The August War: Analysis of Georgian, 'Ossetian' Defense Forces & Combat Strategies


We all know who has the final say and who was the main architect in the 2008 August war, but what about the party whose influence is often unjustly disregarded as mere medium or collateral in the conflict: South Ossetia? There is also the question that many contemporaries are loath to even consider: would South Ossetia, without the help of Russian “peacekeepers”, be as much a pushover as the Georgian side thought?

Let’s analyze it with proper scrutiny. First of all, who was who in Ossetia? It appeared that the power structures (among them the Special Service) and military forces in South Ossetia had to knuckle under to the proclaimed President of South Ossetia (then Eduard Kokoiti). The joined forces were governed by: the Defense Minister, who was appointed mid-June 2008 and was proposed by the Transdniester Regional authority; Russian Colonel Anatoly Barankevich; the Minister of Internal Affairs, Colonel Robert Guliev (from North Ossetia); the Secretary of the Security Council, Oleg Alborov (former Head of the South Ossetian KGB); and the Minister of Emergency Situations, Boris Chochiev, who was con-currently the co-Chairman of the Trilateral Russian-Ossetian-Georgian Commission on the Conflict Resolution.

According to some sources, two bodies, the ministries of Defense and Emergency Situations, informally united at the joint National Guard command under the aegis of the President of South Ossetia. At the same time, the main coordinator of power structures was the President’s Advisor in military issues (Major- General Petr Gatikaev). In order to achieve their political goals, the "republic’s" authority used military forces twice, announcing an emergency situation in both 1997 and 2002. In case of a military situation, forces would be commanded from a secure command point or reserve governing center which was located in Tskinhvali in the premises of the government. The hierarchy of these so-called South Ossetia power bodies was as follows: the National Guard, the Ministry of Interior, and the National Security Service. Let’s have a look at the characteristics of each of the mentioned institutions.

National Guard: according to 2002-2003 data, the strength of this structure did not exceed 2000 men. The guard is headed by a commander who essentially performs the functions of the Defense Minister, at present Anatoly Barankevich. The National Guard, as well as the National Guard of Georgia, were set up in 1992: two Ossetian brigades were formed (among them the tank brigade “IRI”) at the end of military operations. According to 2003 data, the following structures were included in the National Guard:

• battalion of mounted infantry on armored cars;

• armored-tank battalion;

• detached special purpose battalion (trained by Russian paratroopers);

• first battalion of peacekeepers;

• logistical subdivisions.

According to South Ossetian data, each battalion consisted of 500 men (this structure had been adopted from former USSR service regulations). The most effective were the First Peacekeeping and Special Purpose battalions. The Special Purpose battalion was founded on July 12, 1992. The battalions effectively operated under the command of the head of the Trilateral Commission for the Cessation of Hostility in Conflict Regions. According to 2003 data, 469 men were enlisted, among whom only 30% were local residents. That means that the bulk of enlisted servicemen there were non-Ossetian and were hired professional mercenaries. The battalion is located in the 47th Tskhinvali military settlement. A certain Vice-Colonel Ferdinand Geguev was said to be the founder of this battalion. Obviously, he was one from the cadre of Russian Interior Troops Special Forces. The first peacekeeping battalion consisted of 700 servicemen and 300 reservists, the average age of whom is between 18 and 50 years. The Service term was 6 months to 3 years (on a contractual basis). That is the reason for the prevailing (Russian and Ossetian) cadre servicemen. The battalion was equipped with light arms and armored vehicles, with servicemen remarkably good in physical and military preparedness, commanded by Vice-Colonel S. Tuaev. Its units were located at seven crossing points between “borders” and (key bridges) and 19 observation points with a permanent location in the Tskhinvali lower military district.

There was also ongoing military reform and the organization of a new military charter. According to some sources, the National Guard’s numbers swelled to 3000 men through the calling up of reservists in South Ossetia. According to data, the Guard had about 10-15 combat tanks (mostly T-55 types + 4 tanks that could be granted by Abkhaz side), 25-30 infantry fighting vehicles (Russian abbreviation БМП-1) and 70 entities of armored transporters, 20 artillery systems and 20-25 “Grad” and “Gvozdika” jet-propelled systems.

The Ministry of Interior Affairs: has around 3000 men enlisted. The basic armed forces is the militia’s special purpose battalion consisting of several companies. The ministry’s subdivisions work in Tskhinvali, Java districts and some rural militia territorial units. The Minister of Interior Affairs is Colonel Robert Guliev.

National Security Service: In 1998-2002, it was headed by Leonid Tibilov. There were about 300 staff workers. A special purpose detachment (Commander Aleksi Chibirov), operational and well-equipped with arms and equipment, was subordinated to the National Security Service. The duty of this detachment is to fight against terrorism and smuggling, thus, in the case of a military crisis, it will assume responsibility for the formation of small (5-10 men) guerrilla groups moving into the enemy’s rear. During the 1991-1992 war, this detachment was responsible for organizing terrorist acts in Tbilisi. Incidentally, in 1999, equipment and arms necessary for the National Security Service was purchased in Moscow. Among other units, there is an active radio-interception subunit, accomplishing radio signal, including cell signal, interception (in the Gori area). Ossetian security officers, based on secret memorandum, closely collaborate with their Abkhazian counterparts. According to some sources, two security representatives held confidential meetings and consultations in Moscow with other separatists. Special attention should be paid to the secret underground Phantom Group (forest group) that was organized in 1994 in North Ossetia with the objective to carry out diversion on strategic objectives (pipelines, arterial roads, etc.) in Georgian and Ingushetian territories. Structure and future objectives are unknown, as is whether it is still active or not at present and whether or not it is somehow related to the South Ossetian “irredentist” government.

Customs: this is smallest body, not exceeding 100 men in total, with small armed groups near the Georgian regions and in the area of the Roki Tunnel which borders the Russian Federation.

The Russian Peacekeepers: the peacekeepers, present in the area since 1994, consist of 557 servicemen, 36 armored cars and vehicles, 9 artillery systems and several pieces of air-strike equipment like the ZU-23 and ZU-23M near Roki Tunnel and 120-mm caliber jet propelled systems. Commander: General-Major Sviatoslav Nabzorov.

It is interesting to note how the law enforcement agencies are funded by the Diaspora in the Russian Federation and from funds received from the smuggling of alcohol and defrauded humanitarian aid. At the same time, there is a well-disguised financial support agency, entitled “Concord”. Officially, the level of funding is low and not sufficient for their real needs. For example, debts resulting from arrears in paying salaries in 1996 were paid by the South Ossetian government only by April 1997. Shortages are also evident in armored forces supply and equipment. However, in times of escalation, the funds will be allocated immediately from local and North Ossetian criminal groupings that are in reality backed by Kokoiti and the government of North Ossetia. To sum it up, the opposite side is experienced and skillful and Georgia’s new authority will envisage such during the making of geo-strategic decisions.

Georgian history has many examples wheere armed men were capable of deal with foe of any kind. However, during its 22 years of existence, the Georgian Armed Forces have experienced three civil wars and one full-fledged war, nothing to say of the several coups and numerous skirmishes. One could say that it is a lot of “experience” for a national Armed Forces so “young” in age. From the other standpoint, however, the Georgian Armed Forces play a very crucial role, from the geostrategic consideration, in keeping a balance of power in the region where two main military coalitions: NATO (on average with up to 2 million combat strength) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (also with an average 2 million combat strength), with the USA and Russia’s domination per se, compete very fiercely to reach hegemony at the regional level.

So, a question is to be posed: whether Georgia, with its current Armed Forces and combat strength of no more than 30,000, is capable of pursuing successful foreign and defense policy missions. The answer is already clear. Additionally, the issue of promoting true missions set for the Georgian Armed Forces are given to uncertainty due to the ever-changing nature of international politics. Instability rims stretching from the North Caucasus to the Middle East and from Central to South-East Asia are indications what the possible military risks and challenges for Georgia’s national security environment are.

Officially, war between Georgia and Russia began on August 7, 2008. Despite Georgia’s unilateral ceasefire earlier in the day, South Ossetian separatist forces, including already mobilized Territorial Defense Units, continued shelling ethnic Georgian villages in and around the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali. In response, the Georgian Armed Forces, to use President’s Mikhail Saakashvili words, “began restoring Constitutional Order” and commenced a heavy military offensive against South Ossetian military units. Only thirty minutes after Georgia began its offensive, Russia came to the aid of the South Ossetian side, moving its 58th Army combat tanks through the Roki Tunnel into Georgian territory. However, that day, the Georgian leadership announced mobilization of the Reserve Forces containing more than 60 battalions and composed on the basis of the “Soviet-type” mobilization standards (with a mere 18-day combat training program run under the aegis of the National Guard Department dispatched to proper military units). By doing so, the Georgian General Staff leadership called up and created up to 50.000 size Army Corps, at first sight a viable military outlet, but in reality, nothing but a mass of civilians with minimal military experience and at the end, proving to be more a hindrance than an advantage. Georgia had 15,000 regular militaries, 5,000 paramilitary servicemen from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and 30,000 reservists, whilst South Ossetian combat forces did not exceed even 6,000, including the Territorial Defense Force militiamen. Certainly, because of this, at the initial stage of combat operations, the Georgian Armed Forces took up a strategic initiative and successfully launched offensive operations from three directions. By midday of August 8, they were even capable of seizing some parts of Tskhinvali and reached the central part of the city. By that time, the real ratio between offensive and defensive forces was 5:1 in favor of the Georgian side and in some strategic geographic areas even 10:1. However, the South Ossetian Territorial Defense Forces led by de-facto Defense Minister of the South Ossetia, Anatoly Barankevichch, managed to create a military trap for the Georgian Armed Forces, neutralizing heavy armaments in urban terrain, mainly heavy combat tanks modernized with Israeli “Elbit Company” T-72-SIM-1 Soviet tanks and Turkish “Kobra” armored vehicles – in order to make a breakthrough for the South Ossetian forces. However, at the same time, the South Ossetian Defense Forces halted the Georgian Armed Forces attrition rate and even at the tactical level were able to take over the initiative in urban warfare in the city.

The South Ossetian Defense Forces managed to regroup their remaining formations and impose over the Georgian Armed Forces so-called “Chechen guerrilla” tactics designed especially for urban terrain. Fire and maneuver, as well as assault by bounds, are prevalent among the more seasoned groups but a normal attack consisted of 15-50 combatants moving in the same direction, firing as they go. Like Chechen guerrillas, the South Ossetian territorial forces attacks involved small groups acting in a somewhat coordinated manner. The attackers relied on the impact of suppressive small arms fire on the enemy as they advanced. By doing so, with the involvement of the Russian military Air Forces which starting bombing Tskhinvali at 2PM on August 8, the South Ossetian Defense Forces both in the center and outskirts of Tskhinvali lined at least seven combat Georgian tanks and three armored vehicles. The same day at 3PM, the Georgian Armed Forces departed from seized positions and left the city.

Thanks to the analysis of the battle for Tskhinvali, we may conclude and identify interesting strategic military novelty and new tactics that could be named as Neo-Urban Warfare: a military operation of a special type conducted with the involvement of local defense territorial units and with the intention of playing attritional warfare on an enemy’s regular army. The Neo-Urban Warfare key characteristics are to be concluded as follows:

• asymmetric type of engagement;

•manoeuvering style of tactical missions;

• regular Armed Forces vs. irregular/Territorial Defense Forces;

• massive causalities among peaceful and civilian population;

• involvement of light armament and priority for special force.

This type of warfare could be regarded as adapted for promoting military strategies of the 21st century.

Vakhtang Maisaia

28 August 2017 16:50