Monday, August 11, 2008

Window on Eurasia: How Well Have Russian Forces Performed in Georgia?

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 11 – Given the enormous imbalance in numbers and arms of Russian and Georgian forces, the advance of the former in South Ossetia and beyond surprised no one. But Russian experts are already debating how well Russian forces performed given the nature of their tasks, which so far have been limited, and the quality of their opponent, which they do not rate highly.
In an interview posted on the website yesterday, Anatoly Tsyganok, a retired officer who heads the center for military forecasting at the Moscow Institute of Political and Military Analysis, argued that Russian forces had performed impressively quickly and extraordinarily well (
But in an article carried on the anti-Kremlin website, Maksim Kalashnikov, who writes frequently on military affairs, suggests that the Russian military’s performance in this first war between former Soviet republics and in the first Russian conflict with a regular army since 1969 was not impressive (
For his part, Tsyganok points to three things to justify his conclusion that the Russian military prepared well. First, he says, the Georgians had a good plan, one based on Pentagon plans for operations in Serbia in the 1990s, and thus presented a challenge to Russian forces out of proportion to their numbers.
Second, he notes, the Russian military responded quickly. “No one expected that Russia would so quickly become involved in an armed conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia and thereby undercut Georgian plans for a lightning-fast war.” But political Moscow made the decision and the Russian military responded incredibly fast.
The reason? Georgian actions constituted “a moment of truth for Moscow,” one in which the authorities had to choose between the problems military action would create for Russia around the world and “the physical liquidation” of South Ossetia, something that would be from Moscow’s point of view “still worse.”
And third, again despite expectations in Tbilisi and elsewhere, Russian forces in the Northern Caucasus were ready to move. They left their bases less than five hours after the order was given, their training mean that they did not suffer the kind of losses many in Georgia had thought they would, and they achieved their objectives promptly.
One of the reasons for this success, Tsyganok says, is that the 58th Army had just completed a few days earlier the Caucasus 2008 exercises and thus was ready to take the field especially against an opponent like the Georgian military so much smaller and more poorly equipped than itself.
There are more than 100,000 Russian troops in the North Caucasus military district, with some 620 tanks, 200 armored personal carriers, and 875 pieces of artillery. While not all of the men or materiel were available for the operation in Georgia, he notes, enough were to overwhelm the 35,000-man Georgian army with its 160 tanks.
Indeed, one measure of just how pressed Georgian forces immediately and unexpectedly became was a decision by Tbilisi to withdraw its 2,000-man contingent from the American-led forces in Iraq, a withdrawal that Tsyganok implies won’t matter all that much on the ground but is symbolically important. (For a map of these forces, see

Kalashnikov does not so much challenge the points Tsyganok makes as advances other considerations that he believes suggest that the Russian military’s performance in Georgia, while victorious so far, is far from the level that Moscow propagandists and many observers have been claiming.
According to Kalashnikov, Moscow has had six years to prepare for a response to or an intervention against Georgia but did “practically nothing” to get ready for either eventuality. Nowhere is that failure more obvious, he says, than in the failure of Russian forces to use air power to knock out key Georgian institutions and especially Georgian artillery.
The Russian forces did not fly a sufficient number of sorties to do either, he continues, and they lacked the pilotless drones that could have allowed Russian artillery to attack Georgian targets more effectively. And that meant that Russian forces suffered more delay and losses from Georgian artillery than was necessary.
Instead of relying on airport to deal a knockout blow to the enemy, Kalashnikov says, Russian commanders relied on the notion that if Moscow introduces tanks in sufficient number, the opposition will simply “raise its hands” in surrender – even though that “did not work in Afghanistan in the 1980s or in Chechnya in 1995.”
As a result, he argues, there is a very real danger that the war between Russia and Georgia will drag on, with the possibility that the United States will resupply Georgia or provide it with various kinds of technologies that Russian forces are not currently capable of neutralizing except at the cost of far greater losses than they have suffered up to now.

UPDATE: Russian media continue to discuss the performance of both Russian and Georgian sources, with some arguing that the Georgian forces were quite successful in disordering the actions of the 58th Russian Army (, others saying that the Russian command had completely failed to assimilate the lessons of the Chechen wars (, and still others suggesting that both sides have demonstrated weaknesses in command and control (

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