Russia's War in Georgia Lessons and Consequences

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Small Wars & Insurgencies Vol. 20, No. 2, June 2009, 400–424 Russia’s war in Georgia: lessons and consequences Carolina Vendil Pallina and Fredrik Westerlundb Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Sweden; bSwedish Defence Research Agency, Stockholm, Sweden The Russian military operation during the Five-Day war in Georgia points to a number of lessons with strategic implications for Russia. The deficiencies in its military performance – not least concerning C4ISR and precision strike capabi
  Russia’s war in Georgia: lessons and consequences Carolina Vendil Pallin a and Fredrik Westerlund b a Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Sweden; b Swedish Defence Research Agency,Stockholm, Sweden The Russian military operation during the Five-Day war in Georgia points toa number of lessons with strategic implications for Russia. The deficienciesin its military performance – not least concerning C4ISR and precision strikecapability – have underscored the need for a modernization of the ArmedForces and a diversification of Russia’s military capability. Russia needs toarrive at a strategic decision on the priorities for the future development of itsmilitary and defence industry: should it prepare for large-scale wars or post-modern warfare and counter-insurgence? In the meantime, the scope of Russian military strategy will be clearly limited and military force willremain a powerful but blunt security policy instrument. Keywords: interoperability; military force; command and control;communications; weapon systems; intelligence; electronic warfare; recon-naissance; capacity; Russia; Georgia; strategy[S]trategy, which defines its task in the conduct of military operations as combiningoperationsforachieving theultimategoal,isnotonlyinterestedinstatingthegoalof an operation, but also makes certain requirements of the methods of achieving it. 1 For all the international turmoil and tensions it caused, the Five-Day War inGeorgia was a limited military operation for a military organization such asRussia’s. On a strategic level, the war was combined with other measures suchas diplomatic ones, but militarily it cannot qualify as a grand militaryoperation. 2 It was successful in that it reached the main military objective of the operation, to take irreversible control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, butthe Russian casualties and the deficiencies and problems it struggled withduring the operation have implications for the future development of itsmilitary. This is obvious from the analyses made in Russia and from statementsfrom its military and political leadership.Plans for a military operation existed, and a military exercise (‘Caucasus2008’) in the North Caucasus as late as in July 2008 rehearsed a similar scenario.In other words, Russia was prepared and could deploy forces to South Ossetiarelatively quickly in spite of the considerable challenges caused by the terrain –especially the bottleneck at the Roki tunnel. 3 The swift deployment of close to20,000 men in a couple of days was key to success against even the limited size ISSN 0959-2318 print/ISSN 1743-9558 online q 2009 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/09592310902975539 Emails:; Small Wars & Insurgencies Vol. 20, No. 2, June 2009, 400–424  D o w nl o ad ed  A t : 14 :14 27  A u g u s t 2010  of the Georgian armed forces. Compared to Russia’s first war in Chechnya in1994–1996, this was a military operation that was planned carefully, executed inthe main according to plan with formations and units that had trainedtogether andcoordinated with other measures such as cyber warfare and a diplomaticoffensive. In contrast to the two Chechen wars, Russia’s armed forces facedregular units waging conventional warfare, i.e. an adversary that better suited theRussian military organisation.In spite of these undisputable signs that Russian military capability hasimproved considerably compared with the 1990s, the record has made militaryanalysts raise concerns about the future of Russia’s military. It was clear thatmuch Russian equipment was obsolete compared even to that of Georgia’smilitary, which by and large also was equipped with Soviet weapon systems,albeit modernised. Perhaps the greatest worry was breakdowns in command andcontrol, the inability of the army and air force to cooperate efficiently, and poorperformance when it came to electronic warfare and the use of precisionweapons. This is especially troubling for a country that wants to compete with theWest and claim its place as one of a handful of great powers globally rather thansatisfy itself with a role as a regional power capable of taking on smallerneighbours. In fact, even a limited operation of this size exposed the fundamentalchallenges that remain for Russia when it comes to reforming its armed forcesand the considerable gap that exists between its global ambitions as a great powerand the economic and military power to sustain such claims. Russia’s dilemma in a nutshell Russian rhetoric became increasingly anti-Western and, in particular, anti-American during Putin’s second term as president. There was a widespread senseof NATO advancing dangerously close to Russia’s borders, taking into accountNATO enlargement and the planned missile defence installations in Poland andthe Czech Republic. Russia wished to be regarded as one of a handful of greatmilitary powers globally and not only because of its nuclear arsenal. Threats of a nuclear attack are a blunt foreign policy instrument to be used with care.Threatening to use nuclear weapons or even threats of deploying missiles in, forexample, the Kaliningrad oblast, could have unforeseen consequences or escalaterhetoric and provoke response measures that are opposite to the initially desiredeffect. Most importantly, when Russia talks of nuclear weapons as a way of de-escalating a conflict this has anything but a soothing effect on its potentialadversaries. 4 The bluntness of the nuclear threat is especially urgent if you do notpossess conventional military power to calibrate the nuclear threat with.In conventional military technology Russia is lagging behind the West insome of the key areas in modern warfare. Its precision weapons cannot competewith Western versions and its C4ISR capabilities (command, control,communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) arein need of upgrading even after recent investments and procurement to improve Small Wars & Insurgencies 401  D o w nl o ad ed  A t : 14 :14 27  A u g u s t 2010  command and control. 5 This has not hindered Russia from becoming one of theworld’s most prominent arms exporters in recent years. However, the productsare based on Soviet designs, and if the Russian defence industry cannotimplement new technologies it will find it difficult to maintain its position as armssupplier in the longer term. 6 To remove the technological gap will take massive investment, but even thatcould be less than enough giventhe problematic age structure of Russia’s militaryresearch and development sector as well as its defence industry. The outlook isbleak for the Russian state being able to finance a full-scale modernization of thedefence industry on its own, but opening up for private and foreign investment,and thus availing itself of control and independence, has not constituted anappealing alternative for the political leadership. Furthermore, new, ‘smart’technology will require that Russia is able to recruit skilled and intelligentsoldiers and junior officers that can handle the new weapons and equipment andmake independent decisions in the field. 7 Trusting junior personnel with moreresponsibility, however, would entail a radical shift in Russian military cultureand will not come easy.At the same time, Russia’s most pressing security challenges are not to befound on its Western flank. Few if any serious military analysts in Russiabelieve that NATO is about to attack Russia or that a Russia-NATO militaryconfrontation is imminent. Instead, Moscow’s main security dilemma is locatedon its southern border, not least in the South Caucasus, and within Russia andthe North Caucasus. The most likely large-scale conflict with another greatpower would be with China, not with the West, and even that threat is anythingbut urgent. To prepare for large-scale conventional confrontation with the Westis necessary for Russia’s status as a great power, but from a national securityperspective local wars, counterinsurgency warfare and anti-terrorist measuresstand out as far more acute to implement. 8 Fighting insurgency and terrorism inthe Caucasus is not done best while entertaining a fierce rhetoric against theWest and alienating neighbouring states such as Georgia and Ukraine. In thewords of Dmitri Trenin there is little use in repeating maxims about ‘permanentinterests and impermanent friends’ or about how the ‘army and navy areRussia’s only true friends’. In reality, there is a ‘danger of the country’s isolation’. 9 Nor will Russian oil revenues be able to sustain both missions. This was evidenteven before the onset of the economic crisis; in 2009 the prospects for such a two-pronged approach are even less auspicious from a strictly economic point of view.Furthermore, from an organisational point of view it is doubtful whether it iseven possible to successfully maintain capability for both large-scale conventionalwarfare and fighting insurgencies and terrorism within one and the sameorganisation, as they require very different methods, training and equipment. 10 Overall, the ambition to compete with the West in conventional militaryterms would be difficult if at all possible for the Russian state to sustain. It wouldsignify an enormous burden on the country’s economy and it is most doubtfulwhether Russia would be able to significantly close the technological gap that has402 C. Vendil Pallin and F. Westerlund   D o w nl o ad ed  A t : 14 :14 27  A u g u s t 2010  developed between it and the West in a situation of confrontation instead of cooperation. Russia’s other option is to modernize a smaller army and toconcentrate on the threats that are most imminent – local wars and insurgencies.To straddle both options, which appears to be the current strategy, is damaging toRussia’s economic growth and to its national security, something that the war inGeorgia made obvious. Russian military strategy in the Five-Day War Themaingoalofthe militaryoperationinGeorgia and the BlackSea was,asstatedabove,totakeirreversiblecontrolofAbkhaziaandSouthOssetia.Theestablishmentof sizable Russian military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as controlover critical mountain crossings has significantly improved Russia’s strategicmilitary position in the Caucasus region. Apart from ground force bases, RussiastartedpreparationstocreateacomplementarynavalbasefortheBlackSeaFleetinOchamchire 11 and to base aircraft at the former Soviet airbase in Gudauta inAbkhazia. 12 This will make the Russian military presence on Georgian territory aslarge or larger than it was before Russia withdrew fromits three remainingmilitarybases in Akhalkalaki, Batumi and Vaziani. It will furthermore form a militarystaging ground in the South Caucasus and the Black Sea. An adjustment of themilitary-strategic situation in the region to Russia’s advantage, by removing thegeographical bottlenecks to southbound military power projection, may have beenan additional strategic military goal from the very beginning of the campaign.In order to attain the military goal, the Russian military strategy consisted of swiftly achieving an overwhelming superiority in numbers by combining massiveground deployments with supporting air and naval operations. In other words, astrategy fully in line with Soviet military thinking. The primary military objectiveseems to have been to take control over the territory of South Ossetia andAbkhazia and establish air and sea supremacy. A secondary, perhaps equallyimportant, objective was to prevent Georgian and foreign troop reinforcements.This was achieved by cutting off vital Georgian ports, roads and railroads,through aerial attacks on reserve units that were called up and by renderingGeorgian airfields difficult to use.An analysis of the conduct of the Russian troops after the ceasefire suggeststhat an additional objective was to neutralize Georgian military capability bydestroying infrastructure and wrecking or seizing weapons and equipment.Judging by the reported air strikes, the strategy did not include disruption of critical civilian infrastructure in order to paralyse the Georgian politicalleadership, but centred on reducing the country’s military capability. The Russianforces that took part in the Five-Day War clearly had instructions on how far theywere allowed to go when it came to selecting targets and advancing into Georgia.One military commentator was of the opinion that the military operation wouldhave been more successful if Russian troops had been allowed to attack politicaltargets, such as the Georgian political leadership and vital infrastructure. 13 Small Wars & Insurgencies 403  D o w nl o ad ed  A t : 14 :14 27  A u g u s t 2010
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