Academic journal article Military Review

Russia's Military Performance in Georgia

Academic journal article Military Review

Russia's Military Performance in Georgia

Article excerpt


IN AUGUST 2009, Russia celebrated the one-year anniversary of its military campaign in Georgia. In the Kremlin's view, the war was a demonstration of the Russian armed forces' renewed ability to fight conventional wars. Independent observers have also partly shared that point of view. The Russian president has promised that the lessons drawn from the conflict will lead to changed priorities in arms purchases. Inspired by the lessons of the war, the Defense Ministry promised additional funds for the Russian armed forces and proposed changing its structure from divisionto brigade-sized units to improve the armed forces' ability to fight small wars, such as the one with Georgia. (1) This article summarizes the domestic Russian debate and draws some preliminary conclusions about the Russian armed forces.

The Ground Offensive in South Ossetia

From the Russian military's point of view, the most successful part of the campaign in South Ossetia was the performance of the Russian ground forces in expelling Georgians from the area. The degree of success, however, is relative. How impressive the performance of the Russian ground troops looks depends on the size of Russian numerical superiority in the conflict. Early estimates suggest there were between 15,000 and 25,000 on the Georgian side and between 20,000 and 30,000 on the Russian side. About 3,000 South Ossetian troops and 9,000 Abkhazian troops are included in the Russian figures. (2) If those figures are true, one could argue that the Russian numerical advantage was significant but not decisive. However, some claim that the number of troops on the Russian side has been severely underestimated. Andrei Illarionov, former economic adviser to Vladimir Putin and now a Russian opposition figure, claims that Russia might have had up to three times the number of troops Georgia had. According to Illarionov, most independent Russian experts now think there were at least 40,000 Russian, Abkhazian, and North Ossetian troops in theater, and that an additional 40,000 Russian troops were mobilized across the border in Russia. (3) If these higher estimates are true, the accomplishments of the Russian ground offensive look less impressive than they initially did.

Russian equipment was either similar or inferior to Georgian equipment; Russia had the most equipment plus reserve stocks. In addition, the Russian forces' fighting ability was a decisive element. In particular, the coordination between artillery and infantry worked well. (4) This must be an encouraging sign for Russian political and military leaders, and goes some way toward justifying Russian president Dmitry Medvedev's claim that the operations in Georgia demonstrated the renewed quality of the Russian military.

Clearly, Russia's ability to conduct and execute large and complicated military operations has survived the difficult 1990s. According to U.S. military personnel who trained the Georgians, one of the major reasons for the Russian victory was that the Georgian forces trained at the tactical level, but underwent only limited reorganization and training at the operational and strategic levels. The Georgian forces had few well-educated, trained officers at higher levels. (5) Accounts of Georgia's performance in the conflict describe declining professionalism in higher echelons. Reports from the battlefield tell of Georgian soldiers who fought well, but within an increasingly chaotic organization. (6) The same was not the case for the Russian forces.

However, one should not rush to conclude that the ongoing professionalization of the Russian army has become a success.

Several sources claim that detachments from the airborne troops and special forces carried out the brunt of the fighting on the ground. (7) Thus, one could argue that the land campaign in South Ossetia demonstrated that the contract infantry (kontraktniky) is far from battle ready. …

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