The bluff in the Caucasus

Agency WPS
What the Papers Say. Part B (Russia)
August 16, 2004, Monday


SOURCE: Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, No. 30, August 2004, p. 3

by Alexander Khramchikhin, chief analyst at the Political and
Military Analysis Institute

The sudden escalation of the war of nerves first around South Ossetia
and then Abkhazia leaves the impression that a full-scale war (or
rather, wars) could be possible between Georgia and these
unrecognized republics in the near future. Under the circumstances,
it is necessary to asses the military resources of both sides.

Like the national armies of other CIS countries, the Armed Forces of
Georgia are part of the remnants of the Soviet Armed Forces. Ukraine
and Belarus, for example, took possession of whatever was on their
territory at the moment that the USSR disintegrated (numerous and
well-equipped second-echelon troops), but Georgia found itself with
only a part of the much weaker Caucasus Military District. It didn’t
even inherit everything stationed or located on its territory: only
what Russia agreed to part with. It should likewise be admitted that
that skills of Georgian officers and soldiers cannot match those of
Slavs, or the nearby Armenians, for example.

The weakness of the Georgian military was one of the major reasons
for its defeat in the wars with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the
early 1990s. At the same time (the second important reason), these
rebel republics had help. On the one hand, they were assisted by
Russia’s federal government; on the other, by the Russian regions in
the Caucasus – above all, by the then-independent Chechnya. In fact,
in the Georgian-Abkhazian war Russia managed to help both sides at
once. In any case, Georgia lost both wars and found itself deprived
of a great deal of military hardware – most of it seized by the
Abkhazians and South Ossetians as trophies of war.

These days, the Georgian Ground Forces number almost 25,000 men, or
six brigades and two battalions. One of these battalions has been
trained by American instructors according to American curricula. They
have 80 tanks, but only thirty T-72 tanks may be regarded as more or
less modern (the rest are hopelessly outdated T-55s). There are also
80 battle infantry vehicles, 110 armored personnel carriers, over 100
artillery pieces, 18 BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers, and about
200 portable SAM launchers.

The Georgian Air Force includes five to ten SU-25 ground-strafers
(seven more were shot down in the war with Abkhazia). In theory, all
these aircraft were assembled in Tbilisi, but the factory there
depended entirely on spare parts and components sent from Russia.
Israel equipped one of the ground-strafers with its own avionics.
This aircraft was named the Scorpio. Georgia takes a great deal pride
in it.

As for the Georgian Navy, it has up to 20 vessels – made in the
Soviet Union, America, Germany, Romania, Greece, and Turkey.

Information about the armed forces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is
much sparser. Most of their military hardware was seized from the
Georgians 10 or 12 years ago. It is reasonable to assume that some
light weapons (perhaps plenty of them – including anti-tank and air
defense weapons) were received from Russia after the wars. According
to some estimates, Abkhazia has up to 50 tanks, 80 battle infantry
vehicles and armored personnel carriers, and 80 artillery pieces.
There may even be some MI-8 helicopters (in fact, the Abkhazians even
used gliders in the war), and there is one SU-25 fighter. The
Abkhazian Navy is mostly made up of converted civilian barges and
boats. The South Ossetian “military” is even weaker.

On paper, the Georgian Armed Forces are stronger than the forces of
both unrecognized republics combined – but not by much. In fact,
however, this is a textbook case of a strategic stand-off: neither
side can hope to win a war of conquest, but can and will succeed in
defending itself. It is likewise clear that neither the Abkhazians
nor the South Ossetians need to mount a war of conquest.

Just like in the first wars, the psychological advantage (should a
new war take place) will be on the side of Abkhazians and South
Ossetians. Their eagerness to defend their ancestral lands is much
stronger than the Georgians’ desire to restore territorial integrity.
Terrain will also play into the hands of the Abkhazians and South
Ossetians – defense in the mountains and cities is much easier than
offensive action. If the Georgian troops overrun some part of the
territory of an unrecognized republic, they will encounter guerrilla
resistance – much worse than what the Russian military is
encountering in Chechnya. Moreover, personnel and weapons would start
entering Abkhazia and South Ossetia unchecked from Russia. Abkhazian
and South Ossetian detachments will be able to retreat to the
territory of Russia to rest and regroup. Moreover, Abkhazian and
South Ossetian forces may use the territory of Russia for
maneuvering, where they will be completely safe from the Georgian
regular army.

Even Georgia’s advantage in aerial and naval warfare won’t help. The
Georgian Air Force is too small to have any substantial effect on the
situation, particularly since their opponents undoubtedly have
portable SAM launchers. The Georgian Navy could lay siege to the
Abkhazian coast, but the rebel republic would have its supply lines
on land. The Georgian Navy cannot be relied upon to mount any
substantial frontal operation.

There is no point in even discussing the idea that America might
enter the war on Georgia’s side. The United States has never been
prepared to fight for anyone else’s interests at the cost of a direct
confrontation with Russia. Now that it is helplessly losing the
campaign in Iraq, this option is clearly out of the question.

President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia understands all this. He
doesn’t intend to go to war either. He has been bluffing since the
very first day of his presidency. It’s hard to blame Saakashvili for
doing so, since it’s really his only option.

Saakashvili inherited a country in such a pitiful condition that he
could either finish stealing whatever hadn’t already been stolen, or
take advantage of the enthusiasm of the public and his own mandate.
Being an honorable man, the president of Georgia chose the latter
option. He scored a brilliant victory in Adzharia, which he literally
bluffed into submission. So Saakashvili decided to build on his
success, but… The problem is that Adzharia never fought Georgia or
declared its independence from Tbilisi. Abkhazia and South Ossetia
did do so – and became sovereign states, de facto. That is why taking
them back by bluff alone will be much more difficult than it was to
take Adzharia. Actually, it is only possible if the restive republics
are crushed economically and Russia is outmaneuvered and outbluffed.

It isn’t hard to see that Abkhazian and South Ossetian sovereignty
are entirely based on Russia. If stripped of Moscow’s support, their
regimes would collapse instantly – just like Aslan Abashidze’s regime
in Adzharia. As for Russia itself, it is in an extremely sensitive
position. It is difficult to support separatists elsewhere while
fighting them on one’s own territory (in the same general region).
Doing so while formally recognizing Georgia’s territorial integrity
is even more difficult. Neither is the task made any easier by the
fact that Russia doesn’t really know what it wants, while Saakashvili
knows exactly what he is after.

Needless to say, Russia would prefer to maintain the status quo – but
that’s impossible. Moreover, the existence of Abkhazia and South
Ossetia as unrecognized states may benefit their local elites, but it
doesn’t benefit their citizens. South Ossetia, and particularly
Abkhazia, are “dirt-poor millionaires” that have considerable mineral
resources but are forced to survive by smuggling because of their
uncertain status. This state of affairs cannot satisfy the
impoverished population. The elites have enough – that much is clear;
and they cannot go back. The point of no return was passed long ago
as far as they are concerned. As for the people, they close ranks
around the elites merely because they fear another war.

Russia probably could have absorbed Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the
early 1990s. Owing his presidency entirely to Russia, Eduard
Shevardnadze was too weak to put up a fight then, and post-Soviet
territory (the Baltic states and probably Ukraine being the only
exceptions) was as much Russia’s back yard then as Latin America was
and remains Washington’s back yard. Unfortunately, at the time Russia
was content to annex the Georgian autonomies de facto, and the legal
status of the matter was ignored. (Boris Yeltsin was notoriously
incapable of taking advantage of the fruits of his own victories.)
The situation is different now. Tbilisi will never consider the idea
of giving up Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while any unilateral action
by Moscow aimed at absorbing them would be viewed negatively by the

If the authorities are off limits from the legal point of view, why
maintain the status quo? Russia’s positions are much weaker than
Georgia’s, and it is bound to continue backing off in the face of
Saakashvili’s bluffing, supported by Washington. If the autonomies
find themselves under an economic siege (and this would further
exacerbate the already-bad economic situation there), they may find
themselves in trouble. Without a war as such to fight, the people
will inevitably turn their wrath against their rulers sooner or
later. It is with economic isolation in mind that Saakashvili is
declaring Abkhazia a war zone and promising to open fire on tourist
vessels. The Georgians will not actually do it. They only want to
ruin tourism, the foundation of Abkhazia’s economy.

On the other hand, Saakashvili is treading on thin ice. He could
miscalculate at any moment and find himself with a war on his hands –
and a war would only benefit the authorities of the rebel autonomies.
Their people would rally around the separatist regimes, and Georgia
doesn’t stand a chance in an all-out war. It will be either defeated
or find itself fighting a guerrilla war. Either option would mean a
debacle for Saakashvili – but not, unfortunately, a victory for
Russia. Russia would only get another war in the Caucasus, even worse
and more hopeless than the war in Chechnya.

Translated by A. Ignatkin