Russian Performance in the Russo-Georgian War Revisited
In August 2008, the Russian military fought Georgian troops in a brief five-day war. Russia defeated the Georgian forces, but the war revealed profound deficiencies in the Russian armed forces. Moscow was surprised by the poor performance of its air power, and more importantly the inability of different services to work together. It truly was the last war of a legacy force, inherited from the Soviet Union. The conflict uncovered glaring gaps in capability, problems with command and control, and poor intelligence. As Russia’s then-Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov euphemistically put it, “it is impossible to not notice a certain gap between theory and practice.” In the aftermath, Russia went about the business of reforming and modernizing that military toolkit.
Since 2014, there has been a natural focus on Russian operations in Ukraine, and the Russian campaign in Syria, but the August War deserves another look in light of Russian military developments today. Much has changed since then in the Russian armed forces, but the war still offers valuable insights. Russia won, but the Russian military simply was not set up to fight a modern war, even against a smaller neighbor, much less a peer competitor. Having missed a generation in the evolution of capabilities and associated war-fighting concepts, Russia remained trapped by the Soviet equipment and operational concepts of the early 1980s. The whole was less than the sum of the parts.
Leading Russian generals and military theorists understood that the character of war had changed. The initial period of conflict had become decisive, noncontact warfare (the Russian term for stand-off warfare), aerospace operations were now dominant in shaping the battlefield, and precision guided munitions were immense force multipliers. Long-range stand-off weapons could inflict damage and effects that were once reserved for tactical nuclear munitions on the battlefield, to say nothing of nonkinetic means like cyber warfare. Battle lines, and the advantage of depth, had disappeared as weapons could effectively inflict damage throughout the country.
The Soviet General Staff had foreseen these developments in the early and mid-1980s. It’s just that the Soviet Union died before it could do much about it. Deprived of money and political will to rework the military, the Russian General Staff spent much of the time since then observing how the United States fought abroad, debating military concepts, and experimenting with piecemeal reforms in the Russian armed forces. The two wars in Chechnya also drained attention and resources, while offering relatively little insight into how a war against a peer ought to be fought.
Then came the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced a major military reform in October of 2008, barely two months after the conflict. These plans for reform and modernization had been discussed for years. The war helped settle the long-running arguments in Russian military circles about how to transform the armed forces, or to put it more precisely, it allowed Russia’s leadership to declare these arguments settled.
The 2008 war seems quite distant from Russian combat operations in Ukraine and Syria, but it helps illustrate the historic trajectory of the Russian armed forces, and their evolution from the legacy Soviet military Russia inherited. Several of the problems faced by the Russian armed forces in this conflict remain enduring challenges for the current Russian military, from having an overly diverse vehicle fleet, to low availability of precision guided weapons, and weaknesses in the intelligence and reconnaissance means to target them. On the other hand, major investments in technology, particularly for command and control, have considerably improved the Russian armed forces’ ability to conduct military operations and to achieve effective cooperation between the various arms of the Russian military. Ten years after the Russian-Georgian War, it is a good time to look at the more salient aspects of Russian combat performance in 2008, from mobility and logistics, to command and control, to the air battle, and draw insights from an understudied conflict.
Mobility and Logistics
In the run up to the conflict, Russian military leaders thought the fighting would largely take place in Abkhazia, more than in South Ossetia, but they came up with an operational plan for reinforcing their peacekeepers in both separatist enclaves. Russian forces practiced for three years prior to the war via major exercises (Caucasus Frontier 2006, 2007, and 2008) along with numerous other smaller trainings. In the months before the conflict Russian troops repaired railways to Abkhazia, practiced moving troops there via sea lift, and rehearsed the shifting of elements of the 58th Army quickly towards Georgia. In the first two days of hostilities, that plan was executed as exercised, despite aging equipment with a well-documented propensity to break down.
Despite Moscow’s preparations, the Russian military found itself caught off guard when the Georgians initiated hostilities on the night of August 7. With the exception of a quick reaction force, Russian troops had gone back to their bases on August 2 after completing a large exercise preparing for the war. The General Staff’s main operations directorate was in the midst of moving offices, and its head of military operations was recently dismissed. The timing was poor for the higher echelons of command.
Two prepositioned Russian battalion tactical groups from the 19th Motor Rifle Division drove south to secure the Roki tunnel in South Ossetia within hours of the Georgian assault on Tskhinvali. Russia’s 58th Army got underway fairly quickly, while elements of airborne divisions used sea and rail transport to arrive in Abkhazia. In the first three days, Russian forces of the North Caucasus Military District went from numerical inferiority relative to Georgian forces to overmatching them. Clearly, the Russian military knows how to move metal, in large quantities, and do it well. However, in 2008, a lot of equipment broke down as armored units drove hundreds of kilometers to get to that battlefield. A sizable number of Russian casualties, potentially as many as 40 percent, resulted from road accidents on the way to the fight. In combat, Russia only lost three tanks, around twenty armored vehicles of various types, and a larger number of utility vehicles.
The problem was not simply due to a lack of funding or poor readiness, although the Russian forces back then certainly did not benefit from the political attention and largesse they do now. The issue was that the Russian military had inherited, and is still dealing with, several chronic diseases from the Soviet armed forces. The Soviet army was a zoo of many different types of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored transports, and utility vehicles. This made maintenance a nightmare. Since then the Russian ground forces have made good progress consolidating their diverse vehicle fleet, along with major investments in material-technical support units designed to maintain equipment and service it on the battlefield.
Not only does Russia have a permanent standing army today, instead of a few high-readiness units, but its equipment is materially in a different condition. However, the problems of 2008 are far from solved. For example, Russian airborne units still field their own line of infantry fighting and support vehicles, while Russian ground forces were never able to cut the armored force down to one main battle tank platform. There is also a tendency to never throw anything away. The USSR had a hoarding problem, and Russia exhibits this to a lesser extent. Recent preparations for the Vostok 2018 exercise show Russian combat service support units training to restore T-62M tanks to active service from long term storage. The ancient T-62, which fought successfully in Georgia, is still stored somewhere in Russia and in the event of a large-scale war in 2018 the Russian armed forces plan to roll it out again.
Command and Control
Russian reconnaissance was quite poor, and updated intelligence unavailable to the ground or air force. At several points their units were ambushed by Georgians, and in a number of cases the two sides ran into each other by accident. In an authoritative account of this conflict, in the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies’ book The Tanks of August, the column of the 58th Army commander stumbled into a Georgian recon unit, and the resulting fight left the commanding general wounded. Initial Russian units into the fight had little situational awareness of where Georgian forces were, so they pressed forward to make contact. Army elements had no organic means of reconnaissance, no effective communication with those that did have access to it, and not much in the way of good command and control.
For some militaries that lack of reconnaissance might be the death knell for speed and decision-making on the battlefield. The communications and reconnaissance assets available to Russian forces at the company, battalion, and brigade level today would have been considered science fiction to the army that invaded Georgia. Russian armed forces are now able to engage in a much more joint fight and individual units have dramatically increased their combat effectiveness at the tactical level, but command and control technologies have not necessarily changed the fundamentals of how Russian commanders make decisions. They use a more rigid process whereby commanders execute practiced battle drills, choosing from a menu of tactics and then combining a series of relatively simple tactics into a complex maneuver.
The process is overseen by a tiny planning staff, heavily aided by mathematical formulas and tables. Russian forces place value on executing practiced “plays,” which can be combined to fit the situation. This places emphasis on speed and simplicity, reducing dependence on the sort of information or situational awareness typically available to Western battlefield commanders. As my colleague Charles Bartles writes, in a great book by the Foreign Military Studies Office, “all that is typically required in a Russian operation order is a map signed by the commander, with a few notes jotted in the margins.” He continues, “the Russians pursue a war fighting philosophy that in high-intensity maneuver warfare, it is far better to execute a satisfactory plan early, than a great plan late.” Russian commanders see a lot of Western-style planning as busy work.
The Russian system is more rigid, but faster, and simpler. The advantage is spending less time planning, getting there quickly with firepower and mass, having momentum, and sticking to how you trained to fight. Inflexibility also has its down side, as forces could quickly execute a plan that results in disaster. That said, the Russian approach is not robotic, simply a different way of doing business. In an environment where situational awareness is substantially degraded, and communications unreliable, this approach might work better than one that depends on a lot of command and control technologies for coordination and situational awareness.
Technology is an important force multiplier, but it didn’t make the difference in the 2008 war. This conflict should be considered the Soviet military’s last hurrah. According to some accounts, 60 to 75 percent of the 58th Army’s tanks were T-62Ms and T-72B1s, with a smattering of upgraded T-72BAs. As The Tanks of August and other accounts show, none of these could withstand Georgian antitank guided missiles. Many of the Russian T-72s had empty reactive armor canisters, meaning the reactive armor was mostly decorative. Quite a few of the infantry fighting vehicles were of the old BMP-1 or BMD-1 type, with fairly primitive sights and outdated kit, while the 58th Army’s command vehicles were described as “falling apart.” If Georgians had had the vaunted Javelin antitank guided missile, which they do now, it would have made little difference because they already had sufficiently powerful armaments to destroy Russia’s dated tanks.
By August 2008, Georgia had about 190 T-72 tanks, with 120 upgraded by Israel to a superior SIM-1 variant, and a sizable force of infantry fighting vehicles. Israeli, Czech, and Ukrainian upgrades offered Georgian equipment not only a recent overhaul, but advantages over the gear fielded by Russia’s North Caucasus Military District. The correlation of forces initially favored Georgia as well, with almost four brigades, several light infantry battalions, and Ministry of Interior forces around South Ossetia likely fielding 16,000 troops. The Georgian problem was poor leadership, planning, and inexperience. Also, their operations plan did not account for having to take on the Russian forces of the North Caucasus Military District. That assumption went out the window a few hours into the war. By the third day, Russian forces in Georgia had grown to 14,000 in South Ossetia and another 9,000 in Abkhazia.
By the end of the war Russia ended up taking a fair amount of Georgian equipment as trophies, much of it left unused on the battlefield, or captured from Georgian military bases. None of the technology that Georgia acquired was particularly ineffective in the fight, it’s just that in a high-intensity conflict that lasts barely a week or two, it’s unlikely to make the difference between one of the world’s strongest land powers and a small country — Russian forces quickly overran and overwhelmed the frontline positions that fielded this gear. It also had no deterrent effect on Russia.
Evolution of Noncontact Warfare
In Georgia, Russian land-based fires attacked the adversary in depth, and they did target civilian areas if they deemed them of military significance. Russian forces fired SS-21 Tochka-U and SS-26 Iskander operational-tactical missiles at fixed targets and potential Georgian force groupings (perhaps 15 to 20 SS-21 and two SS-26), even though they lacked real-time intelligence. Three missiles went into Georgia’s port town of Poti. One Iskander hit the town square of Gori with a cluster munition warhead. Georgian forces had been using the town square as a muster point the day before, but they had since left when the Iskander strike arrived. In general, Russian missiles missed their targets because they had no actionable intelligence. Despite promises of being issued GLONASS satellite position system receivers, Russian forces had no satellite data, and were forced to rely on maps and vintage targeting equipment that was decades old.
The problem Russian forces had was that they couldn’t see their opponent in real time, and even if they could, there was no timely way to communicate this information to elements that could conduct targeting and deliver a strike to the target. Eyesight was a historic weakness of the Soviet armed forces. The tactical missiles were available, as were other types of standoff guided munitions, but creating a system that integrates sensors, communications, and precision guided weapons is no easy task, especially at ranges of hundreds of kilometers. In some ways that problem still bedevils the Russian military today. Buildings may not move, but enemy units do. The matter is no less complex when trying to hit targets at sea.
Ten years on, Russian armed forces have addressed this problem in two ways, but it remains a work in progress. Today a panoply of land-based, air-based, and sea-based precision guided weapons are available for such missions, with longer standoff ranges, though the Russian military may still be quite short on capacity in the number of available weapons. Combat aviation is a success story, but the air force still lacks precision guided munitions in sufficient quantities. The second part of the picture, reconnaissance and targeting, has also evolved beyond the primitive approaches taken in Georgia. Back then, reconnaissance, communication, and control were decidedly lacking relative to today. Smart weapons need to be told smart things to be of use. The first SS-26 combat employment was not especially notable when fired in 2008. Now Iskander-M brigades have proliferated across Russian military districts, with ballistic and cruise missiles, and, of course, nuclear-armed variants. However, the more important development is not the wide-scale deployment of precision strike assets, but the improved Russian ability to see what they plan to hit in real time on the battlefield.
The Air Battle
Russia’s 4th Air and Air Defense Army performed quite poorly, and the various services fought entirely disconnected campaigns. Poor coordination, little communication, and no way to conduct real-time targeting severely hampered Russian air power. The air battle and air defense battle were like two drunken boxers. Russia’s air force was ineffective at suppressing Georgian air defenses, and Georgian air defenses were ineffective at suppressing the Russian air force. The air force conducted air raids throughout the depth of Georgia, but with poor intelligence, and the ground force had no connection to their fight. Russia’s air force couldn’t fight at night and had little in the way of guided munitions. The real issue, though, was communications. Ground force commanders had air force coordinators with them, but they had no communications link to the 4th Air and Air Defense Army conducting strikes. There is even a story that the 58th Army commander borrowed a journalist’s satellite phone at one point to call back to headquarters. The Russian armed forces simply had no way of talking to each other.
Russia lost six planes in Georgia, but only two appeared to be losses to Georgian forces. Friendly forces likely shot down three or four of the six aircraft Russia lost in the war. “Identify Friend or Foe” (IFF) systems didn’t work, airspace management was a mess, and having Soviet legacy platforms on both sides led to confusion on the battlefield. As General Vladimir Shamanov recalled, “In South Ossetia the IFF system in fact did not work, and it was very hard for our units to recognize whose equipment they were seeing—ours or Georgian.” Russian air defense was far more effective against its own air force than all the upgraded kit Georgia had bought.
Russia did not undertake an effort to suppress Georgian air defenses until several days into the war. That said, the Russian air force was not deterred by Georgian air defenses and went straight for every airfield and military base they could find throughout the country. For example, on August 8, Russia’s air force attacked Georgia’s main airbase far behind the battle lines three times, and the sorties went completely unmolested. Despite Georgian investments in air defense, radar, and battle space management, the Russian air force had a generally free operating environment. Rotary aviation played a minor, but relatively inconsequential, role in this conflict.
In general, the Russian air force was blamed for losses that were actually inflicted by Russian air defenses, lack of coordination, poor communications, and dysfunctional systems to distinguish between friend and foe. Much of that had changed by 2015, when Russian aerospace forces intervened in Syria. Russian forces now have the means available to communicate and coordinate, dramatically reducing the friendly-fire problem, but planning air and ground operations in concert remains the next step in their evolution. Russian aerospace forces are still being broken of their desire to fight their own war, independent of what ground units are doing. This also helps explain why in 2017 the General Staff appointed a ground forces commander in charge of the aerospace forces branch.
Conventional Warfare Plus
The combination of Russian proxies as an irregular warfare component, backed by Russian conventional military power as the hammer, remains an important element. To this day the cycle of escalation that led to the breakout of open hostilities in Georgia is somewhat murky. Yet the role of sponsored, or backed, proxy forces remains an important feature of other Russian conflicts where eventually conventional military power comes into play. Russia is effective at leveraging proxies to engage adversaries, and then pulsing conventional military power onto the battlefield with decisive effects. Conventional Russian forces are the determining force, but not the first force on the battlefield. Proxies are often the force that shapes conditions in advance of the clash. Of course, Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria are different wars. There is no model or single template in Russian military thought; if anything, it’s quite the opposite. However, the interplay between irregular forces, proxies, and conventional military power remains important.
In 2008, the South Ossetian militia slowed down the Georgian advance long enough for Russian forces to enter the battlefield to relieve them. They tied up Georgian forces, giving Russian units a tactical advantage, given that time was an important factor for both sides. They also played an important role in escalating the violence in the run up to open hostilities, although it’s unclear how much tactical control Russia actually had over Ossetian decision-making.
The various paramilitary or proxy forces available in Russia, or from nearby frozen conflicts, have become an important supplement to Russian operations in recent years. The Vostok Battalion, an experienced and bloodied Chechen unit from the second Chechen war, was one of the formations that subsequently fought in Georgia 2008. Similarly, fighters from across the North Caucasus were then used in Ukraine in 2014 and 2015. A number of these fighters have since left Ukraine, taking up contracts with mercenary units to fight in Syria. In terms of manpower, combat experience, and degree of organization, the proxy force available to Russia has steadily grown. It is an important auxiliary, which can be used for tasks ranging from simply holding down terrain as in Ukraine’s Donbas, to deniable proxy operations against first-class militaries, like the Russian mercenary firm Wagner’s failed attack against U.S. forces in Syria.
The conflict also represented Moscow’s first attempt at seizing the battle for the narrative in the information domain, leveraging reporters, spokespersons, and news coverage meant to support the Russian position. This was a completely different approach from the media blackout during the second Chechen war. There were early efforts at cyber operations, organized via quasi-state structures (that is, state-backed or state-controlled). These attempts were primitive, but Russia would subsequently refine, expand, and deploy them in later conflicts with much greater effect. Georgia was not a success of Russian information operations, but an early foray into the domain.
Russia’s own assessment of its military performance was quite critical after the war, particularly the abysmal work of the air force. Russia’s General Staff recognized the need to fundamentally reform the inherited Soviet mass-mobilization army to make it suitable for conflicts in the post-Soviet space. Remarkably, within the Russian defense establishment a successful war was used as a catalyst for military reforms and modernization. The Russian General Staff and civilian leadership were critical of themselves, perhaps scathing, particularly Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov. Then-Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov was going to implement a controversial reform plan which involved large-scale consolidation and transformation of the armed forces. This would necessitate deep cuts in the officer corps, numerous retirements, and elimination of various commands, along with a host of radical measures.
In October 2008, Serdyukov announced the “New Look” reforms stating that they were “strongly influenced” by the events in Georgia. Rather than play up the success, Russia’s leadership encouraged media criticism, because they wanted to garner support against internal opposition. It seems somewhat strange to see a military establishment flagellating itself in public after a successful war. As Roger McDermott commented back in 2009, “little difference can be found between criticism of the campaign in either civilian media or official sources, suggesting the presence of an orchestrated effort by the government to ‘sell’ reform to the military and garner support among the populace.”
In reality, the plans to kill the Soviet mass-mobilization army and replace it with a much leaner permanent standing force were well in motion beforehand, but the war served as timely political ammunition. Stiff resistance existed among the services, the General Staff, and senior officers, which was overcome by emphasizing Russian shortcomings in this conflict as an internal bludgeon. In time, some of the traditionalists’ views also held, as the next Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu reversed the least popular and most problematic reform ideas and resurrected elements of the original force structure.
Aspects of the reforms after the war proved more evolutionary than revolutionary. It might be easy to dismiss as the last war of the Soviet armed forces, assuming that everything has changed since 2008, but the conflict still holds insights for those interested in the Russian armed forces of today. In the ten years since the war, Russia effectively walked away from the Soviet mass mobilization army, but a more modern force, able to conduct combined arms warfare, and work jointly between the services, remains a work in progress. Russian forces are integrating what they see as the most successful elements in Western warfare, adapted for the strengths of a firepower heavy army, and the needs of a Eurasian land power. They have addressed the most egregious aspects of the poor combat performance demonstrated in Georgia. But the emphasis on simplicity over flexibility remains, and the use of proxy forces as adjuncts to regular forces has only grown. Much of this was demonstrated in the 2008 Russo-Georgia War. We would be foolish to overlook it.
Michael Kofman is a Senior Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as program manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.