The August 2008 South Ossetia Conflict: Revising the Status Quo

Georgia's military strategy seems to have relied upon a delayed Russian military response, due to Putin's absence from Moscow, and likely predicated on the belief that President Medvedev would not take any action without Putin being present. This strategy was flawed. As a result, Tbilisi could see a consolidation of Russian control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

By Jeffrey H. Michaels, Lecturer in Defence Studies, King's College London
Tbilisi's Motivations for Initiating Military Action
Despite attempts by Georgia to portray the current conflict as Russian aggression, its origins should be traced back to Tbilisi. While both sides share responsibility for the small-scale violence that preceded the full outbreak of hostilities, it was Georgia rather than Russia that escalated the violence. The Georgian military assault on South Ossetia was deliberately timed to coincide with the Olympic Games. Indeed, Georgia's military strategy seems to have relied upon a delayed Russian military response, due to Putin's absence from Moscow, and likely predicated on the belief that President Medvedev would not take any action without Putin being present.
Georgian President Saakashvili was most likely counting on his military forces to deliver a knockout blow to the separatist forces, thereby allowing a relatively quick seizure of South Ossetia. For the last several years, the Georgian military has increasingly become beholden to an offensive military doctrine, and has developed capabilities intended to retake South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, it is important to note that this offensive doctrine was not premised on an immediate and large-scale Russian military response, although common sense should have dictated otherwise. By contrast, Georgia would have been well-served to rely on a defensive military doctrine, and use non-military means to reintegrate the separatist regions.

Problems with Georgian Military Assault on South Ossetia
The Georgian military assault likely consisted of two infantry brigades with tank, heavy artillery, helicopter and air support. The build-up of these forces was almost certainly observed by the Russians, thereby denying Georgia strategic surprise. Moreover, this large build-up was not consistent with Georgian claims that Tbilisi only intended to suppress South Ossetian mortar fire on Georgia. Likewise, the full-scale military assault on Tshkinvali could not be interpreted as anything other than an attempt to retake the region.
The most curious feature of the Georgian assault is that there appears to have been no attempt to secure the southern end of the Roki Tunnel, thereby severely impeding Russia's ability to bring forward heavy ground units. Indeed, the Georgians seem to have demonstrated very little strategic or operational finesse; a further indication their doctrine and military plans were inadequate. Judging by the direction and pace of the Georgian offensive, there appears to have been a complete disregard for the possibility of Russian intervention. The Georgian political and military leadership most likely deceived themselves into believing Russia would not intervene. Given that any Georgia-Russia military confrontation would be suicidal, the Georgian leadership probably insisted that its operational planning be limited to portraying an invasion of South Ossetia as merely a conflict between Georgia and South Ossetian forces.
Georgia's indiscriminate use of heavy weapons (air and artillery) against Tshkinvali was extremely clumsy and wholly counter-productive. There appears to have been little military rationale for this action, as it was not aimed at South Ossetian defensive positions. Not only did this bombardment have the effect of strengthening South Ossetian resistance, but it also gave the Kremlin an excuse to intervene militarily, knowing the Russian population would be supportive.
The Georgian leadership seems to have miscalculated at a number of levels. Firstly, they appear to have overestimated the capabilities of the Georgian military to affect a quick seizure. Secondly, they misperceived Russia's willingness and ability to quickly intervene with its military forces. Thirdly, Saakashvili also probably hoped the US and NATO would support Georgia, or that the possibility of their intervention would deter Russia from any military action.
It is also unclear what rules of engagement the Georgian forces were operating under with respect to the Russian peacekeepers, and whether they treated them as a hostile force. Russia used unverified reports of casualties among Russian peacekeepers as an additional excuse to intervene, and this issue will almost certainly be a key bargaining tool of any political settlement. In other words, Russia will probably argue that a peacekeeping force is inappropriate, and therefore there will be a need to retain heavy forces in South Ossetia. 

Russian Military Response
The Russian military response to the Georgian actions were almost certainly pre-planned, and the rapidity of their response indicates they had enough forewarning to place their own units on alert in advance. The immediate Russian response was an attempt to gain air superiority over the conflict zone prior to the ground advance. This included not only dominating the skies over South Ossetia, but also attacking Georgia's military airbases.
Russia's initial ground advance into South Ossetia occurred without any Georgian attempts to counter them. Tanks and mechanised infantry from the Russian 58th Army advanced into South Ossetia, and do not appear to have met any significant resistance until they reached Tshkinvali. However, despite some Russian claims that they captured the city, there were still reports of continued fighting, and it was not until 10 August that the remaining Georgian units were ordered out of the city.
The Russians may have hoped that the mere appearance of Russian heavy units would have precipitated an immediate Georgian withdrawal. Indeed, the first reports of Russian units entering South Ossetia indicated brigade strength. However, given that Georgia had at least two brigades present, the Russian military probably hoped to avoid large-scale fighting until a superior ground force could be brought to bear, despite having control of the airspace. The lack of adequate forces immediately on hand may also explain Russia's unwillingness to risk manoeuvring around the Georgian forces in an effort to cut off their lines of communication.
Having met increasingly stiff Georgian resistance, Russia decided to add more forces into the region, including elements of the elite 76th Guards Airborne Division. Embarrassingly though for Russia, the head of the 58th Army, General-Lieutenant Anatoly Khrulev, was wounded in the fighting. Moreover, at least two Russian fighter-jets have been downed. As of 11 August, the majority of Georgian units had departed South Ossetia, although there is still evidence of some Georgian forces fighting a rearguard action. Russia's inability to completely drive off Georgian forces probably accounts, in part, for their unwillingness to agree to an immediate ceasefire.
In addition to the above-mentioned air and ground actions, Russia also appears to be increasing its pressure on several additional fronts. There are numerous reports Russia has waged an effective cyber-attack on Georgia. Russia is also mobilising its Black Sea Fleet, most likely for the several-fold purpose of economic blockade, possible ship-to-shore bombardment, and potentially to support an amphibious landing. There are also several reports Russia has sent forces into Abkhazia, and that Abkhaz units supported by Russian air assets have created a new front by attacking Georgian units in the Kodori Gorge. Likewise, Russian forces also appear to have made a limited advance into Georgia itself and engaged Georgian forces near Senaki.
It should be noted that the launching of simultaneous military actions on numerous fronts is a standard Russian approach to waging conventional war. The overall intent is to overwhelm the adversary's decision-making system and force them to dissipate their military resources. Nevertheless, Russia's actions in Abkhazia are also motivated by a desire to achieve a new status quo in this separatist region as well as South Ossetia.
The Course of Battle
Two factors will determine the future course of events. Firstly, Georgia's willingness to militarily contest control over South Ossetia, and to a lesser extent Abkhazia, rather than withdraw back into Georgia, will be a crucial factor in achieving a ceasefire. Secondly, Russia feels it has an opportunity to establish a new regional status quo.
Russia has the advantage of time, and will likely use this to great effect, delaying diplomacy to achieve a more favorable long-term strategic balance. The main intent of Russian military actions will be to degrade Georgian military capabilities to the extent that the progress Georgia has made in improving its military forces over the last several years, mainly with US help, will be completely reversed. This strategy is likely motivating Russia's targeting of Georgian military facilities and infrastructure, and the timing of Russia's willingness to agree to a ceasefire will probably be determined by the degree to which Georgia's air force and heavy ground units have been attrited. Even if Georgian forces are withdrawn from the conflict zone, Russia may choose to continue attacking these units if it feels they have withdrawn with most of their equipment intact.
A New Status Quo
After years of playing diplomatic and covert games with Georgia over the fate of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as its Western ambitions, Moscow now has an opportunity to establish a new status quo in the region. Although Russia's initial military reaction was a pre-planned response, its recent actions reflect Moscow's recognition that they can now shape the future to their advantage. Russia probably has at least four primary goals in mind:

  1. Strengthen Russian control over the separatist regions, to include the replacement of 'peacekeepers' with permanently stationed Russian army units
  2. Revise the regional military balance in Moscow's favour for a number of years to come
  3. Humiliate President Saakashvili and dissuade future military adventurism
  4. Discourage future US and NATO military engagement with Tbilisi. Russia's diplomatic and military policies in the days and weeks ahead will likely be designed with these limited objectives in mind. 

It is important to note Russia has no intention of taking control of Georgia itself, as this would be a much more expensive prospect, with no guarantee of success. Russian air strikes have not targeted the Georgian leadership in Tbilisi, nor have they targeted the Georgian Defence Ministry. Moscow has few incentives to seek unlimited objectives, and the complete collapse of the Georgian state is not in their long-term interests. Nevertheless, in the meantime, Russia will probably continue building up its regional military presence to the point where it can credibly threaten an invasion of Georgia. However, this build-up will be intended as a bargaining counter, rather than as actual preparations for an invasion.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

Explore our related content