Georgian planning flaws led to campaign failure
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Richard Giragosian, Research Associate of the Institute of Global Security (IAGS)
With the announcement of a ceasefire agreement on 13 August, a five-day conflict between Georgian and Russian forces effectively ended, although Russian troops seemed slow to cease all hostilities and complete their withdrawal from Georgian territory. The conflict was triggered by a large-scale Georgian assault on the break-away region of South Ossetia on August 7, which the Georgian side argued was a move in response to several days of sporadic cross-border attacks and mortar fire against Georgian positions. As Georgian forces entered South Ossetia and initially seized the capital Tskhinvali in attempt to subdue the separatist region, Russian forces responded with an overwhelming show of force, deploying substantial armoured forces and ground troops and quickly establishing air superiority.
Although the relatively brief duration of open hostilities now seem to have ended, the campaign has significantly decimated Georgian military capabilities and has raised new questions over the viability of both Georgia’s long-time aspirations for NATO membership and its hopes to retake its two break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as spurring a sharp deterioration in Russian-U.S. relations.
Although the initial 7 August Georgian offensive to retake the break-away region of South Ossetia was triggered by a series of provocations, ranging from the shootdown of several Israeli-produced Georgian unmanned arial vehicles (UAVs) to an influx of new Russian peacekeepers and equipment in May, the Georgian military strategy was significantly flawed from the start, based on an underestimation of the Russian response and an inadequate threat assessment.
The Georgian offensive opened with an infantry assault against South Ossetia’s capital Tskhinvali, situated is in a valley surrounded by Georgian-populated villages, with an open terrain conducive to armoured and mass infantry penetration. The thrust came after a preparatory artillery attack from Georgian positions with fire support capabilities including target-oriented and concentrated fire, and including a mortar barrage and launch of notoriously imprecise truck-mounted GRAD multiple-barreled rocket launchers.
Georgia’s first tactical blunder was also its most serious strategic setback. The rebel South Ossetia region borders the Russian region of North Ossetia and is connected by the Roki Tunnel, which is the sole reliable passage through the Caucasus Mountains. While the strategic significance of the Roki Tunnel is enhanced by its role as the region’s only reliable external link, Georgia’s apparent failure to recognize its inherent vulnerability as the only effective land route for a Russian advance was a glaring oversight, if not disastrously fatal decision for Georgian military planners. The failure to even attempt to impede or constrict this land route gave Russian forces secure and unopposed access and greatly reduced the danger of over-extended supply lines.
The Russian Response
The Russian response was both rapid and overwhelming and, as the first military offensive beyond Russia’ borders since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, its severity was unexpected. The Russian campaign was spearheaded by its 58th Army, which as the centerpiece of Russia’s already volatile Caucasus Military District, is regarded as the best trained and most combat-ready unit of the Russian Army. Initially formed in 1995 specifically for operations in Chechnya, the 70,000-strong 58th Army is based in the nearby North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz and consists of 609 tanks, 2,000 armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, 125 artillery pieces, 190 Grad and Uragan volley-fire rocket launchers, and 450 anti-aircraft guns. It is also endowed with its own air support of 120 combat aircraft and 70 helicopters.
Following the deployment of an elite paratrooper battalion and smaller special forces unit (“spetznaz”), an infantry force of 15,000 and 150 tanks and heavy self-propelled artillery pieces were immediately deployed to South Ossetia. With the Georgian failure to close the Roki Tunnel connecting South Ossetia to North Ossetia within Russia proper, neither the initial deployment nor subsequent lines of communication or supplies faced any threat.
The second stage of the Russian campaign opened a new front in northwestern Georgia, as Russia deployed 1,000 airborne forces from three assault companies to Abkhazia, Georgia’s larger and second separatist region. Landing in ships from the Russian port of Novorossiisk, this force established a bridgehead and assumed positions along Abkhazia’s Black Sea coast, moving quickly to prepare to challenge Georgian positions in the Upper Kodori Gorge, a valley strategically dividing Abkhazia from Georgia proper. This force was also tasked with securing the road to Abkhazia to prevent any attempt by Georgian units to reinforce its positions.
Russia’s land campaign then moved well beyond the objectives of securing South Ossetia and Abkhazia and pushed through to secure a perimeter security zone within Georgia proper. An essential element of this plan was to decimate fundamental Georgian military capabilities by pursuing retreating Georgian units, destroying as much heavy equipment as possible and by specifically targeting all Georgian military facilities and bases, even those not involved in the conflict, in order to disrupt Georgia’s military critical infrastructure. This targeting of Georgian military infrastructure included successful air attacks on the Georgian bases at Kojori, Senaki, home to the 3rd Motorized Rifle Brigade, and Gori, where artillery and tank brigades are stationed, as well as against Black Sea port facilities at Poti, the Marneuli and Vaziani airfields, and the Tbilaviamsheni aviation plant outside of Tbilisi, the site of a factory producing and testing Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jets.