Russia's Conventional Armed Forces and the Georgian War

By McDermott, Roger N. | Parameters, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Russia's Conventional Armed Forces and the Georgian War


McDermott, Roger N., Parameters


Russia's rapid military victory over Georgia in August 2008 surprised any commentators, since it stood in stark contrast to the manner in which Russian forces had once become bogged down in a protracted conflict in Chechnya. On the other hand, the conflict might be thought of as the final war of the twentieth century, fought by a Soviet legacy force, desperately seeking to make do with dated equipment and a top-heavy command and control system more suited to conducting the kind of large-scale conventional warfare that had passed into the annals of military history. Damage to Russia's international reputation also ensued, jeopardizing the nation's relations with the European Union and NATO and raising questions regarding the legality of what Moscow dubbed a "peace enforcement operation" that precipitated its unilateral recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. (1) Russia's military actions provoked widespread international condemnation, spread panic among foreign investors, and left the East European and Baltic members of NATO calling for protection from a "resurgent Russia." In the following analysis, the lessons learned by the Russian military will be examined in the context of an announced military reform and rearmament program aimed at producing a more efficient, combat-capable conventional force by 2020. Despite the rapid victory, the war itself exposed fundamental weaknesses and shortcomings in Russia's armed forces, reinforcing conditions that were already known and served as a catalyst for the military reform program.

Before proceeding to the lessons learned from the campaign, there needs to be an important precursor: a brief explanation of what worked and how the otherwise beleaguered Russian military managed to deliver swift success. Within a few hours of the commencement of the operation the 76th (Pskov) Airborne Division's 104th Regiment was already in action in the Tskhinvali suburbs with 1,550 soldiers and more than 100 vehicles, accompanied by no fewer than 200 men from the Pechora GRU brigade Glavnoye Razvedyvatel'noye Upravleniye (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff). Russian mobility was arguably far superior to that seen in previous conflicts. Within 24 hours the deployed forces almost doubled in size even though Russia could not begin an immediate airlift, owing to Georgian air defenses, and the army columns' slow movement toward Tskhinvali via the Rokki Tunnel forced commanders to commit troops piecemeal. (2)

A key factor in the speed of the Russian military victory was the opening of a second front in Abkhazia using mechanized infantry. In South Ossetia, Russian forces captured Tskhinvali and then crossed into undisputed Georgian territory to effectively cut the main highway and railway routes west of Gori. At least 2,000 soldiers occupied Zugdidi, a Georgian town ten kilometers from the border, and an armored column continued another 30 kilometers to Senaki, capturing a military base and airfield, severing the main highway and railway at a second location, enabling de facto Russian military control of all heavy traffic movement across Georgia. Abkhaz separatists subdued Georgian positions in the Kodori Valley, while Russia's Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnyye Sily--VVS) destroyed military facilities in Tbilisi and Poti. (3)

In the final phase of combat operations the Russian Army made efficient use of the Uragan multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS), Tochka-U missiles, and also, possibly, the Smerch MLRS for attacks against the Georgian Army's positions. Those systems, coupled with support from the Russian Air Force, inflicted sufficient losses on Georgian forces to bring about their rapid "demoralization and retreat." (4) After hostilities ended, the General Staff particularly praised the 76th Pskov airborne personnel operating in South Ossetia and called attention to the need to strengthen air assault battalions and possibly give the airborne units their own aviation assets. …

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