Keeping an Eye on Georgia

One of the questions I’ve been asking since the Russian invasion of Georgia is how the necessary buildup and staging of troops by Russia could have been missed by Georgia. As I’ve noted before, unless troops are prepared and staged to go on order, an army cannot react in the time the Russians did. That means there were signs and indicators that such a move was forthcoming. The NYT provides us with a list of those signs:

If the rapidly unfolding events caught much of the world off guard, that kind of coordination of the old and the new did not look accidental to military professionals.

“They seem to have harnessed all their instruments of national power — military, diplomatic, information — in a very disciplined way,” said one Pentagon official, who like others interviewed for this article disclosed details of the operation under ground rules that called for anonymity. “It appears this was well thought out and planned in advance, and suggests a level of coordination in the Russian government between the military and the other civilian agencies and departments that we are striving for today.”

In fact, Pentagon and military officials say Russia held a major ground exercise in July just north of Georgia’s border, called Caucasus 2008, that played out a chain of events like the one carried out over recent days.

“This exercise was exactly what they executed in Georgia just a few weeks later,” said Dale Herspring, an expert on Russian military affairs at Kansas State University. “This exercise was a complete dress rehearsal.”

So, as suspected, this was no spontaneous or spur of the moment reaction by Russia, but instead a preplanned invasion of Georgia. While not exactly like the Nazi contrivance of an attack by Poland on a German position in 1939, they had the very same aim – provide cover, regardless of how thin, for the invasion. Of course South Ossetian insurgent forces provided the planned provocation and Russia responded just like they had planned.

Other indicators were also evident:

Russia prepared the battlefield in the months leading up to the outbreak of fighting.

In April, Russia reinforced its peacekeeping force in Abkhazia with advanced artillery, and in May it sent construction troops to fix a railroad line linking that area with Russia.

So any reasonably competent intelligence agency would have known, at a minimum, that Russia was planning something.

Meanwhile, the 1,000 American advisers and trainers were conducting counter-insurgency training while 1/4 of the Georgian army remained in Iraq and the rest were deployed in the western part of the country.

One interesting military bright spot during the invasion had to do with Georgian airdefense.

To the surprise of American military officers, an impaired Georgian air-defense system was able to down at least six Russian jets. The Sukhoi-25, an aging ground attack plane, appeared to be the most vulnerable.

Georgia never has fielded an integrated, nationwide air defense system, and those ground-to-air weapons that survived early Russian shelling operated without any central control — and some without battle-command radars, as they were destroyed by Russian strikes.

That they bloodied the Russian air wing was taken as a clear sign of poor aircraft maintenance, poor piloting skills — or, most likely, years of insufficient funds for adequate flight training.

That will most likely be noted by Russia and attempts to improve their maintenance and piloting skills will be undertaken. But it is an indicator that, at least in the near future, should there be a confrontation between the US and Russia that the US would most likely be able to establish air superiority because of its superiority in both of those areas.

That should be enough to keep Russia from attempting the same sort of thing in areas where such a confrontation would be likely. Air superiority by one side means defeat for the other, and Russia knows that very well. So understanding that we most likely enjoy that edge is very important. Maintaining it is even more important.

Final thought: while it took only a few days for Russian forces to push into Georgia, I would guess that it will take months to see them withdraw. There’s much work to do in South Ossetia in terms of ethnic cleansing (in the most benign take on the term, moving ethnic Georgians out of that area for good). Russia wants no residual threat of insurgents in South Ossetia. That means any insurgency would have to operate out of Georgia in the future, leading to another perfect “provocation” requiring Russian action.

So I expect the Russian military to remain in or around Gori until it feels reasonably assured it has deported most ethnic Georgians from that area. They will then pull back to a buffer area around South Ossetia as permitted by the ceasefire agreement. Of course the size of that buffer area is most likely going to be interpreted generously by Russia.

This dustup isn’t at all over by any stretch, and may get worse before it gets any better.

[Crossposted at QandO]

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