The Russian-Georgian hostilities which erupted on August 7 over South Ossetia barely qualified as a war in the conventional sense. Both sides fired more propaganda ammo at each other than real bullets on the South Ossetia battlefield, and the Russians saw most of the Georgian defenders from the rear.
The Georgian army fought its most heroic engagement Thursday and Friday, August 7-8, when two of its divisions rolled into breakaway South Ossetia fired up for wresting the capital of Tskhinvali for sovereign Georgia.
But from that moment on, President Mikhail Saakashvili’s brave war went downhill. His troops failed to capture the town proper. They managed only to occupy some of its suburbs, even though they had the advantage of surprise against negligible resistance from 3,000 South Ossetian troops and no more than scores of Russian “peacekeepers.” The locals did not have time to scramble to their few tanks and armored vehicles and the engagement never developed beyond sporadic exchanges of fire.
The invaders vented their frustration with a devastating Katyusha rocket blitz on the town, causing mostly civilian casualties. Friday, they blew up Ossetian tanks.
By any military reckoning, Georgian tactics were irrational, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military experts, especially since many of their commanders should have known better after taking instruction from American and Israeli armored and commando experts. Their judgment may have been warped by the strong patriotic and emotional impact of their mission to capture historic Tskhinvali, a town of 30,000 inhabitants, and regain Georgian control South Ossetia. Still, it made no sense for them to pour more strength into South Ossetia, when every Georgian officer must have known that large-scale Russian forces were only two hours’ drive over the Caucasian massif in Vladikavkaz and might soon be on their way.
Why did the Georgians fail to blow up the Roki tunnel?
Therefore the Georgians’ cardinal error lay in neglecting to send a small special operations unit to blow up the Roki tunnel before they even stepped into Tskhinvali. This would have blocked the Transcaucasian Highway mountain road that crosses the Greater Caucasus and connects North Ossetia-Alania with South Ossetia and Russia with Georgia.
Had they taken this precaution, the entire conflict might have turned out differently:
1. The Russian reinforcements would have found their way blocked from their North Ossetia bases to aid the beleaguered “peacekeepers” in South Ossetia.
The extent of this blunder was plain when heavy Russian military transport helicopters, standing by in the North to move emergency forces to Caucasian trouble spots and Chechnya, gave up an attempt to fly over the mountains to the breakaway province.
2. The South Ossetian army’s supply route for aid and ammunition – and the civilian refugees’ exit – would have been cut.
Therefore, by neglecting to block the Roki tunnel, the Georgian army preordained its subsequent rout by superior incoming Russian strength.
Even by pouring more troops into South Ossetia, altogether 18,000 out of their 29,000 army, four tank battalions (100 out of a total of165) and about the same number of armored personnel carriers out of a fleet of 180, the Georgian army had no hope of tilting the war in its favor. Instead they walked into a no-win trap.
Russia drew forces from North Ossetia, Moscow, Pskov, Crimea
Confronting them from North Ossetia was the Russian 58th Army of 70,000 men. Founded in 1995 to guard Russia’s southern border through the Caucasian mountains, the 58th Army is kept on permanent standby for trouble.
It is categorized by our military experts as a crack unit, consisting entirely of professional regular soldiers trained as a rapid intervention force, with two infantry divisions, 5 or 6 infantry brigades armed with 600 tanks, 2,000 warplanes, helicopters, artillery, intelligence, electronic warfare systems and communications.
The 58th Army’s commander’s first order when news of the Georgian raid of Tskhinvali came through was to send a commando unit to secure the Roki tunnel before pumping troops into South Ossetia to fight off the Georgian incursion.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, some 12,000 Russian troops were deployed to the embattled province, made up of 2 battle groups, one battalion, two Chechen platoons, an air unit, self-propelled artillery and 45 tanks.
The Russian command therefore transferred 15 percent of the 58th Army to South Ossetia. It was joined by 200-300 special units combatants of the 45th battle group based in Moscow. Trained to fight behind enemy lines, they were not fully employed in this conflict, except for field intelligence missions to guide Russian air force and artillery to targets to the rear of Georgian forces.
Elements of two paratroop divisions, the 76th based at Pskov south of St. Petersburg, and the 98th from the Ivanovo base near Moscow, were also detached for the war against Georgia. They were sent out without air defense and electronic warfare units, after the Russian general staff decided that Georgia’s small air fleet of 19 fighters and 40 helicopters could be easily wiped out before they took off and presented a threat.
Indeed, as Russian reinforcements began arriving in Tskhinvali Saturday and Sunday Aug. 9-10, they found the enemy melting away.
Most of the “heavy battles” reported in the media were in fact no more than Russian air bombardments of fleeing Georgian troops, who turned tail when they saw the incoming Russian tank columns. From then on, the Russians, on orders from Moscow were able to calibrate the pace of the Georgian army’s retreat.
The Georgian army failed to build on its early advantage
It is hard to explain why the Georgian army, who started out in the early hours of the war with the advantage of superior armored infantry and tank strength, held back from fighting to repel the advancing Russian reinforcements as they came in. Their retreat left the Russian army free to split in two, one to advance on Gori and establish a presence there, and the second to support the second defiant Georgian province of Abkhazia and head south to occupy Senaki and Poti on the Black Sea.
Expecting a fight which never developed over Abkhazia, Russia also drew units from its Crimean bases, including the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol, which were landed by sea. Here, too, the 3,000 Georgian defenders, positioned in the Kodori gorge, “withdrew” without a fight.
In their hasty retreat under attack, some of the Georgian troops dropped kit and equipment, which showed them to have been fitted out with top quality American and Israeli gear, weaponry, vehicles, uniforms and personal equipment. Much of it had never been used.
The Russian forces, in contrast, performed professionally. They built up their strength to “disproportionate” levels in the mistaken belief that their opposite numbers took war as seriously as they did.
The 58th Army demonstrated the high level of preparedness required of a rapid intervention force, rather than proving, as some western commentators claimed, that Moscow had long planned to invade Georgia.
The Russian forces’ primary shortcoming was the lack of effective air defense for its infantry and tanks, a deficiency they will not doubt remedy in the months to come.
One striking oddity of this strange war was that no military brass appeared to be leading the battles on either side, only politicians in an apparent duel between Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush over the head of Mikhail Saakashvili.
Where was the Georgian army’s commander in chief in the seven-day conflict? And why were no reliable military casualty figures made available?