Monday, August 12, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Estonian Leader Draws Ten Lessons from the 2008 Russian-Georgian War

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 12 – Mart Laar, a former Estonian prime minister and defense minister, draws ten lessons from the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war, lessons that are applicable to other countries living next to the Russian Federation of today and important for all those in the West who would like to see those countries survive and prosper.
            In an article published in Tallinn’s “Postimees” on Friday, Laar, who advised Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in the past, notes that while many aspects of the conflict that remain unclear, Estonians and by implication others nonetheless can draw some important lessons from the events of five years ago.  He offers ten such lessons.

                The first lesson, Laar says, is that it is better to face “the bitter truth” rather than continue to harbor “fancy illusions.”  Moscow had been “preparing for the war for years knowing exactly what it wanted. Georgia didn’t.” Worse, it allowed itself “to be dawn into the conflict at the most unfavorable time” – its best brigade was in Iraq, its defense minister was on holiday, and part of its army was being re-equipped.

            Related to this, the Georgian military was “living a life of illusion.” It had not made “serious preparations for the defense of the country.” Tbilisi did not believe that Russia would go beyond what it had done in the early 1990s. And consequently, the Estonian leader says, the invasion came as “a total shock and surprise” for the Georgians, “predestining them to defeat.”

            The second lesson is that headquarters work and advanced planning “determine the course” of any conflict.  Russia had prepared everything down to the last detail. “Georgian forces were to be forced into launching an attack in South Osetia; then they were to be surrounded and crushed. After that,” Moscow calculated, “it would be easy to attack” the rest of the now “defenseless Georgia.”

            Georgian plans “in contrast were very hazy.” The country’s military planners assumed they could move around Tskhinvalia and race to the Gupta Bridge and Roki Tunnel and thus block any Russian advance. They never made there and “that determined the outcome of the war.”

            The third lesson, Laar suggests, is that “intelligence equals sight.” In the Russian-Georgian war, both sides assumed they had enough. But “Russian intelligence lacked precise information on Georgia and thus severely underestimated Georgia’s ability to resist.” And Georgian intelligence, while it had lots of information on data, did not put it together in a useful way.  That reflected both their willingness to rely on “technical NATO surveillance” which “sadly missed the massing of Russian troops” at the Georgian border and their presumptuous belief that “Russia will not attack its neighbors.”

            The fourth lesson is that “psychological defense matters.” Russia launched a massive media campaign before the conflict to “present to the world a view of Georgia as a small, aggressive and unpredictable country led by crazy and morally corrupt bastards.”  That isolated Georgia from her allies and made Tbilisi’s warnings “sound unreliable.”  Ultimately, Russia lost the information war during the fighting, but its advance work set the stage for Moscow’s broader victory.

            The fifth lesson Laar draws is that “today’s wars are by nature total.” That is, they involve cyber-attacks as well as other non-traditional means.

            The sixth lesson is that decent medical services really do save lives.  Many of the 1200 Georgian soldiers wounded in the conflict would have died had such services not been in place. Because such services were, only three percent of them died of their wounds.

            The seventh lesson is that “controlling air space is vital.”  Georgia had and has a tiny air force and it participated in only one mission during the war. Had it tried to do more, it would have been destroyed.  Georgian anti-aircraft forces were quickly suppressed, and after their radar sites were destroyed, Georgian commanders were forced to operate “in the dark.”

            Mobile units proved “more efficient,” but there were too few of them, even though “the Russian air force proved incapable of making use of its absolute superiority in the skies.” Coordination between Russian air and ground forces was “extremely poor,” and consequently, Russian planes shot down other Russian planes. Indeed, half of Russia’s air losses were from friendly fire.

            The eighth lesson Laar offers is that tanks and cannon still matter. Georgian tanks “helped stop the Russian offensive” in the first hours of the conflict and played “a decisive role” in destroying the 58th Army column on August 9th.  And Russian sources have praised the work of the Gori artillery brigade in slowing the Russian advance toward Tskhinvali.

            The ninth lesson is that fewer but better equipped and trained units are far more effective than more but really “paper” ones.  Those Georgian units without decent communications or transport simply did not make any contribution to the battle, however attractive they appeared on paper.

            And the tenth lesson, one more for Estonia than for Georgia, is to “trust in NATO but keep your powder dry.” As important as alliances are, in the end, nations “can count only on themselves.” The Georgians hoped for and even expected outside help, but had they not fought on their own, Laar says, the Georgian state would have been wiped off the map and a new government installed.” Only “the Georgians themselves saved the Georgian state.”

            Laar’s article is offered in the first instance as a set of recommendations for Estonia, but the lessons of the Russian-Georgian war have broader applicability, not only for other neighbors of the Russian Federation but also for countries further afield who deal with them.  And unless these lessons are both learned and remedies applied, the future could be very bleak indeed.

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