Russia: Why Georgia Lost The War


August 10, 2008: To no one's surprise, the  Russians drove back a Georgian attempt to regain control of South Ossetia. There were several hundred military and civilian casualties. The fighting apparently began when some South Ossetia militiamen fired across the border at Georgian troops. This escalated to a Georgian invasion, and a Russian reinforcement of its peacekeepers, and the expulsion of the Georgian troops. All in the space of a week. The fighting continues, with Russian warplanes bombing civilians and military targets in Georgia and moving more troops into another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia. Georgia has asked for a ceasefire, but the Russians have not responded.

Since the early 1990s, Russia and Georgia have argued over who should control South Ossetia, a Georgian province on the Russian border. Just to the north of South Ossetia, is the Russian territory of North Ossetia. The Soviets often split ethnic groups between two provinces (or "Autonomous Republics") to make it more difficult for the people to unite in opposition to the Soviet Union. This, among many similar measures, worked. Since the Russians moved in their peacekeepers in the early 1990s, they have issued Russian passports to the South Ossetians and, in effect, annexed the region.

The Ossertians are a different ethnic group from the ethnic Georgians, as are the Abkhazians. This sort of ethnic mélange is common throughout the Caucasus. During the last years of the Soviet Union (1989-1991), ethnic tensions increased throughout the Soviet Union, as long dormant (and suppressed by a brutal police state) aspirations stirred once more. While the Soviet politicians pulled off an astonishing feat by dissolving the empire without bloodshed (and creating fourteen new countries from portions of the empire that decided not to stay with the new Russia), there were lots of smaller groups that still had separatist grievances. Two of these groups were in Georgia, and occupied the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The populations rebelled against the Georgian government and drove out Georgian officials, troops and ethnic Georgians. Thousands of ethnic Abkhazians and Ossetians fled to the new statelets. Since both of these areas were on the Russian border, Russia saw an opportunity to quiet things down (they did not want an ethnic based guerilla war going on along their border). So Russia offered its services as mediator and peacekeeper in the early 1990s, and peace was restored. The UN agreed all this, and a reluctant Georgia went along. But after that, the Russians refused to leave, or encourage the Abkhazians and Ossetians to work out a deal to become part of Georgia once more. Abkhazians and Ossetians wanted to be independent, and declared themselves so. No one else recognized this. In 2004, Georgia began cracking down on the smuggling and other criminal activity that was keeping the economy in South Ossetia going. This led to more and more gunfire along the border between Georgia and South Ossetia.

Two years ago, Georgia began a major expansion of its armed forces. Officially, the active forces were then about 26,000 troops, already up from about 12,000-14,000 just a couple few years before that. Unofficially, the government has raised strength to about 28,000. This was done by adding more professional troops and increasing the order-of-battle by two battalions of conscripts. The government goal is to increase the active force to about 35,000. In addition, Georgia began building a reserve force.


Until a few years ago the "reserves" constituted the entire body of conscripts discharged over the past 15 years. But this pool, of about 250,000 men, was just that, a pool. The "reservists" were not subject to periodic refresher training, and so no more than perhaps 10 percent of them could be considered useful in the event of activation. Beginning four years ago, Georgia instituted a more rigorous reserve training program. An active reserve has been created, which apparently numbers over 10,000 men, and is expected to grow to as many as 100,000 over the next few years, as conscripts (drafted at 18 to 18-24 months) leave active service, and enter 5-10 years of reserve duty. 

While Georgia doesn't have the money for modern equipment (it's stuff is mostly Russian Cold War vintage), it does have enough professional soldiers from the old Red Army, and a military tradition going back centuries. Much to the discomfort of Russia, the United States has been supplying Georgia with military trainers and some equipment. Partly, this is in response to Georgian help in Iraq. Georgia first sent 800 peacekeepers to Iraq, and began increasing that force. Currently there are 2,000 Georgian troops in Iraq, where they obtain useful operational experience.


The principal reason for the military build-up is the secessionist regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Georgians wanted the option of trying for a military solution. There are also some Russian troops, leftovers from Soviet Union era garrisons, still in the country. Georgia has been trying get all the Russian soldiers out since the Soviet Union collapsed (and Georgia became independent once more) in 1991. But the Russians have come up with a long string of excuses for delaying a final pullout. To make matters worse, several thousand of those troops are "peacekeepers" in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. To most Georgians, the Russian peacekeepers are there mainly to keep the rebel regions free of Georgian control.

It's not yet clear what the Georgian government was thinking when they allowed the border skirmishing to escalate to a military effort to restore government control over South Ossetia. It didn't work, as the Russians promptly counterattacked and drove the Georgian troops out of South Ossetia. The Georgians can try a guerilla war, and hope that their new relationship with the United States and the European Union will add some measure of protection. That's a false hope. The Russians have made it clear during the last few years that any real, or imagined, Western influence or interference in nations that border Russia (what the Russians call the "near-abroad") will be opposed with lots of noise, followed by some firepower. The recent events in Georgia are an example of that, an example the Russians hope the West takes seriously, even if the Georgians don't.

Russian politicians have been playing the nationalism card, catering to widespread feelings that the Soviet Union should be restored. Most Russians never cared for the communist dictatorship, but they did like being a superpower.  The Russians also feel that those fourteen nations that split off when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, left Russia surrounded by a lot of unstable and vulnerable nations. This sounds paternalistic and paranoid to Westerners, but not to Russians. And the Russians are willing to use force to back up these attitudes, as the Georgians just discovered. Russia still has nukes, and some Cold War attitudes that make for a potentially very dangerous situation.






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