Belmont Club

Who's winning in Georgia?

Ralph Peters, who has been to Georgia, describes how to make sense of movements on the ground, describing what he believes are the logical Russian military goals.

  • He says, “I wouldn’t expect to drive all the way to the Georgian capital – that would be too much for the West to stomach”
  • Retake Tskhinvali, (the South Ossetian capital) then strike due south to cut Georgia’s lifelines to the world – the strategic highway, parallel rail line and international pipeline that connect Georgia’s eastern interior with its western ports.
  • Aim for the town of Gori (which sits aside the strategic lifelines described above and is the guardian to Tbilisi)
  • Get Abkhazia into the act in order to sweep down on Georgia’s Western Black Sea ports.

He also outlines Russia’s military challenges.

  • “They have only a single route over the rugged Caucasus range. If Georgian commandos interdict it, the Russians will feel the supply pinch quickly. And any major Russian military operations need to be wrapped up before autumn snows close the passes – if there isn’t a cease-fire sooner.”
  • The Russians require an airhead within Georgia to sustain operations
  • The Russian Army must demonstrate more skill at sophisticated operations than they have done up until now

The possible outcomes listed by Peters are:

  1. Russian humiliation
  2. Russian victory
  3. Standoff

Click for a larger image. From Google EarthWhich of these is most likely will become clear in the coming days. Readers will have noted that a number of Georgian brigades are permanently based at Gori, which has recently been bombed by Russian attack aircraft, but it is unclear how heavy the raids have been. There are Internet reports that the Ukraine (which has ex-Soviet weapons) has been a steady supplier of hardware to Georgia, and that BAE was scheduled to deliver modern anti-tank missiles to Georgia in the 4th Quarter of 2008, but it’s unclear how reliable these stories are.It’s hard to tell from open sources what the situation on the ground is. The Russians claim to have taken Tshhinvali and the Georgians claim otherwise. A Reuters report datelined Sat Aug 9, 2008 1:44pm EDT says:

Fighting gripped Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia for a third day on Saturday, but it remained unclear just who was in control of the rebel capital Tskhinvali.

Russia announced it had seized control of the city, but Georgia denied that, saying Tskhinvali was in its hands.

Separatist officials, who are supported by Russia, appeared to contradict each other.

Eduard Kokoity, self-styled president of the separatist region, said a “second attempt” by Georgian forces to retake the town had been beaten back. … But, as he spoke, Boris Chochiyev, deputy head of the South Ossetian government, told reporters that Tskhinvali was now in the hands of Georgian forces.

“The city has been lost. We have been betrayed,” said Chochiyev, visibly shaken. He gave no details.

A Tskhinvali resident calling himself Soslan said by telephone that Russian troops had never actually entered the city to take control of it.

Control of Tskhinvali has apparently passed to the Russias. The BBC is reporting that Georgian forces have left South Ossetia and that the Russians are now in control of Tskhinvali. “Georgian troops have pulled back to positions at or south of those held on 6 August, when the current hostilities began, said Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili. … He told the BBC that the withdrawal was necessary because of the mass casualties both within Georgia and South Ossetia, at the hands of the Russians. Mr Utiashvili said 100 Georgian soldiers had been killed and many more injured.”

The Russian advances were not without cost. Reuters reported that the Russian General commanding the operation has been wounded by Georgian forces. “MOSCOW (Reuters) – The commander of the Russian troops sent to help separatists in Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia was wounded in an exchange of fire with Georgian forces on Saturday, Russian state television reported. Lt. General Anatoly Khrulyov was wounded when a column of armored vehicles of his 58th army came under fire by Georgian forces outside the rebel capital of Tskhinvali, Vesti-24 channel said in a report early on Sunday. It did not say how serious his wounds were.”

But why are the two sides fighting for this unknown ville? Because Tskhinvali is like the cork in the Caucasus bottle, where the mountain passes enters the plain. It is 30 km north of Gori, whose importance we described earlier. If the Russian Army takes Tskhinvali they will be within striking distance of the Georgian heart.

It looks from the map like this was a game of the “race to Tskhinvali” from the outset. Whoever could get there with heavy weapons quickest had an advantage. If Georgia knew the Russians were coming in with the 58th Army (of Chechnya fame which Peters claims must have been held in readiness for just such a move) then a pre-emptive advance into Tskhinvali would suggest itself to them. Published reports a pretty heavy expenditure of ammunition, with the Russians vowing to smash the Georgian counterbattery. That ammo has got to come up the road across the Caucasus. Basic loads are going to be exhausted pretty soon. Factor that into the calculation whenever you hear about a “ceasefire”. Both sides will be looking to resupply. Weather will be a factor, though not now. The forecast is for fine and sunny weather over the next five days.

What of quality? Allan Malinson who is Defense Historian at the Daily Telegraph, makes some observations whose accuracy will soon be put to the test. He claims Russian “Shock and Awe” has failed and it will now come down to actual military maneuver. “They did not have enough force to deploy overwhelmingly and therefore decisively from the outset – which might have overawed the Georgians without a shot. This has forced them to over-rely on artillery, one of the least discriminating weapons systems, especially the multi-barrelled rocket launcher.” He claims the Russians have brought in the Spetsnaz in order to gain more precision. (Or are they, as in Grozny, making up for a deficiency in infantry support for their tanks. The mountains share characteristics with urban warfare in that armor needs protection? — Wretchard). Finally, he examines the logistics and staff quality of both sides:

Despite South Ossetia’s semi-autonomous status, the Georgian army is operating on essentially interior lines of communication, while the Russians are deployed at the end of a very long line indeed. On paper, Georgian forces number some 18,000, but there are probably fewer than 12,000 effective combat troops, which is why the contingent in Iraq is being recalled. … The army has been American-trained, and increasingly American-equipped, for the past 10 years, and strongly focused on Nato admission: there will be some capable commanders and staff officers, therefore.

There is now a maritime aspect to the war. Bloomberg reports that the Russian Black Sea fleet is headed for Abkhazia and there are rumors of landings. The Ukranians have responded by threatening to bar Russian vessels based at their ports if they are used against Georgia.

Russia has received no official communication from Georgia about Saakashvili’s offer, the Kremlin press office said by telephone. Ships of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet moved toward Abkhazia, another separatist region, and Georgia’s largest port, Poti, while Russian jets crossed the border every 15 minutes to attack military and civilian targets in as many as six locations simultaneously, Georgian Security Council secretary Kakha Lomaia said. Russia’s actions amounted to “full-scale war,” he said.

UN observers are now reporting that Abkhazia is preparing for military operations in the Kodori Valley in the West. “On April 2, 2002 Georgian and Abkhazian sides signed a demilitarization agreement for Kodori Gorge. UNOMIG-monitored withdrawal of 350 Georgian troops ended on April 10. However, Russian 100 ground forces entered the Kodori Gorge without having any peacekeeping mandate on the morning of April 12. They were soon surrounded by the Georgian Defence Ministry forces. A likely armed conflict was prevented by President Eduard Shevardnadze going to Kodori to bring the situation under control. The UN representatives in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict theater also condemned the Russian action. On April 14, a Russian military unit left the gorge.” Reuters reports:

U.N. assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping Edmond Mulet told reporters there have been “very substantial numbers of casualties, refugees and destruction” in Georgia. At this point we are particularly concerned that the conflict appears to be spreading beyond South Ossetia into Abkhazia,” Mulet said.

“Our UNOMIG military observers report ongoing military preparation by the Abkhaz de facto authorities for a military operation in the upper Kodori valley, probably tomorrow morning.” Mulet told the U.N. Security Council that the Abkhaz authorities had asked him to withdraw U.N. military observers, known as UNOMIG, from the upper Kodori valley in Abkhazia but had declined to give him a reason.

The expulsion of UNOMIG from the Kodori gorge has an obvious meaning, as you can see from this Google terrain map. The Russians are threatening to pour down the Gorge and cut off the major Georgian Black Sea ports on the West: Batumi, P’ot’i, Sukhumi. This would clearly be an existential threat to Georgia itself and would no longer be about South Ossetia. It can be understood as nothing else but a direct Russian invasion of Georgia. The ante is being upped. The press is alive to the danger now. The IHT says the Security Council Meeting ended without a Russian agreement for a ceasefire. It mentions the Kodori gorge situation. “Russia refused to agree to a cease-fire or a diplomatic agreement with Georgia on Saturday, ensuring that fighting over the breakaway South Ossetia region would keep spilling over to areas such as Abkhazia’s Kodori Ridge, where 15 U.N. military observers were told to evacuate.”

Radio Free Europe’s interview with area expert Liz Fuller suggests that operations in the Kodori are merely preparatory. “Q. What will be the impact of Abkhazia’s decision to begin military operations against Georgian troops in the Kodori Gorge? A. I’m not sure whether they’re planning to retake the Kodori Gorge, but they’ve obviously decided that this is the most useful strategic thing they can do to strengthen their own position, and this is something they can do in line with their cooperation agreement with South Ossetia to make life that much more difficult for the Georgian military. As I understand it, Abkhaz warplanes have bombed, I think, infrastructure rather than the position of Georgian Interior Ministry troops, although that is not altogether clear to me. But certainly, anything that the Abkhaz can do to make the operations of Georgian troops in Kodori more difficult is going to be of benefit to the Abkhaz in the long term.” The Gorge is the southern leg of Sukhumi military road. It is a tough piece of terrain to traverse. Voices From Russia carries this dispatch from the Abkhazians.

Today, in accordance with standing agreements with South Ossetia, the Abkhazian forces launched operations against Georgian positions illegally situated in the upper reaches of the Kodor Gorge, according to government sources in Sukhumi. “Air strikes and artillery barrages hit this portion of the gorge”, Kristian Bzhaniya, the official spokesman of the Abkhazian presidential administration reported to our Interfax correspondent. “During this phase of the operation, there is going to be no direct contact by units of the Abkhazian forces. Thus far, our troops have not entered the sector controlled by Georgian formations. Therefore, we were quite amazed to hear Saakashvili’s claim that the Georgian forces had repelled attacks in the Kodor Gorge”.

Nor has the political aspect of the war stood still. Vladimir Putin has flown to North Ossetia from Beijing. The Radio Free Europe interview above suggests the Russians are putting ever more resources into operation. ” Paratroopers and other troops being flown in from Moscow, from Ivanovo — not just from Mozdok in the North Caucasus but from other bases in Russia”. In Eastern Europe the Balts and the Poles have reacted strongly to developments. “The presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have issued a joint statement condemning what they see as the naked aggression of Russia against the independent state of Georgia, as hostilities continue in the breakaway state of South Ossetia. … The [Polish] President said that Poland would offer Georgia any help it asked for. “We are not planning to send any troops there, but anything is possible.”

So that’s the shape of the arena. I hope this helps Belmont Club readers make sense of news reports

Tip Jar.