Five Reasons Why Georgia Lost the August War


By Michael Hikari Cecire

Feb. 18. 2011 - 02:04 pm



Since the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008, much has been debated, rehashed, and argued about the circumstances and events before and during the war. But one item that seems to be almost universally agreed upon by all parties is that the Georgian military performed poorly. It’s hard to argue with this assessment, to be sure, given the obvious military outcome of the short conflict: Georgia lost. Sure, there have been a few contrarian pieces sprinkled around the media qualifying that Georgia ‘actually won the war’ but even they are quick to point out that the Georgian military was hardly a match for the Russia’s much larger and comparatively better-equipped forces. That seemed to be the end of it.

But a recently-released cables via Wikileaks has brought the issue back into focus again. The cables in question cite sources that cast serious doubt on the ability of the sprawling, but famously creaky, Russian conventional military as being of little threat to NATO. According to an AP article, “Russian armed forces were able to respond only to a small to mid-sized local conflict in its western regions.” The “assessment followed two large maneuvers in Russia’s western regions. They were carried out to test the Russian military after its lightning 2008 victory over Georgia.”

Inevitably, some commentators have used this news as a measuring stick to extrapolate the fighting prowess of the Georgian military. In a post in the prestigious defense blog Ares, Christina Mackenize hooks a low blow by suggesting that the US-trained Georgian military is even worse.

“The NATO report cited in the U.S. cable could have been an exercise to reassure allies in eastern Europe who had expressed extreme concern over the Russian army’s lightning response to a surprise attack by Georgian forces,” said Mackenzie. “Georgia’s U.S.-trained army was demolished within a week. But if Russia’s military is as obsolete as claimed, what does this say about the quality of the training provided by the U.S. to Georgian troops?”

Setting aside the obvious problems with this inference (even had the Georgian military been composed entirely of ex-SAS and US Navy SEALs, it still would not have been likely to beat the much larger Russian military), it’s worth putting the common assumption that Georgia losing the war means that Georgian troops were badly trained in context.

So, in true web 2.0 fashion, EVOLUTSIA.NET presents: 5 reasons why Georgia lost the August war (in no particular order).


#1. Size

Russia’s military, like the country, simply dwarfs Georgia’s.

Did you know that Georgia’s military is smaller than Russia’s?

Although this point may seem stunningly obvious, it is surprising just how rarely this fact is cited when considering the performance of the Georgian military against Russia. For example, the concentration of forces in the North Caucasus military district alone is over 100,000 troops, including hundreds of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery pieces. And this does not even include Russian force multipliers like air power and lift/logistics.

For comparison, Georgia’s entire military numbers only approximately 35,000 soldiers and fewer than 130 tanks, a number that includes personnel performing rear-echelon duties like intelligence, maintenance, and administration. No one should be surprised that Georgia’s formations were quickly overrun by the larger and better equipped Russian military.


#2. Doctrine & Training

Russian military doctrine emphasizes combined arms; Georgia, not so much.

During the First and Second Chechen Wars, the Russian military exhibited a nearly complete inability, bordering on unwillingness, to prosecute their wars against Chechen rebels using the kind of counter-insurgency (COIN) tactics that have become synonymous with US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, Russian forces launched Soviet-style ground assaults and devastating air attacks to fight the separatist rebels. Notably, it failed in the first war and only succeeded in the second war after much of Chechnya, military and civilian centers alike, was laid to ruin.

Conventional assaults against North Caucasus rebels holed-up in craggy mountain passes and urban jungles proved costly, but against the relatively well-organized, large-formation Georgian military in the relatively open country north of Gori, it was brutally effective.

Somewhat ironically, the Georgian military in 2008 was probably a far better exemplar of urban COIN training than the Russian’s. By the late 1990s, the Georgian military was little more than a collection of uniformed militias operating with titular, and sometimes competing, authority in different parts of the country. To support modernnization efforts, in 2002, the US began training the Georgian military under the Georgia Train and Equip Program (GTEP). GTEP was a $64 million, 18-month program to train limited numbers of Georgian troops in basic techniques. Interestingly, part of the major impetus for the program was Tbilisi’s limited control over the Pankisi Gorge area, which was inhabited by ethnic Chechens and said to be harboring rebel Chechen fighters in refugee camps. Vladimir Putin, for his part, threw support behind GTEP. GTEP was also the first step in moving Georgia towards NATO military standards.

GTEP’s successor, instituted after the Rose Revolution, was the Georgia Sustainment and Stability Operations Program (SSOP), which was meant to build upon GTEP to train Georgian forces in COIN and peacekeeping tactics for their deployments to Iraq. These and similar trainings — entirely in stability operations — were conducted right up to the 2008 war. Most recently, Georgian troops have been trained for deployments to Afghanistan. While the training and combat experienced gained by the Afghanistan deployment is more rigorous than for Georgia’s much more limited role in Iraq, Georgian troops are still not being trained for territorial defense or pure combined arms operations.

COIN training did very little, if anything, to prepare Georgian troops for a Fulda Gap-lite scenario with Russia. This is why citations of ’US training’ to Georgian troops have limited relevance in the context of the August war; in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the performance of Georgian troops have been rated quite highly.


#3. Georgia’s Elite

Georgia’s best trained troops were deployed to Iraq.

Speaking of Iraq, it’s worth remembering that the bulk of Georgia’s best-trained, equipped, and most experienced troops weren’t even in Georgia during the war. Georgia had 2,000 soldiers deployed in Iraq, and they didn’t even have a chance to fire a shot in the conflict. By the time all these forces were withdrawn to Georgia, the war had ended. Had they been involved in the conflict, however, one does wonder if it might have altered the outcome somehow (although perhaps not). But what is sure is that the world would have had a much better chance to assess how the ‘US-trained’ Georgian troops measured against the Russians.

The absence of Georgia’s best troops has also been cited as being one of the clearest signs that Tbilisi did not have a premeditated intention to get into a war, and certainly not one with the Russian military. It stands to reason that if that had been Georgia’s aim, it would have much preferred to have their combat-tested, well-trained battalions in Georgia instead of watching their country get trampled from TV screens in Mesopotamia.


#4. Force multipliers

Russia used a number force multipliers to great effect. Georgia had virtually none.

A force multiplier is exactly what it sounds like: something that can act to ‘multiply’ the effectiveness of combat operations. For example, say army A is fighting army B, and both have equal numbers and training. But if army A had an observation balloon, and army B did not, army A has a decisive advantage in the manner that it can conduct its operations. They might observe that army B is exposed on the left flank, and send troops to exploit that weakness. Surprised, army B falls into disarray. Clearly, the observation balloon acted as a force multiplier in this case.

Russia had such advantages versus Georgia, not including its superior size, suitable training, and preparedness for combat. One such force multiplier that Russia enjoyed was complete and near-uncontested control over Georgian airspace. Sure, the Georgian air defense network scored some surprising hits, but Russian air superiority was never in doubt. This allowed Russian rotary and fixed-wing assets to collect information, attack Georgian positions and targets, and psychologically subjugate the Georgian population.

Other force multipliers? Information & satellite surveillance; lift and logistics; and large naval flotilla on the Black Sea (which opened a second front), to name a few.


#5. Command and control

Command and control problems plagued Georgia’s ability to react to rapidly changing conditions.

“I have heard (read) that there was little resistance after the first couple hours of combat between the Georgians and the Russian advance guard at the southern front line,” noted a commenter on the forum of the Small Wars Journal in the early period of the August 2008 war.

“It sounded a lot as if the Georgians were withdrawing even without proper delaying actions – Russian [reconnaissance] units were able to ‘take & occupy’ objectives. Gori, for example, was apparently evacuated when the Russians arrived. There was apparently no numerical or equipment superiority to speak of at the front lines.”

Many observers agree that even if Georgia did premeditate the August 2008 war (and that is a big if), it was not counting on Russian involvement, and certainly not Russian involvement at the speed, pace, or extent (e.g. expanding the war of the conflict zones) that occurred. And whether or not Georgia planned for it, it was clear that those who were responsible for strategic and tactical-level planning were not up to the job. Once Russian forces intervened, Georgian resistance collapsed, and spectacularly so.

On the command level, Georgian forces did not adapt to the quickly-changing circumstances and inevitably were dispersed. Even the calling up of reserve forces, meant to be the country’s insurance plan for territorial defense, was a total failure and brought together too few soldiers with too little equipment and nothing in the way of a plan or organizational readiness. Unsurprisingly, the old reserve system was unceremoniously scrapped and totally rebooted after the war.

Problems seemingly existed on every level of the military hierarchy — from ministerial level all the way down to unit leadership. And plans for maintaining territorial defense, the supposed raison d’etre of every national military force, were either not in place or horribly executed. Had Georgian troops forced Russia’s troops into a series of high-casualty impasses, one can’t help but wonder if the terms ending the war might have been better for Georgia.


About the author:  Michael Hikari Cecire is a writer and independent analyst living in Tbilisi. A former Peace Corps Volunteer in Georgia, he is a frequent commentator on economic development and South Caucasus policy issues. In addition to being the Managing editor at Evolutsia.Net, Cecire has also written for the Caspian Business Journal, the London Telegraph, World Politics Review, and TCS Daily, among others.