The Ossetian War
Search in Radio Bergen
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 - 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.
Arms shipments 2004-2008
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.
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); the943rd 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).
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).
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