Five Reasons Why Georgia Lost The August War


Since the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008, much has been debated, rehashed, and argued about the circumstances and events before and during the war. But one item that seems to be almost universally agreed upon by all parties is that the Georgian military performed poorly. It’s hard to argue with this assessment, to be sure, given the obvious military outcome of the short conflict: Georgia lost. Sure, there have been a few contrarian pieces sprinkled around the media qualifying that Georgia ‘actually won the war’ because of the ubiquity of a Georgian-leaning version of events, or because Georgia is more democratic, etc. But even they are quick to point out that the Georgian military was hardly a match for the Russia’s much larger and comparatively better-equipped forces. That seemed to be the end of it.

But a recently-released cables via Wikileaks has brought the issue back into focus again. The cables in question cite sources that cast serious doubt on the ability of the sprawling, but famously creaky, Russian conventional military as being of little threat to NATO.

According to an AP article, “Russian armed forces were able to respond only to a small to mid-sized local conflict in its western regions.”

The “assessment followed two large maneuvers in Russia’s western regions. They were carried out to test the Russian military after its lightning 2008 victory over Georgia.”

Inevitably, some commentators have used this news as a measuring stick to extrapolate the fighting prowess of the Georgian military. In a post in the prestigious defense blog Ares, Christina Mackenize hooks a low blow by suggesting that the US-trained Georgian military is even worse.

“The NATO report cited in the U.S. cable could have been an exercise to reassure allies in eastern Europe who had expressed extreme concern over the Russian army’s lightning response to a surprise attack by Georgian forces on the breakaway province of South Ossetia,” said Mackenzie. “Georgia’s U.S.-trained army was demolished within a week after it tried to invade. But if Russia’s military is as obsolete as claimed, what does this say about the quality of the training provided by the U.S. to Georgian troops?”

Setting aside the obvious problems with this inference (even had the Georgian military been composed entirely of ex-SAS and US Navy SEALs, it still would not have been likely to beat the much larger Russian military), it’s worth putting the common assumption that Georgia losing the war means that Georgian troops were badly trained in context.

So, in true web 2.0 fashion, EVOLUTSIA.NET presents: 5 reasons why Georgia lost the August war (in no particular order).
#1. Size

Russia’s military, like the country, simply dwarfs Georgia’s.

Did you know that Georgia’s military is smaller than Russia’s?

Although this point may seem stunningly obvious, it is surprising just how rarely this fact is cited when considering the performance of the Georgian military against Russia. For example, the concentration of forces in the North Caucasus military district alone is over 100,000 troops, including hundreds of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery pieces. And this does not even include Russian force multipliers like air power and lift/logistics.

For comparison, Georgia’s entire military numbers only approximately 35,000 soldiers and fewer than 130 tanks, a number that includes personnel performing rear-echelon duties like intelligence, maintenance, and administration.

While 35,000 soldiers was and is almost certainly enough to overcome South Ossetia’s minuscule native defense forces, no one should be surprised that Georgia’s formations were quickly overrun by the larger and better equipped Russian military.

#2. Doctrine & Training

Russian military doctrine emphasizes combined arms; Georgia, not so much.

During the First and Second Chechen Wars, the Russian military exhibited a nearly complete inability, bordering on unwillingness, to prosecute their wars against Chechen rebels using the kind of counter-insurgency (COIN) tactics that have become synonymous with US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, Russian forces launched Soviet-style ground assaults and devastating air attacks to fight the separatist rebels. Notably, it failed in the first war and only succeeded in the second war after much of Chechnya, military and civilian centers alike, was laid to ruin.

Conventional assaults against North Caucasus rebels holed-up in craggy mountain passes and urban jungles proved costly, but against the relatively well-organized, large-formation Georgian military in the relatively open country north of Gori, it was brutally effective.

Somewhat ironically, the Georgian military in 2008 was probably a far better exemplar of urban COIN training than the Russian’s. By the late 1990s, the Georgian military was little more than a collection of uniformed militias operating with titular, and sometimes competing, authority in different parts of the country. To support modrnization efforts, in 2002, the US began training the Georgian military under the Georgia Train and Equip Program (GTEP). GTEP was a $64 million, 18-month program to train limited numbers of Georgian troops in basic techniques. Interestingly, part of the major impetus for the program was Tbilisi’s limited control over the Pankisi Gorge area, which was inhabited by ethnic Chechens and said to be harboring rebel Chechen fighters in refugee camps. Vladimir Putin, for his part, threw support behind GTEP. GTEP was also the first step in moving Georgia towards NATO military standards.

GTEP’s successor, instituted after the Rose Revolution, was the Georgia Sustainment and Stability Operations Program (SSOP), which was meant to build upon GTEP to train Georgian forces in COIN and peacekeeping tactics for their deployments to Iraq. These and similar trainings — entirely in stability operations — were conducted right up to the 2008 war. Most recently, Georgian troops have been trained for deployments to Afghanistan. While the training and combat experienced gained by the Afghanistan deployment is more rigorous than for Georgia’s much more limited role in Iraq, Georgian troops are still not being trained for territorial defense or pure combined arms operations.

COIN training may have been enough to overwhelm South Ossetian militias, but it did very little, if anything, to prepare Georgian troops for a Fulda Gap-lite scenario with Russia. This is why citations of ’US training’ to Georgian troops have limited relevance in the context of the August war; in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the performance of Georgian troops have been rated quite highly.

#3. Georgia’s Elite

Georgia’s best trained troops were deployed to Iraq.

Speaking of Iraq, it’s worth remembering that the bulk of Georgia’s best-trained, equipped, and most experienced troops weren’t even in Georgia during the war. Georgia had 2,000 soldiers deployed in Iraq, and they didn’t even have a chance to fire a shot in the conflict. By the time all these forces were withdrawn to Georgia, the war had ended. Had they been involved in the conflict, however, one does wonder if it might have altered the outcome somehow (although perhaps not). But what is sure is that the world would have had a much better chance to assess how the ‘US-trained’ Georgian troops measured against the Russians.

The absence of Georgia’s best troops has also been cited as being one of the clearest signs that Tbilisi did not have a premeditated intention to get into a war, and certainly not one with the Russian military. It stands to reason that if that had been Georgia’s aim, it would have much preferred to have their combat-tested, well-trained battalions in Georgia instead of watching their country get trampled from TV screens in Mesopotamia.

#4. Force multipliers

Russia used a number force multipliers to great effect. Georgia had virtually none.

A force multiplier is exactly what it sounds like: something that can act to ‘multiply’ the effectiveness of combat operations. For example, say army A is fighting army B, and both have equal numbers and training. But if army A had an observation balloon, and army B did not, army A has a decisive advantage in the manner that it can conduct its operations. They might observe that army B is exposed on the left flank, and send troops to exploit that weakness. Surprised, army B falls into disarray. Clearly, the observation balloon acted as a force multiplier in this case.

Russia had such advantages versus Georgia, not including its superior size, suitable training, and preparedness for combat. One such force multiplier that Russia enjoyed was complete and near-uncontested control over Georgian airspace. Sure, the Georgian air defense network scored some surprising hits, but Russian air superiority was never in doubt. This allowed Russian rotary and fixed-wing assets to collect information, attack Georgian positions and targets, and psychologically subjugate the Georgian population.

Other force multipliers? Information & satellite surveillance; lift and logistics; and large naval flotilla on the Black Sea (which opened a second front), to name a few.

#5. Command and control

Command and control problems plagued Georgia’s ability to react to rapidly changing conditions.

“I have heard (read) that there was little resistance after the first couple hours of combat between the Georgians and the Russian advance guard at the southern front line,” noted a commenter on the forum of the Small Wars Journal in the early period of the August 2008 war.

“It sounded a lot as if the Georgians were withdrawing even without proper delaying actions – Russian [reconnaissance] units were able to ‘take & occupy’ objectives. Gori, for example, was apparently evacuated when the Russians arrived. There was apparently no numerical or equipment superiority to speak of at the front lines.”

Many observers agree that even if Georgia did premeditate the August 2008 war (and that is a big if), it was not counting on Russian involvement, and certainly not Russian involvement at the speed, pace, or extent (e.g. expanding the war of the conflict zones) that occurred. And whether or not Georgia planned for it, it was clear that those who were responsible for strategic and tactical-level planning were not up to the job. Once Russian forces intervened, Georgian resistance collapsed, and spectacularly so.

On the command level, Georgian forces did not adapt to the quickly-changing circumstances and inevitably were dispersed. Even the calling up of reserve forces, meant to be the country’s insurance plan for territorial defense, was a total failure and brought together too few soldiers with too little equipment and nothing in the way of a plan or organizational readiness. Unsurprisingly, the old reserve system was unceremoniously scrapped and totally rebooted after the war.

Problems seemingly existed on every level of the military hierarchy — from ministerial level all the way down to unit leadership. And plans for maintaining territorial defense, the supposed raison d’etre of every national military force, were either not in place or horribly executed. Had Georgian troops forced Russia’s troops into a series of high-casualty impasses, one can’t help but wonder if the terms ending the war might have been better for Georgia.

Michael Cecire

Michael Hikari Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions.

20 thoughts on “Five Reasons Why Georgia Lost The August War

  • February 18, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Just assessment, nothing to add. Will be nice if authorities draw right conclusions. There are signs that they are. Let’s see…

    • February 22, 2011 at 5:32 am

      Will be nice if authorities draw conclusions from this article.
      Actually, Why do we need somebody to draw conclusions, when we can simply appoint the author to the position… let’s say… of Defence Minister. He is genius. He will find 5 reasons for any failure, and we’re going to have lots of them.

      Even more! Why defence minister? PRESIDENT! That’s the right position for him.He is definitely smarter than our current president, and instead of waiting when mishiko DRAWS right conclusion, we will have a president who ALREADY has them.

  • February 18, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    if NATO is so sure of Russia’s armed forces being so poorly prepared they can try and attack … Germans thought so too in 1941 and guess what happened. so did Napoleon.

    and as for the drills cited in NATO report.. that’s what the drills are for – to uncover all the negatives and turn them into positives. not to mention no NATO observers were present and usually the only way to judge on massive drills performance is through ARR debrief at the end. so it’s not at all clear how NATO analysts came to the the conclusions they did…

    and Georgia – Russians like you but try futzing with us again and we will have Sakashvili hanged on the main Tbilisi square next time. farewell

  • February 18, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    that was a great article. worth the read.

  • February 19, 2011 at 2:11 am

    The Georgian Elite Forces were left in Iraq for the same reason that United Kingdom has
    a handfull of nukes.”TO DRAG THE US INTO THEIR WAR” It did not work.

    • February 27, 2011 at 2:05 pm

      Where do yuo get this crazy ideas from? Georgia had it’s soldiers BECAUSE US HAS ASKED GEORGIA TO SEND THOSE SOLDIERS THERE and not the other way.

      • March 7, 2011 at 4:46 pm

        If One decides to go to war with a former (and now again) military super power by ordering a slaughter of Russian Peacekeepers as Mr. Saakashvili has done, one must have a total disregard for Geopolitical history (. Adolf Hitler ,Napoleon ,). Or one has an alterior motive in starting his war without his best and brightest at home (Special Forces), I believe the 2nd scenerio if more likely.

  • February 20, 2011 at 11:37 am

    What about Ossetians?Real people in real life.they are not’s different nation.they don’t want to live along with georgians.Why society don’t talk about them.their life,their hopes and dreams.they are alive too.they are happy now.there’s peace in their country.nobody shoot and kill them,like there was recent 20 years of Georgian “democracy”
    sorry for my english

    • February 27, 2011 at 2:15 pm

      Because it is NOT about “Ossetians”. Names?

      “South Ossetia” was CREATED artificially AFTER this->

      in 1921

      and after 1924

      Now LOOK at the MAP:

      The white thing in the north is a GEOGRAPHICAL BORDER between Russia and Georgia.

      Russians built a tunnel in 1980s called “Roki Tunnel” between those mountains (North South)

      and in 1994 they just came marching in with an army and took few cities and villages killing population. They still tried to play “peacekeeprs” role and well, georgia did not have any choice. but in 2008 Georgia was not the same as in 1993-1994. It was reforming, marching towars NATO, so Russia decided to block Georgia and used Kosovo recognition as a false example and looked for a pretext for invasion. It was not very hard to find one, given everybody knew it was going to invade and nobody did anything to stop it.

  • February 20, 2011 at 11:43 am

    A very primitive article. The author did not know the history of the region and national problems inside Georgia. Speaking about bad russian army he doeas not know it’s potential.
    Georgian government all paid by the USA and propaganda had tried to show that Russia was an agressor, but now all ( who wants ) know the truth about that conflict behind which was Washington D.C.

  • February 22, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    Alex, You must be kidding. Where are Ossetians? there are about 15 000 people left because of Russia. Ossetians always have been living with Georgians without problems in the places where there was not Russians hands, and they do so in other places in Georgia. Stop being stupid, Russia uses you against us. If it was really concerned, it would start from North Ossetia, granting it Independence first.

  • February 22, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    Let’s take in to consideration only reason number one: Russia’s military, like the country, simply dwarfs Georgia’s
    Don’t pick a fight if you can’t win it. Georgia is not Israel nor is Russia Egypt. Saakashvili should have known better. It is simple mathematics.

    It does not matter if Russian military is weak. They do the job fine in the local conflicts in the near Russian neighborhood.
    Russia has a stock of nuclear weapons that insure its suverenity and territorial integrity even against any superior army. They days Russia use same military doctrine that NATO used during the cold war against Soviet Union. That is a nuclear deterrence.
    Even during the First chechen war when Russia indiscriminately bombed Grozny and committed atrocities and was at the weakest period militarily in their recent history, NATO kept quiet and could not use Kosovo bombing analogy because of the Russian stock of nuclear weapons.

    • February 27, 2011 at 2:21 pm

      So, you suggest what? When Russian army crosses Georgian INTERNATIONAL border raising everything to the ground… What should have Saakashvili done?! What? Just not fight Russian army, because they are more? This is EXACTLY why Hitler took over WHOLE Europe without nearly a single big battle.

  • February 25, 2011 at 8:01 am

    5 reasons are described. In this case why Georgian troops attacked and kill Russian pease-keepers? What they waiting for?

  • February 27, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    I’m listing only the parts which took part in the military operations.

    58th army – 70.000 men

    Vostok – 40.000 – Chechen’s

    Zapad – 40.000 (Yamadaev) – Chechen’s

    Kokoity’s bandits – 500 (just a gang of thugs with guns)

    5000 – FSB

    1500 – GRU

    7000 – VDV

    Black sea fleet – 7.000

    Air force of Russia (200 old planes and helicopters still capable of flying. Around 17 were shot down incl. strategic bomber)

    800 – Tanks (From the military base near Vladikavkaz)


    120 Georgian tanks

    9000 – Georgian soldiers (Rangers, “Shavnabada” battalion; 4th brigade…)

    3000 – Armed police units (Special forces)

    150 – Coast guards

    70 – pilots


    In Iraq were Georgia’s 2000 elite troops.

    800 more in Afghanistan

    200 more in Kosovo.

    • February 28, 2011 at 12:22 am

      You’re sadly mistaken. It’s all so implausible that I don’t even know if you’re even being serious or just trying to deliberately misinform but it isn’t helping your point when all the readily accessible information says otherwise.

      Our own Department of Defense estimates the total amount of Russian soldiers inside Georgia Ossetia and Abkhasia during the war only numbered around 30 thousand, roughly the same size as the Georgian regulars available.
      The 78th is several divisions smaller than what you said with only part of it commited to the operational theater, Vostock and Zapad were battalion sized groups (~600) and the FSB were not involved in combat, only around a hundred tanks were committed. I supose if you’d count the divisional sized formations Abkhazia committed it’d be somewhat higher.
      Oh and I’d hate to break it to you, but the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center Combat Studies Institute believes that only around 6 aircraft were downed, that’s a fairly light toll and less than what we lost during Kosovo. Oh and that “Strategic bomber” (Su-24) you’re thinking about is actually a strike fighter analogous to the F-111. The aircraft they had there were relatively modern despite belonging to second line Russian units(Versus what would be found in the Moscow and Baltic theaters) and roughly analogous to what you’d find in the Air National Guard.

      In short, Russia according to U.S sources did not deploy a substantially larger amount of forces into Georgia-Ossetia, the 58th and 4th were second line units serving a role similar to what the National Guard has in Puerto Rico post 2010 and they still preformed well in a difficult to coordinate offensive. Georgia had 5 brigades in Ossetia, that’s relative parity… at least on paper. Even the 1st brigade after being airlifted into the theater was unable to do anything to impeed the fall of Gori and other strategicaly critical bases.
      There is absolutely no point in pretending that the war was a Thermopylae, no one apart from the most die hard partisans consider that plausible. It’s much closer to several National Guard divisions with the help of an Air National Guard wing defeating and dispersing a large portion of Mexico’s army and then overrunning large parts of it’s north.

  • February 27, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    That I have read that to me it was not pleasant, why because it is valid, reasonings for a theme of the Russian-Georgian five-day war prejudicedly from the West (EU-USA). It without looking at all at a cold estimation, on exclusive dry calculation of all event described by article. Someone made comments on all it as protection of the primordial territories by Georgia. But truth that you don’t know history, drip in depth of centuries, no, at least on hundred years ago. And all becomes clear, who is right, who is guilty. Also it is not necessary to accuse Russia, speaking that she the black cardinal of all events on caucasus between Georgians and Ossetins. It is necessary because to ask the dissatisfied party, only she knows from whom to her it was necessary to escape, and who protected her. And Georgia many years doesn’t carry with governors, what not the manager – the nationalist, what not the president – the fascist (Gamsahurdija, Mishiko). All cards are opened, it is necessary to learn only to see truth eyes of the child. Without predilections and another, closing the review. Edward

  • February 27, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    In the article of so many untruth, that evening will not be sufficient everything to refute in the war from Russia it participated 15000 people. From Georgia 17000. Georgian in the kinetic energy does not be necessary to speak about the superiority. Pravda in the Russians was essential superiority in the aviation, then in Georgian there was the air defense system, which it was necessary to suppress. It does not be necessary to speak about some decisive superiority. The author itself says that the elite troops would not help Georgians. With which I am agreeable. But here if Georgians intended to attack in Osetia it would be exactly to to nothing force situation, deriving soldiers from Iraq and giving signal To [osetinam], and so the author clearly forgot about the numerous mercenaries, who warred on the side Georgian. In Spain the unemployment is more than 20%, competition for is working the place as in the flock of hungry dogs for the piece of meat. And with this competition the place of reporter- analyst occupied [oligofren]. This it forces to think about the overall level of the intellect of Spaniards. I do not argue, people they dears, but in order not to be to dears intellect necessary. You will excuse, simply it tired to read in the Western press the frank of beds

  • July 9, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    Russia has 15000solders 150 tanks 70war planes and hellicorters.georgia used 17000 solders and much more reservist . Russia lose 1700 solders and 6war planes. 4 su25 1 tu22 and hellicorter . Georgia lose about 4000 solders and left all weapon to save own life . That all i know about 8august . Dude talks about 100000 solders? What the hell? Maybe all 1200000 solders and 4500 jets ? Sounds much better .


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