually all of Ossetia’s armored vehicles were in “parade” mode, i.e. not battle-ready. Most were blown up by the Ossetians themselves in the first hours of the conflict, or else “evacuated” to the north ahead of time. This left roughly 3,000 light infantry with some marginal artillery and helicopter support. Still, this 3,000 would fight, most likely to the death, which was something the Georgian planners ought to have considered before tasking roughly two combat brigades with securing (securing!!) an area of nearly 4,000 square kilometers in under 18 hours. Even without any resistance (and believe you me, the Osseti population would most definitely attempt to resist, given the ethnic component of the conflict), this would probably have been a somewhat strenuous task, in particular given the limitations of having to move reinforcements and supplies into the region via a single not-very-wide roadway, to say nothing of Ossetia’s hilly and less-than-tank-friendly terrain.
Problem 2. The plan’s sheer brilliance.
Let’s see. Time is of the essence. Speed is of the utmost importance. So let’s send the main thrust of our attack straight into the enemy’s main city.
Let me rephrase that. Let’s ignore the fact that said city can be relatively easily bypassed and blasted to bits by tanks and artillery deployed on the heights around it. No. Let’s go straight into the damn place. And actually capture every square inch of it. In about 5-6 hours.
You know, back during World War 2, the Russians learned very well the place of cities in strategic and operational warfare; speed traps. Actually storming one cost a lot of time and blood, while bypassing one and racing into the enemy’s operational rear usually meant that a given garrison would be compelled to flee of its own volition. The Germans trying to physically capture Stalingrad, just as the Russians storming Kiev, Koenigsberg or Berlin, resulted in a total exhaustion of the besiegers; while bypassing all those cities and towns in Belorussia during the June 1944 Soviet offensive meant that the Germans barely had the time to abandon their heavy equipment and race to the rear; similar to what the Germans did to the Russians in June of 1941, before they bogged down in reducing centers of Soviet resistance.
Not that this means that there are no times in war when sieges and clearing operations need to be conducted – preferably by the second-echelon troops with ample artillery support (while the first echelon continues to mangle the enemy’s operational depths). Yet in this case, speed was the key to the Georgian plan – Ossetia had to be defeated within scant hours, the road north cut and the Rok Tunnel sealed off, with nothing for anyone else to do other than bemoan the Georgian Blitzkrieg.
Ah. But instead, we’re going to send our main column into an urban battle, granted, inside a town of 20,000 rather than a large city like Stalingrad. Still, narrow streets are bottlenecks and deathtraps to armored vehicles no matter what the scale.
Problem 2.5 – the brilliance continues.
On top of everything said above, the Georgians also had to devise a way of dealing with the 500 Russian peacekeepers deployed in South Ossetia. So what did they decide? Bypass and isolate? No no – surround and assault! Presumably hoping that only a portion of a single combat brigade would suffice to overrun a full battalion of albeit lightly-armed (assault rifles, machine-guns, a few RPGs, a couple of BMP IFVs) peacekeepers while the rest of the force could proceed to subjugate South Ossetia while sticking to the Brilliant Master Plan’s schedule.
Absolutely no margin of error assuming a scintilla of intelligence on the side of the Russians. For, you see, any delay in the Grand Plan of Ossetian Subjugation meant that the Russians could (and did) race down the road from the Rok Tunnel and turn a would-be “fait accompli” into an actual slugfest. See Problems 1 and 2 above for potential sources of said delays.
Apparently this whole concept of the Russian 4th Air Army was not even remotely considered. Let’s see. A force with 20-50 ground attack aircraft, some helos and no meaningful AA except for three (3!!) systems which can actually touch medium-to-high altitude Russian aircraft and some ZSU-23s, taking on 3 whole fighter regiments and who knows how many ground attack aircraft. In daylight, for that matter. This definitely fell under the “brilliant idea” heading, unless, of course, the thought process was – we’ll secure Ossetia so fast, that the Russians won’t have time to get any birds up in the air.
I’m not even mentioning the whole “Black Sea Fleet” issue. With Russian marines onboard. And numerous surface-to-surface missiles.
Ah. Problem number five. You see, the Georgians clearly had assumed that their brave troops, trained by equally brave Western advisors (the U.S., Britain, Turkey – the Ukraine, even – all pitched in to one degree or another), as well as their brave officers, would actually conduct themselves with a modicum of tactical skill. Because, you see, a lack of said skill could present a problem insofar as any Blitzkrieg goes. Especially if they happen to run smack into veteran enemies. Put differently, in a conflict involving a Panamanian Army Battalion and a USMC Battalion you’d want to be on the side of the USMC, not the brave Panamanians. In theory, at least.
These problems delineated, we return to the action of August 8-9.
As mentioned previously, one way or another the Georgians barged their way into Tskhinvali while pounding the city from the heights above. Meanwhile, a second column lunged to cut the road north of Tskhinvali to the Rok Tunnel.
The Ossetians were not idiots. They expected pretty much this exact turn of events. Roughly 300 “kamikaze” light infantry remained in Tskhinvali itself, their job to keep the Georgian main column busy for as long as possible. Meanwhile, virtually every other man under arms and every functioning piece of equipment was thrown at the smaller Georgian force attempting to cut the road to the Rok Tunnel.
By midday on August 8 (or thereabouts), this smaller Georgian force (quite likely outnumbered by the Ossetians attacking it, though certainly not outgunned) was pushed back away from the north road, though the Georgians could still subject portions of it to artillery and sniper fire. In Tskhinvali, the 300 “Spartans” fought a vicious battle as the Georgians barged their way into town, nearly reaching its center before becoming bogged down in street combat. At least some of the Georgian tanks became separated from their supporting infantry, with three being destroyed in the first hours of the fighting. The total Georgian force – estimated at 3,500-4,000 men – milled about largely in the southern half of the town while artillery pounded the northern side.
The Russian peacekeepers around Tskhinvali also proved a tough nut to crack; most of the battalion’s buildings and vehicles were destroyed quite quickly, however a good three quarters of the troops remained combat capable and putting up whatever resistance were possible in the face of tank and self-propelled artillery fire over open sights. Still, the battalion CO gave the order to destroy all documents and radios, clearly expecting to be overrun sooner rather than later.
In the air, the Georgians sent the occasional SU-25 flight to drop bombs on Tskhinvali or the surrounding villages. The Ossetians’ one military airfield, however, remained largely unmolested, and their helicopters began raiding Georgian reinforcement columns. Thus, by some time in the afternoon on August 8, a column of 3 Georgian tanks and 8 APCs or IFVs was completely destroyed from the air as it approached the Georgian group in Tskhinvali. Field reports at this juncture indicate that the Georgians aren’t following basic “air security” procedures; their vehicle columns are streaming forward with no AA protection of any kind, while their artillery and MRLS crews are piling stacks of shells and rockets right next to the guns and launchers themselves, such that one cannon burst in the general direction of the firing position was usually enough to completely obliterate the gun or launcher and its crew. At the same time, reports also surfaced that the 300 “Spartans” in Tskhinvali managed to somehow trap a chunk of the Georgian force in the town, and had even captured a few of their BMPs and one Humvee (suggesting that the Georgian soldiers had fled rather than put up a fight against an outnumbered and outgunned enemy). The announcement of a captured Hummer drives the Russian general public (as represented by Internet postings of all shapes and sizes) even more up a wall than it had already been. Of course, the “Spartans” are pretty jumpy – the 3 UH-1s beloging to the Ossetians seem to all be shot down by friendly fire from the captured BMPs (who, in turn, had thought that these were Georgian attack helos making a run).
By around 1400-1500 hours local time, the Russian 19th Motor Rifle Division – mobilized that morning – begins to rush through the Rok Tunnel and south towards Tskhinvali. The delay took place partly because it took until morning to determine that this was a full-scale Georgian attack rather than just an especially powerful raid – and because the UN meetings called at Russia’s behest could not meet much earlier. By this time, of course, Russian television channels were broadcasting full-on images of frightened Ossetian civilians fleeing the area or digging themselves out from under the rubble of Tskhinvali, crying into the camera about lost loved ones and begging for help. How I love effective TV blitzes…
At any rate, by late afternoon on August 8, the Russians engaged the Georgians, first linking up with the Ossetian troops on the northern road and detaching a force to contain the smaller Georgian column, and then pushing into the northern outskirts of Tskhinvali itself. Meanwhile, Russian aircraft and helicopters – plus artillery detachments – began counterbattery fire against the heights around Tskhinvali, although this was not extremely successful.
By midday on August 9, the situation in South Ossetia had changed dramatically. Russian and Ossetian troops surrounded and began to reduce the Georgian pocket in the north, as well as a portion of the Georgian troops in Tskhinvali proper. Meanwhile, the first Russian reinforcements reached the peacekeeper battalion further south, and Russian artillery and aircraft continued to pound the heights around the city. Georgian reinforcement columns were also vigorously attacked.
The Georgian troops from the main column – those who had not been trapped in Tskhinvali, at least – began their retreat almost as soon as they saw the Russians entering the town. Certainly some detachments stood and fought, but the majority went back to their “second line” positions to regroup. During the night, the artillery duel continued, and by the morning of August 9 several Georgian tank and infantry attacks had been launched to reach both the trapped Georgian detachments (the one in Tskhinvali and the one alongside the road north); these proved unsuccessful, with the Georgians losing 12 tanks in one attack on Tskhinvali proper. The Georgian government began to move reserves into position, although reports indicate that by this time, the bulk of these were “reservists” who did not have much fight in them. Some ethnic Georgians also began to flee South Ossetia, fearful of reprisals (justifiably so). All throughout, detachments of Georgian troops that had fanned out to the villages on either side of Tskhinvali continued to raze them to the ground with tanks and artillery; mass executions of the civilian populations were reported but not independently confirmed.
On August 10, the main Russian forces were still semi-stuck around Tskhinvali, trying to push the Georgians off the heights while reducing the pockets of resistance in the town proper. The Ossetian troops by now were largely moved to help with securing Tskhinvali and with escorting refugees out of the city and the surrounding areas. In addition to the 19th Motor Rifle Division, several Paratrooper detachments (from the 58th Air Assault Division, I believe) were arriving by aircraft while Russian marines landed in Abkhazia, ostensibly to support the Russian peacekeepers there. Other 58th Army units were also streaming into the area, as were the two Chechen battalions (whose arrival was a welcome surprise some time around the morning of August 10). The Chechen battalions quickly managed to capture enough Georgian BMPs to ferry themselves about and launched an attack towards Gori, which ran into a massive Georgian ambush that caused few casualties but took most of the day to resolve.
By this juncture, the 4th Air Army had had enough and began to bomb and strafe airfields in Georgia proper while also patrolling the skies with Su-27 fighters. Reports of solitary Georgian Su-25 aircraft ineffectually strafing Ossetian and Russian positions continued through August 11, however these may have been able to sneak in “through” the overall aircraft traffic in the region (given that both sides were relying primarily on Su-25s for ground attack mission at this point, not entirely surprising); it is at this juncture that the Russians discover, to their considerable displeasure, that the Georgians are fielding next-generation SA-11 SAMs (one of which brought down a Tu-22 bomber flying a reconnaissance mission, although the crew was, apparently, extricated one way or another). These are presumably hunted down and suppressed over the next couple of days, together with their (presumably Ukrainian – because the Georgian army simply did not have any qualified or “trained-up” personnel to use these systems) crews, as well as any other air defenses in the region, but the Russians still lose about a half-dozen birds in the process. Nevertheless, massive strafing of Georgian reinforcements continues.
Tactically, Russian infantry is content to follow tanks and 152mm “Akatsias” firing over open sights while helicopters support from overhead; the Georgians are unbelievably outgunned on just about every front.
To make matters worse for the Georgians, on August 10 or thereabouts, the Abkhazi begin moving troops into the contested Kodori gorge (prior to which the Russian peacekeeper battalion deployed there politely moved out of the way), with tanks and artillery leading the way, at precisely the point when the Georgians were shifting all available troops and equipment (right down to cramming men of draft or reservist age into buses, threatening them with 4-year jail terms if they “desert” and driving them to the front) to try and stabilize the South Ossetia front. Much unpleasantness ensues. Also by August 10, the Russian Black Sea Fleet takes positions around the Georgian coastline, sinking initially one Georgian missile boat and eventually two or three more before the next day dawns.
By August 11, the Georgian army in South Ossetia is completely and thoroughly routed; its artillery and heavy equipment blown away or abandoned, its troops suffering massive casualties from air and artillery attacks. The pockets in Tskhinvali and along the northern road pretty much cease all resistance, though to date there is no word on prisoners. The Georgians’ two combat brigades thrown into the assault at the start effectively cease to exist, while the remaining army and reservists – those who were back in Georgia or had managed to escape to Gori – continue fleeing. The remaining Georgian regular army is pulled back to protect Tbilisi itself, while most Georgian military installations are being abandoned; the brigade that had been stationed in Iraq is being flown back in (reportedly in U.S. transport aircraft), however it, too, is positioned primarily to defend Tbilisi against a Russian strike.
Meanwhile, the Russians continue to push south, as do the Abkhazi. The latter clear out the Georgian defenses (and 11 villages) on the southern side of the Kodori Gorge and dig in against any counter-assault. The Russians launch a full-scale air and sea bombardment of just about any military structure or facility in Georgia – the port facilities of Poti are damaged (though not Batumi – which is a city not of ethnic Georgians but of a recently-“pacified” pro-Russian Adjari minority); Russian aircraft blow up the military depots in Gori (the secondary explosions from which damage the surrounding civilian buildings, which are then showcased in CNN and BBC reports on the subject of “Russian airstrikes against innocent civilians”); Russian troops move towards Gori and Sugdidi. Georgians are leaving Tbilisi to the east, hoping to escape to a somewhat-more friendly Azerbaijan.
Conclusion of combat operations.
By August 11-12, it was only a matter of when a cease-fire would be signed, and on what terms. The terms, essentially, were dictated by the Russians. Militarily speaking, the Russians continued to bomb, shell and otherwise attack Georgian military infrastructure; moreover, Russian platoon- and company-sized detachments race towards now largely-abandoned Georgian military basis, e.g. the one in Gori, and proceed to methodically destroy or dismantle any piece of military or other equipment therein. This process was ongoing through at least August 14-15 if not later, prompting Western cries about “Russian occupation”. Radar installations, ammunition depots, armored vehicles – everything was and is being either destroyed or “appropriated for the benefit of the Russian state”, while the Georgian military is reduced to a collection of regulars and reservists, largely in the form of light infantry with few remaining vehicles. The Georgian Navy and Air Force, such as they are, have apparently ceased to exist by this juncture. While there is no word on Georgian military or civilian casualties, at least the former can be estimated at upwards of several thousand. Russian losses through August 11-12 are comprised of 70-75 KIA, 19 MIA, and roughly 190-200 WIA; these totals include 15 KIA and more than 100 WIA from the Georgian initial atack on the peacekeeper battalion. Russian tank and equipment losses are less well-known, but are probably in single digits in all categories; those of the Georgians are probably pushing 75%-100% of all units of a given type.
One. Tactical proficiency. The Georgian troops showed themselves to be a) less than well-versed in unit tactics (e.g. getting surrounded, with units carved up, by a much smaller force; being ignorant of air support; not being able to follow through on a suburban ambush of a Russian vehicle column and instead being pounded into dust over the next few hours; etc.); b) prone to running away at the first sign of trouble (the very fact of captured undamaged BMP infantry fighting vehicles – in large enough numbers to be used as mounts for entire battalions – is very illustrative); and c) only include a small proportion of troops who are at least capable of putting up something resembling a fight (once the initial two brigades were ground down, Georgia effectively had no trained troops left – and two brigades does not even cover its standing army).
Clearly the Georgian army looked better on paper than in practice. One only wonders what all those American and British (and Ukrainian, and Turkish…) advisors were doing all this time.
The Ossetians showed the most tactical prowess merely by the fact that they managed to hold the road open while a very small force turned Tskhinvali into something of a major annoyance for the Georgians’ main column. Considering that we’re talking about mostly light infantry attacking large combined-arms forces with, initially, little by way of air cover, the feat does seem quite impressive. Even when adjusted for the Georgian troops’ apparent less-than-competence.
The Russians were the Russians – on the one hand, perceived by their opponents as lumbering drunkards with a penchant for mass attacks, and, on the other hand, actually quite happily and aggressively using their armor, artillery and mechanized infantry to carve up and smash an already bogged down enemy. Not that a huge degree of tactical skill was needed, of course – a substantial firepower advantage offsets many a shortcoming. The 4th Air Army, in fact, underperformed, given that, at least on paper, it should have shut down all Georgian air traffic on the first day of fighting, not on the third or thereabouts. Although here one does not know precisely when the rules of engagement were revised to allow it to strike into Georgia proper – nor is it clear just how many aircraft did it or could it deploy to the area.
Two. Operational execution. The Georgians had set ridiculous, by my understanding of the various factors involved (terrain, opposition, etc.), objectives for their troops, and, of course, failed miserably to do much more than lunge into Tskhinvali on the first day. They then continued to make the situation ever more untenable for themselves by not giving up, retreating to their jump-off points and asking for a ceasefire, but instead launching attack after attack to relieve their surrounded troops – against a rapidly mounting opposition. Secondly, something must be said for the fact that when things really began to go against the Georgians, their commanders did not clog up the narrow pass in front of Gori with defenders, but instead pulled back all the way to Tbilisi, effectively leaving the republic’s underbelly wide-open. Theoretically, the Russians could have just loped off most of Georgia leaving a rump state of Tskhinvali – as it turned out, they are content to range around smashing military hardware up with relative impunity.
The Ossetians had one job to do – stall the Georgians. After that, their role became almost “humanitarian” (i.e. centered on assisting civilians rather than pressing the attack); not that they didn’t want to be at the forefront of the Russian columns, it’s just that the Russians were in no mood to watch the Ossetians exact revenge from Georgian towns and villages.
The Russians did quite well, given the logistical constraints (e.g. one road leading into the region). STRATFOR, in fact, came out with a report where it professed amazement at the rapidity and extreme effectiveness of the Russian counter-assault. Granted, the heights around Tskhinvali took time to clear, but again, given the difficulty of moving a single division into the place (while refugees are streaming out along the same road – more than 20,000 registered with Russian Immigration Services on the northern side of the tunnel by August 10, and who knows how many more had gone in unregistered). Besides which, the 58th Army’s operational task encompasses the entirety of the Caucasus region, which means that only a portion of it could be detached at a given point in time (though this is where Russian paras and the Chechen battalions came into play).
Three. Strategic outcomes.
The Georgians must have been smoking crack and watching 1930s-era German propaganda films when they concocted this little stunt of theirs. Tactically and operationally, not only was the whole affair deemed to fail – but, as it turned out, Georgia had no reserves to even form a line of defense once the attacking brigades were ground up. Throwing everything you have, effectively, on a gamble like this, bespeaks strategic foolishness of the extreme kind. Especially if your closest friend and ally (represented by Condi Rice) told you, to your face, to step off about three weeks before you got started.
The Ossetians – and the Abkhazi – were sly devils who were prepared for the eventuality. The Ossetians couldn’t have just concocted a response plan like the one actually executed overnight; and the Abkhazi waited for the precise moment when the Georgians became fully engaged in Ossetia – then launched a limited Blitzkrieg of their own, smashing the Georgian troops in the Kodori Gorge and, theoretically speaking, establishing themselves in a prime position from which to threaten Sugdidi, the regional center Kutaisi, and most of the Georgian plain. Should such a threat be required by political considerations.
The Russians had to have known something was coming. And had to have planned their response, such that the only thing left was, really, the determination of when the troops could go based, among other things, on when could the Russians convene the UN Security Council in New York (the 8-hour time difference makes for awkward timing). Kudos to Russian Intel (which, nevertheless, had missed the SA-11s…), and points to the Kremlin for planning this operation ahead of time – and for executing it more or less according to plan. By the time the Russians are finished, Georgia will have been reduced to…well, militarily a non-entity, and strategically a very difficult proposition for the U.S. (which still wants the place “on its side” given the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline route). One only wonders what other “contingency plans” they may already have in place, whether one agrees with what they are doing or not.
The Americans, on the other hand, were far too surprised to make me congratulate them. They clearly seemed to be in shock to see the Georgians actually launch the operation; and were in an even greater shock at the Russian response. Somebody at the State Department – or the CIA, or the Pentagon, or all of the above – seems to be operating under the assumption that this is still the 1990s, Russia is still politically and militarily impotent, and America’s “friends and allies” necessarily know what they are doing. [Point of fact, I would fully expect the State Department to “encourage” Georgia’s opposition parties to, erm, “democratically replace” the republic’s current leadership in the wake of this catastrophe.] But this is really getting away from the military side of the discussion. Suffice it to say, strategically, the U.S. would have gained more – assuming it wanted military action in the first place – for the Georgian offensive to have been launched at a later date, with better preparation, more consistent objectives…although on the other hand, what else could the Georgians really do? The whole thing seems like a suicide operation, more or less…
So this is where we are. Almost certainly additional facts and detailed chronologies of the combat will be published by the various sides in due time. In the meanwhile – the Georgians lost, as well they should have, because I still cannot believe that they had honestly expected to a) win to begin with and b) to have any shot once they saw Russian tanks and aircraft swarm over the mountains and start smashing up forward Georgian units (remember, for a good 24-36 hours after the Russians became engaged, the Georgians kept launching attacks – straight at them).
The Georgian spin doctors begin.
A few maps:
1) Caucasus region maps scale 1:100’000 file index
See also: Georgia topo maps scale 1:200’000
2) TEC: Maps of Georgia
3) Perry-Castañeda Library, Map Collection
fascinating stuff, would never have found it.
ps: why do you call him ‘Gene’? gossipy question, you can pass if you choose.
@Petey: why do you call him ‘Gene’?
Follow the link above his article to the discussion on militaryphoto and you will see that this is how the guy who posted his report identifies him. I suspect that his full name is Evgenii :-)
Great post by Gene. Thanks for publishing it here VS.
“Follow the link above his article to the discussion on militaryphoto and you will see that this is how the guy who posted his report identifies him.”
hmm … did follow the link, didn’t see it (why i asked!). i’ll look again.
Dear VineyardSaker, your blog is obviously one the most interesting reads on the subject one can find in English, so you may want to consider this for your future analyses –
it’s basically some Russian servicemen evaluating some trophy gear, captured from Georgians, the said evaluation could be summed up as of utter scorn.
@Что в имени тебе моем?: thanks for the very interesting link, I will go through this carefully and with great interest. If you ever see more interesting stuff like this please let me know as I simply cannot scout all of the Internet for interesting data by myself and this kind of help is most useful to me.
Забытое давно, в волненьях новых и мятежных is a good evaluation of the military hardware which was used by the Georgians but hopefully the kind of discussion you refer to will help me keep an eye on this issue.
BTW – what happened to the seized “Hummers” with the US spying gear?
Cheers & many thanks,
The Saker aka Балобан
thank you for your kind words and I am glad if these humble links could be of use to you;
I wish I could form an informed opinion about the Humvees, but the last rumour is, they will be sold at an auction and are not going back to the country of origin.
Please keep up your good work!