Did Georgia Went For A Quick Military Defeat to Spare The Country and Its Economy?
September 8, 2008
There are a lot of questions unanswered about the war in Georgia/South Ossetia e.g. to what extend did the US influence Saak’ashvili decision to provoke Russia or did Russia provoke Georgia and so on. But one thing is note worthy in my opinion. Why did the Georgians put up such a bad resistance? Sure the Russians have more tanks, more man, more planes, more everything. But at least since the Soviet-Afghan war or Vietnam we know that even a small army can beat a superpower or at least try to get more favourable peace terms. Another good example even involving the Russians could of course be the . Finish Winter War of 1939. Ok, the neighbouring Chechnya is a bad example. First they kicked the Russians around and gained de facto independence but that was such a stain on Russian ego that as soon as the drunk Yeltsin was gone the new star on the Russian sky Putin went back in with a refreshed army and now all that is left of the independence is a small scale Guerilla war. And to be fair: The Russian army in the 90s was pretty lame. No money, no motivation and in disarray of new found separatism. The Russian army of this decade is much more serious.
But what we know what happened in Georgia was that the Georgians tried to offer a ceasefire as soon as the Russian tanks were rolling towards South Ossetia. They pulled back after some fighting in Tskhinvali and abandoned their positions and cities falling back towards the Georgian capital Tbilisi. The Russians didn’t go for Tbilisi and were satisfied with controlling the two strategically important cities of Gori and Poti (btw. does every city in Georgia ends with an i?). Gori sits on the roads and railway lines connecting east and west Georgia and Georgia with South Ossetia. Poti is a major harbour which was the base of the (small) Georgian Navy.
So it seems that the Georgians panicked when they saw all those Russian tanks coming for them and Saakashvili feared that they wanted to get him (We’ve all seen the video of him going for "cover" under a pile of bodyguards). Was he trying to protect himself and ordered his army to abandon the country and concentrate on protecting the capital?
And was this a good military decision? In a conventional way the Georgians never had a chance of defending themselves against the might of the Russian army. Even with those Israeli "tank killer" weapons allegedly used by the Georgians. But as history shows that a mighty army can be defeated by a smaller and badly (or at least less good) equipped troop.
In an open field battle the Russians could easily defeat the Georgians because they had the air superiority (the Georgians didn’t even have fighter jets!) and more tanks and troops. So defending against the Russians in an open terrain would be a dumb idea. But going into a city or mountainous terrain could nullify the Russian advantage in numbers. In such a situation the Israeli anti-tank weapons could be used to a great effect. And you could see that the Russians feared such a situation. They only entered Gori when the cease-fire was signed and they knew all Georgian troops had run away.
A dramatic failure for the Georgians was not to destroy the Roki Tunnel. The Roki Tunnel is the major connection between Russia and South Ossetia and thus is strategically important. If it had been destroyed the Russians were delayed in their actions. You have to know that the biggest problem of warfare is logistics. For every soldier in the field you have to supply ammunition, food, clothing, medicine, petrol for the vehicles and so on etc. Even with looting a modern army can’t supply themselves from the conquered territory anymore. And of course you have to evacuate wounded personal and so on. This needs a lot of planing and supply roads. So even if the Russians could fly in their troops with planes and use small mountain passes they probably had problems in supplying such a big force without a major road. The Georgians tried to attack the Tunnel and their were reports of it being damaged but obviously they failed to destroy it. The Russians even reported problems here which could have been exploited by the Georgians: Some Russian commanders claimed they had no air cover after leaving the tunnel and that broken down vehicles sometimes blocked the road.
I guess the best defence would have been a Guerilla style war. And I wonder why the Georgians never thought of that. At least they got some training in Anti-Guerilla warfare from the US days before the war. So they could have thought of doing something similar against the Russians. I mean it must have been clear that they can’t beat of the Russians in a traditional way. The 2006 Lebanon War is yet another example of a bad equipped group defeating a big and mighty army. Why did the Georgians ignored those examples?
But on the other hand. Such a military way might enable the Georgians to defeat the Russians or at least getting some more favourable cease-fire terms. But it would be at a great cost. The Russians for example levelled the capital of Chechny Grozny to the ground in the Second Chechen War to avoid fighting in closed quarters. And the Roki Tunnel is of vital importance to the Georgian economy, too. Despite the conflict with Russia it is a major export partner for the Georgian economy. So at the end the Georgians lost the war. But they’ll be able to recover from it. Major parts of Grozny are still destroyed, the Chechen economy is poor and the population is a sitting duck between Moslem rebels and Russian soldiers. Afghanistan never recovered from their war against the Soviets, too. There is still war in the country. And the Hezbollah won against Israel but they don’t have to run the country.
Update: What a coincidence Danger Rooms runs a story with the title "Should Georgia Become a Black Sea Hezbollah?".