Georgia: Flaws Found in Tbilisi's War Planning and Operations
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer arrived in Tbilisi on September 15 for a two-day trip meant to reaffirm the alliance's commitment to an ongoing strong partnership with Tbilisi. The visit comes amid ongoing critical scrutiny of the Georgian military's performance during the August 8-12 war with Russia and of government decisions made during the conflict.
Officially, the 26-member Council and Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer will review the status of Georgia's military reforms and assess both civilian and military war damage. Apart from a visit to the country's Air Command Center, the trip agenda includes no stops at military installations. The delegation will make a short visit to Gori on September 16, but it is slated to spend most of the last day in meetings with international organization representatives, civil society groups, the human rights ombudsman and university students.
Meanwhile, the questions about what drove Georgia's actions on August 8 linger on.
In a series of interviews with EurasiaNet, senior defense and national security officials have repeated earlier assertions that the possibility of a large-scale, direct engagement with Russia was never entertained. Similarly, soldiers who fought in South Ossetia suggest that decisions about Georgian army movements were made on the fly.
At worst, a proxy confrontation with Russian forces -- akin to the first South Ossetian conflict in 1991-1992 -- was considered, said Georgian National Security Council Secretary Alexander Lomaia. After the debacle of Russia's two wars in Chechnya, no one thought that Moscow would further risk its international reputation by invading a sovereign country, said Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia.
"We expected that the Russians would fight with the hands of the separatists," Lomaia told EurasiaNet.
Georgian soldiers who fought in South Ossetia told EurasiaNet that they thought their initial mission in the breakaway region was to stop separatist attacks on Georgian villages in the area. On the morning of August 8, the Georgian government cited shelling on two Georgian villages as the reason for its decision to move on Tskhinvali.
"Our goal was to put an end to fighting in the area ? and take control," said one senior lieutenant from Georgia's 3,500-strong 4th Brigade, a unit that bore the brunt of the fighting on August 8. "Nobody in the army expected a war with Russia."
The realization that Georgian forces were not up against South Ossetian militia, but an opponent who could vastly outnumber the Georgian army in numbers and firepower came as a shock, sources say. "The main thing is that the scope of the threat was underestimated, while our own combat capabilities were overestimated," commented one defense ministry source, who asked not to be named.
Ironically, though, Tbilisi had earlier flagged military exercises in both Abkhazia and on the Russian border with South Ossetia as indicators of Russian belligerent intentions. The reconstruction of a railway running from Russia into Abkhazia, the shooting down of Georgian reconnaissance planes over Abkhazia, and the build-up of Russian peacekeeper troops in both regions were viewed as additional sources of concern.
Georgian military sources now state that an attack had earlier been expected from Abkhazia, but never from South Ossetia. "We were indeed preparing for something in May when Georgia was denied NATO membership [a Membership Action Plan]," said the 4th Brigade senior lieutenant, but there "were no preparations made" for a military operation in South Ossetia this August. "Many were on vacation and we were preparing to go Iraq in the fall."
The South Ossetian conflict was the 4th Brigade's combat debut; an alarm call on August 7 took the unit by surprise, the officer said. That day, the unit mounted tanks and missile launchers on a train bound for the Georgian city of Gori, roughly 15 kilometers from Tskhinvali.
On the night of August 7-8, the 4th Brigade launched a three-pronged offensive on South Ossetian positions in Tskhinvali and in two Ossetian villages -- Znauri and Khetagurovo -- to the south and west of the separatist capital. One of the assaults was a feint meant to divert South Ossetian militia forces away from the main objective. The stratagem allowed one of the 4th Brigade regiments to move into Tskhinvali. After a prolonged artillery barrage, Georgian forces gained control of most of the city apart from isolated pockets of resistance, another 4th Brigade officer said.
After nearly encircling the city, Georgian troops then tried to establish control over a key road to the north that led to South Ossetia's border crossing with Russia, one mid-ranking commander said. A 300-strong South Ossetian garrison near the village of Tbeti was defending the road.
As Georgian troops battled the garrison, the first convoy of Russian tanks appeared, the commander recounted. The showdown occurred in a relatively narrow field of battle. "We destroyed one tank after another, but they kept coming," the commander said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The tanks were traveling from the southern mouth of the Roki tunnel, a border passage that provided the conduit for Russian forces and materiel. The Georgians' failure to seal off the tunnel has been repeatedly cited as a critical strategic error. Georgian officers were aware of the tunnel's significance, but they lacked the force to seal it. "Had we had a chance to destroy the Roki tunnel we would've done it," said Deputy Defense Minister Kutelia. "The tunnel is tucked under a rock and it is very hard to destroy or block it unless you get really close."
Kutelia claimed that 13,000 Georgian troops took part in the initial combat. Ultimately, they confronted a Russian force almost five times greater in numbers, Kutelia added.
Articles published in two Russian publications suggest that regular Russian army forces may have been in the vicinity of Tskhinvali as early as August 7.
On August 15, Permskiye Novosti (Perm News), a regional newspaper, quoted one private as saying that his unit, Russia's 58th Army, was in South Ossetia on August 7, prior to the Georgian attack. The Russian Defense Ministry's Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) newspaper ran an interview with a captain from the 58th Army who stated that an order was received on August 7 "to move toward Tskhinvali" from positions in North Ossetia.
The opening of a second front in Abkhazia and western Georgia and the use of bombers against Georgian military positions, as well as against civilian targets, quickly gave Russian forces the upper hand. (Despite 2007 bombing attacks on South Ossetia, the Georgian military had not yet upgraded its air defense capabilities).
With the Georgian army thrown on the defensive on August 8, President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered reservists into action. The Georgian Defense Ministry cannot state how many reservists Georgia has or how many reservists saw action. No central registry exists.
Ferried into the war zone by yellow city buses, the reservists, with combat skills mostly limited to three weeks of military training, were initially tasked with patrolling territories "cleared" by army infantry. One reservist, however, told EurasiaNet that he and dozens of other reservists instead loitered aimlessly near Tskhinvali, while the fighting raged inside the city. "There were no commanders, nobody around to tell us what to do," he said.
When the order came, the retreat was chaotic. "There was heavy fire from every direction," the 4th Brigade senior lieutenant said. "We lay on the ground, while the priest of our brigade ? with his beard sticking out from under the helmet's straps, crawled up and gave us a blessing."
The officer and a group of some 20 other soldiers were cut off from the retreating army. As the Russians invaded Gori and collected military equipment and vehicles abandoned by the retreating Georgians, the group headed for the Borjomi National Park, some 50 kilometers to the west. The park was later firebombed by Russian planes.
Similar disarray hit reservist ranks as well. When reservist Vakhtang Gamtsemlidze and 70 other soldiers arrived in Gori on August 11, they found the Georgian army speeding out of the city towards Tbilisi. "We were told to go back, but there were no means of transportation," said Gamtsemlidze, a resident of the nearby village of Kaspi. When Russian troops entered Gori, Gamtsemlidze and fellow reservists were hiding in cellars.
The reservists came out of hiding at night and trudged several kilometers along the Mtkvari River to Kaspi. "I showed up at the commissariat the next day to surrender my machine gun and explain what happened," he said. Russian troops soon reached Kaspi, and Gamtsemlidze and his family fled to nearby villages.
Deputy Defense Minister Kutelia said the ministry braced for a large fight as the Russian army inched closer to Tbilisi. Georgian forces, he said, had been placed in "various locations" around the capital, and could have held the city for "several days."
"We would have fought to the end," he stressed.
The assertion raises another question about Tbilisi's conduct of the war. International journalists traveling from Tbilisi to Gori, after the city's fall to the Russians, spotted no reinforcements or defense preparations along the main highway leading into the capital. Several city residents, however, have reported seeing troop concentrations in the Saguramo forest near Tbilisi.
More than a month after the war's conclusion, the government is now trying to make amends for the organizational, planning and intelligence deficiencies within the Georgian army that the campaign laid bare. One Defense Ministry source tells EurasiaNet that the presidential administration is "outraged" at the ministry for mistakes made at the commander level and for information leaks, in addition to the campaign's disorganization.
A reshuffle among the armed forces brass followed, along with prosecution of deserters. The reservists' commander, David Aptsiauri, the deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, Alexander Osepaishvili, and the commander of Georgian land forces, Mamuka Balukhadze, have been cashiered.
The Georgian government claims that 171 soldiers died in the four days of fighting; 4th Brigade soldiers, however, state that some 100 of their number alone died in the conflict. The Russian government has issued similarly conservative casualty numbers, saying their final death toll is less than 100.
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