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The South Ossetian War: Lessons for the Future

Wednesday 10 September 2008, by Sandeep Bhardwaj


“Never engage the same enemy for too long, or he will adapt to your tactics.” —Carl Von Clausewitz

After seeing the US forces stuck for the long-term in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Russian forces in Chechnya twice, finally it seems the curse of world military superpowers is broken. The South Ossetian war that broke out between Russia and Georgia on August 8, 2008 has been brought to a swift conclusion, at least militarily.

The war has been quite contrary to the Russian military performance in Chechnya and even Afghanistan, back in the 1980s. It was an organised, surgical and quick military operation. Whether the war fulfilled its political objectives for Russia still remains to be seen, but it definitely gave a glimpse of how the wars are going to be fought in the coming years.

The South Ossetian war was a conventional war between two sovereign nations. It was a war that couldn’t have been more disproportionate—a pygmy Georgian Army pegged against Russian might. It was a war between two forces still undergoing modernisation, where old and new school military thinking coexist. Militaries made use of both latest tactics like the novel idea of information warfare and precision bombing to the age-old approach of brute force and overwhelming the enemy with sheer numbers. It was also a war fought using a combination of modern and ancient military hardware. While Russia brought in the war her top-of-the-line T-80 tanks with reactive armour and SS-N-22 “Sunburn” supersonic missiles, there were gaping holes in the military technology—from the lack of fully-functional GLONASS, the Russian military equivalent of the GPS, to the precision guidance systems for missiles to target Georgian radars. Similarly, the Georgian military, though simply overmatched, did have some interesting technologies in its arsenal—from an entire Air Force Squadron of Unmanned Aircrafts to SA-11 “Gladfly” surface-to-air missile.

Thus the South Ossetian conflict doesn’t only become a topic of interest politically or economically (given the oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Turkey that runs through Georgia), it also has far-reaching military implications.


South Ossetia is a region in Georgia’s north that has remained under dispute since the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the USSR, a violent conflict broke out between the newly-formed sovereign Georgia and South Ossetian separatists. While Georgia claimed the territory to be part of the country, Russian-backed separatists maintained that South Ossetia was an independent nation.

In 1992, Georgia, forced by Russia, signed a ceasefire with the South Ossetian separatists, putting an end to violence. Since then, though South Ossetia maintains a de facto independence to some extent, it has not been internationally recognised by any country as a nation. Russia, along with Georgia and Ossetia, maintains a peacekeeping force in the region.

“Never engage the same enemy for too long, or he will adapt to your tactics.”—Carl Von Clausewitz. Today, most of the South Ossetians hold Russian passports and regularly move in and out of North Ossetia, a Russian territory, through the Roki tunnel.

In 2003, due to the controversial Georgian parliamentary elections, massive anti-government demonstrations were held in Tblisi, the Georgian capital, which led to what is now known as the Rose Revolution. In the consequent re-elections the revolution’s leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, came to power as the new President in 2004. Saakashvili brought with him a new Georgian foreign policy, developing diplomatic ties with the US, Israel and post-Soviet states. He also aggressively sought NATO membership, though the application was blocked by Russia. Under Saakashvili the Georgian armed forces went through massive modernisation, and the nation’s defence budget was increased 30 times from US $ 30 million in 2003 to US $ 1 billion in 2007. The Kremlin, meanwhile, watched these developments with disapproval and unease.

In 2008, hostilities between Russia, South Ossetia and Georgia escalated. In April 2008, Russia shot down a Georgian UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) creating much furore in the international circuit. In July, as the US and Georgian Army led joint training exercises in Georgia, Russians also held a massive military exercise at North Cuacasus near the Georgian border.

In the days leading up to the war the situation worsened between the South Ossetian separatists and Georgians with incidents like an IED explosion in a Georgian police car to exchanging mortar fire between the two fighting groups.

Russian Military Campaign

ON August 8 midnight, the Georgian Army began its assault on South Ossetia spearheaded by the Fourth Brigade. By the afternoon, facing little resistance, Georgian forces entered Tskhinvali, the regional capital of South Ossetia.

The Kremlin maintains that it was surprised by the Georgian attack. However, according to Russian media reports, Russian forces had begun mobilisation in North Ossetia—a Russian territory—within hours of the Georgian assault. By 1:00 pm on August 8, there were reports from news agencies of an estimated 10,000 Russian troops with 150 tanks and 700 armoured vehicles moving through the Roki tunnel. The 3.6 km tunnel is one of the few paths that connect Russia to South Ossetia. The Russian Air Force also took up a massive precision bombing campaign against the Georgian air and strategic defence system and shattered it within a day. For the rest of the war Russia maintained overall air superiority, though there were some losses.

On August 9, it was reported that the Russian 76th Air Assault Division was airlifted out of the Leningrad Military District to Tskhinvali. In the next two days another division, the 96th Airborne Division in Moscow, was airlifted as a follow-on force. These paratroopers, teaming up with the 58th Army elements from the Roki tunnel, began heavy fighting with the Georgian forces. In four days of fighting Russians pushed back the Georgian forces, causing grave harm to the elite Georgian 4th brigade. By August 11, the Russian forces had entered Tskhinvali.

In parallel, the Russian Army at Georgia’s northwest mobilised for a second attack. On August 9, the Russian 131st Separate Motor-Rifle Brigade, which was stationed in Abkhazia as a peacekeeping force, opened a second front on the Georgian forces. Abkhazia is another de facto independent province of Georgia at its north-west tip that courts strong pro-Russian sentiments. Russians, aided by the Abkhazian Army, moved swiftly to mount an attack on Georgia-controlled Kodori valley in the border region. Georgian forces quickly fell back. By August 11, these troops had taken the Zugiddi town and destroyed the Georgian military base outside the town of Senaki.

Russian forces were now on the main national highway of Georgia which runs throughout the country connecting Poti, a port city on Georgia’s west coast, to Tblisi in the east. The 131st Brigade moved west to capture the port city of Poti, which is strategically an important prize. By August 16, the Russian forces had occupied Poti and Senaki.

On the outbreak of war, the Russian Black Sea Fleet led by the cruiser Moskva was also deployed to Georgian waters. On August 10, Russians claimed to have sunk a Georgian patrol boat which was armed with SS-N-2 “Styx” missiles. The rest of the small Georgian Navy quickly disintegrated giving Russia control of Georgian waters, from where the Russian Navy bombed a few targets in the port city of Poti.

Meanwhile, the 58th Army elements and airborne division in South Ossetia were pushing ahead into the undisputed territory of Georgia. On August 13, Russian tanks were seen at Gori, a city in the middle of Georgia. Thus Russians had divided the Georgian national highway into two.

On August 15, Reuters stated that Russian forces at Gori had advanced on the main national highway to the east, stopping at 55 km from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. This is where the Russian forces stood for a week, with more or less complete control of the Georgian highway. The retreated Georgian forces regrouped on the highway six km from Tbilisi.

Concurrently, Russians also mounted a massive information warfare campaign on Georgia, of a magnitude never seen before. Within hours of six outbreak of war, Russian hackers had defaced many major Georgian websites, including that of the Georgian Foreign Ministry and infected many other networks with DoS (Denial of Service) attacks. Along with a benefit for Russia in psychological warfare, the infowar also made sure that minimum possible Georgian version of news got out of the country.

On August 12, Russian President Medvedev said that he had ordered an end to the military operations in Georgia. The six-point plan of ceasefire which was to come into effect by August 17. However, until August 19, media reports kept coming out of Georgia of Russian advances and tank movements. On August 21, it was hinted by Russia, from more than one source, that while the Russian troops will withdraw, she will maintain a military presence in the disputed as well as non-disputed Georgian territory. As of August 23, the bulk of Russian military has pulled back but Russian check-posts still remain inside Georgian territory near Gori and Poti.

Lessons for the Future

ONE thing that has to be conceded to the Russian military is the brilliant organisation and coordination that the forces showed. While the Russian Government claims that it had just “reacted” to the Georgian attack on South Ossetia, various Russian media reports suggest that the war was in fact planned well in advance. Moreover, the 19th Motor Rifle Division of the 58th Army, which became primary force of the Russian assault, was conducting military exercises in North Cuacasus near the Georgian border all through July. Nevertheless, executing the plans with such precision was not a small feat.

Though blitzkrieg warfare is by no means a new concept, the level of coordination and swiftness displayed by the Russians was incredible. As always, with such precedents, rules of warfare are changed and militaries in the future will require a much quicker response time.

Another aspect of the war was the mixed-bag results of technology. In the beginning of the war, the Russian Air Force had destroyed the Georgian Air Defence System; still the Georgians managed to bring down quite a few Russian aircraft—four, according to Russia and ten, according to Georgia. One of the aircraft shot was the mighty Tu-22M3 “Backfire” supersonic bomber that was being used by Russia for high-altitude recon missions. While Russia was expecting the loss of a few low-flying ground attack jets, Georgians downing a Tu-22 with a Soviet-made surface-to-air missile surprised everyone. Similarly, retired Russian military officials have also criticised the Air Force for failing to destroy the Georgian radars and thereby blinding the enemy. Human Rights Watch has indicated that there were several civilian causalities due to faulty Russian precision bombing.

In effect, it is clear that though Russia had a far superior technological advantage over the Georgian military, the real reason behind the success of the Russo-blitzkrieg was brute force. To this date, Russia has committed more than 20,000 battle-hardened troops (of Chechnya wars) to Georgia in order to fight an Army of 30,000 ill-trained and unprepared troops. In fact, an entire Georgian brigade (one out of a total of six) was in Iraq as part of the coalition forces at the time of the outbreak of the war and was airlifted by the US to Georgia on August 19.

The war presents an argument against the new-school military thinking, supporters of Rumsfeld Doctrine et al, that the enemy can be overcome by attacking specific targets with precision bombing and Special Forces. The Revolution in Military Affairs advocates, who still believe most of the future military undertakings to be the repetition of Operation Desert Storm, need to revisit the fundamentals now. As is clearly evident, in the event of an outright war, the military does require committing a large number of ground troops to hold the ground in enemy territory. What the US Army is learning after six years into the Afghanistan war, the Russian Army applied from the outset in the South Ossetian war.

One thing that every invading military in a disproportionate conflict has to fear today is the possibility of outbreak of an asymmetrical war. Guerrilla warfare and insurgency have today become a norm in battlefield rather than an exception. It was once again proved in the South Ossetian war that one of the best ways to counter such possibility is to overwhelm the enemy as fast as possible. The incredibly quick response that the Russian armed forces displayed in the war is a lesson for the rest of the large armies in the world to learn from.

One much ignored aspect of the war remains the non-conventional weapons that Russia used. Along with military force, Russia also mounted a massive information warfare campaign. The Russian Government has also retained Ketchum, one of the world’s largest public-relations firms, “to facilitate communication between the Russian Government officials and international journalists on key issues affecting Russia”. And, according to PR Week, since the start of the recent crisis with Georgia, Ketchum has been leading an “international consortium” of agencies, including the Brussels-based PR giant GPlus, to promote Russian interests.

In World War II, with the opening of markets and increased strengths of the international community, warring nations had realised that economic sanctions and diplomatic games had become a significant part of the offensive. Similarly, with globalisation and technological revolution, countries have to realise that future wars shall also spill over to cyberspace and will be heavily affected by the media.

Impact of the War

MILITARILY, the South Ossetian war has made it clear to the world that the Russian Army is back into shape after two decades of heaving like an exhausted giant. The Russian Army, which in the first Chechen war had seen its own soldiers sabotaging equipment and deserting the battlefield, provided a much disciplined show of force. The same Army had also been forced to flatten Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, with artillery and rocket bombing in the second Chechen war. (In fact, in 2003, the United Nations had called Grozny the most destroyed city on earth.) And in the South Ossetian war, the Russian military was able to achieve similar objectives with minimal damage and quick results. Clearly, the execution of planning had been much more professional than it has been since the Afghanistan war. While in the post- Cold-War era, the world was engaged in insurgency, terrorism and weapon stockpile of the Third-World countries, the Russian military managed to emerge as a formidable power.

However, Russia may have shown its cards too early. Not only did she fail to topple the Saakashvili Government in Tblisi, which is believed to be her motive behind the conflict, it also alerted the rest of the world of its prowess. On August 22, two weeks after the the beginning of the conflict, Poland signed the Missile Defence deal with the US which it had been avoiding for quite some time.

Clearly, this war has also played a role in the weakening of international organisations, especially the NATO. After the US deciding to go ahead with the Iraq war, without the NATO, the South Ossetian war was the second major blow, when Russia not only ignored the NATO’s warnings, she also suspended Moscow’s military ties with it on August 20.

While the West struggles to find a way to punish Russia for its behaviour, experts are coming to the conclusion that any economic reprisal against Russia will hurt the West more than Russia. It is becoming rapidly clear that the US and Western Europe hadn’t perceived such development of events and are now frantically searching for a solution. Meanwhile, the Balkan and post-Soviet nations, who had been slowly moving towards the West and increasingly challenging Moscow’s authority, are rethinking their strategy and policies. Nations like Ukraine and Georgia, which had discarded a pro-Kremlin government for a pro-Western one in the past decade, are no doubt in Russia’s radar. Suddenly, for Eastern Europe, the mighty giant is back and cannot be discounted in any strategic calculation.

However, one element of the conflict which hasn’t been largely addressed until now is oil. The Western route for early oil from Azerbaijan goes the from Baku to the Georgian port of Supsa on Black Sea, and several other proposed pipeline routes also pass through Georgia. Georgia and the Black Sea present the West as an alternative supply route for oil to the Middle East and Russia. Russian control over Georgia, and especially the Black Sea, proves as an added danger to West, which has been striving for multiple independent oil supply routes for quite some time. In the coming months, as the aftermath of the war unfolds and the US pushes into the post-war talks more aggressively, one can expect oil to be one of the focal points of discussion. _

The author is a Research Officer, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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