Russo-Georgian War's Anniversary
Thirteen Years Later, Lessons Putin Learned and We Didn't
This month is the thirteenth anniversary of the Russo-Georgian War. Taking advantage of a separatist rebellion, Russia invaded northern Georgia and occupies it today. The war came at a convenient moment for Putin, with an unpopular President in the United States distracted by two other wars, months away from a transitional Presidential race. Weeks later, the world would stop paying attention to Putin and Georgia as Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the Financial Crisis erupted.
The Bush administration had facilitated the admission of the three former Soviet republics in the Baltics to NATO. (In a later post, I will talk about the defenselessness of the Baltics as things stand, which is my favorite soapbox to stand on and lecture people about.) Almost immediately, discussions about inviting two other ones, Ukraine and Georgia, began, which divided members and even the Bush administration, with Condi Rice and Bob Gates against it. Angela Stent writes:
The Bucharest summit was the most contentious and dramatic NATO meeting ever—that is, until Donald Trump came to power—with the German and Polish foreign ministers hurling thinly veiled barbs at each other. As the deadline for the opening plenary neared, President Bush and his advisers tried to hammer out a compromise that would be acceptable to everyone. Angela Merkel finally broke the deadlock when she proposed the following compromise: Georgia and Ukraine would not receive MAPs. But the communiqué would say: “We agree today that Georgia and Ukraine will become members of NATO.”
But what did that sentence really mean? In many ways it was the worst of both worlds. Neither Georgia nor Ukraine were granted the MAP, but Russia could assert that they would eventually join NATO and use this promise as an excuse to undermine both countries. In retrospect, this was an unnecessarily provocative sentence that did little to assuage the security concerns of either Ukraine or Georgia and everything to redouble Russian determination to reassert its domination of the post-Soviet space.”
This came months after Putin’s infamous Munich Security Conference speech, where he condemned alleged American aggressions and pushed back against NATO’s rhetoric that it had no intention of invading Russia, quoting Otto von Bismarck that “intentions don’t matter. Only capabilities do.” But he was slow in doing so. The rebellion was ongoing for months before Putin would act, and we will not know why until the Soviet—I mean Russian archives open. There are two plausible, and not mutually exclusive, explanations. First, Putin might have been waiting to test Western resolve while assessing the opportunity for victory in Georgia—although Putin had ordered military mobilization months in advance. Second, he might have been wary of his capabilities to win in Georgia and was buying time to mobilize adequately. If he were concerned about his power to win in Georgia, what came next confirmed his reservations.
Looking back, the war lasted only two weeks, and it was a cakewalk for Putin. This is a misguided view. The Russians struggled in Georgia. The details of the military operation revealed to the Russians their own military ineffectiveness. From battlefield success to command, control, and communications (C3), Russian forces struggled. Their only reason for success was the Georgian military’s inferiority. The best example of this ineffectiveness was the Russian forces’ reliance on their personal cell phones for communication. Out of the six or seven Russian aircraft that were downed, the Georgian military shot down only two—the others were downed by friendly fire. The Russian forces also lacked precision-guided munitions. Between 60 and 70 percent of their tanks broke down during the operation. Russia’s swift victory was because it had tactical superiority on the battlefield and outspent Georgia by a factor of thirty.
This prompted Putin to rebuild the military. In 2009, Minister of Defense Anatoliy Serdyukov announced his New Look plan to change the posture of the military. The new Russian military eschews the reliance on overwhelming numbers and mass mobilization that formed the core of Russian military doctrine since before World War I, probably in response to Russia’s decline in population relative to its adversaries. Instead, the new doctrine endorses a learner and more combat-efficient force with high combat readiness. The military updated its C3, including upgrading its communication systems, and improved officer training.
Five years later, the Russian military’s effectiveness surprised military analysts as it invaded and annexed a part of Ukraine. While the Russian military encountered surprisingly stout resistance from the Ukrainian military in Donetsk and Luhansk, the seizure of Crimea by the “little green men” required a degree of C3 that far exceeded the capabilities of the Russian army that invaded Georgia.
These reforms have not been limited to Russia’s conventional forces. Especially because of the decline of oil prices and state revenue, Russia has been relying on low-cost strategies. The two most important elements of these strategies have been investments in cyberwarfare—separate from online disinformation campaigns—and nuclear weapons. Russia and the United States have rough parity in high-yield nuclear weapons. Russia, however, has an absolute superiority in low-yield, otherwise known as theater, nuclear weapons1: 1850 against the United States’s 500. In a war against NATO, this disparity gives Putin escalation-dominance—superiority at the next level of escalation of violence beyond any doubt that an adversary views escalation as a losing bet, which makes escalation only the superior party’s decision.
For the first time in centuries, the Russian way of war is no more just throwing people at the problem, in part because Russia doesn’t have as many people anymore in combat age and shape. The new Russian military is investing in its weaponry, as well. Then-U.S. Army Commander in Europe Ben Hodges called Russia’s electronic warfare capabilities “eye-watering” in testimony before Congress, with NATO forces lacking capabilities for offensive and counteroffensive electronic capabilities against Russia. Then the Chief of Staff of the Army, and now the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley said in his Congressional testimony that, in Europe, we are “outranged [and] outgunned”—and outnumbered.
The other addition to Russian doctrine was the introduction of “hybrid warfare,” which is combining conventional, non-conventional, and information warfare together for a simple purpose. In addition to the conventional military renovation and nuclear weapons build-up, cyber- and information-warfare have been especially proven to be useful tools with little financial investments.
So Russia learned all the right lessons from Georgia. The United States and NATO overall did not. Even the invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea failed to convince the Europeans, especially Germany, to impose sanctions on Russia. It was only the downing of the Malaysian airliner destined for Amsterdam and carrying Dutch European Union citizens by Russian-backed rebels using Russian weaponry that finally convinced Chancellor Angela Merkel to move ahead with sanctions.
The Barack Obama administration pursued a “reset” policy with Russia to mend the relationship. The Donald Trump and the Joe Biden administrations have both seen Russia as a distraction away from China. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy only pay lip service to Russia, and the administration’s budgets failed to meet that lip service. The very well-crafter Nuclear Posture Review mentions the Russian numerical nuclear superiority, but no actions has taken place yet to overcome this problem.
The American people seem to be disillusioned about Russia, however. Biden is the first President since Ronald Reagan to take office without any intention to make relations better—in defense of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin was a good-faith actor, but he was handicapped by Soviet institutions behind the scenes that survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, in addition to his incompetence, which capitulated his efforts.
Yet, Biden surrogates said about his summit with Putin that the administration wants “strategic stability” with Russia, which shows that they still lack an understanding of Russia’s objective to promote chaos, which I intend to write about in the future.
I am no fool about China’s threat—speaking of, congratulations to Team USA at the Olympics for kicking China’s butt, although I hear that Arizona Republicans are asking Cyber Ninjas to audit the medal count, and Chairman Xi Jinping just tweeted, “STOP THE STEAL”—but, at least for now, China has not deployed its military for warfighting abroad, while Russian forces have deployed to Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and Libya in recent years. Additionally, China is a long-term headache that needs to be dealt with, but Russian nuclear weapons are the only external existential threat to the United States.
NATO’s mutual defense clause has so far worked as a deterrence against Russia, but the Baltics are, as things stands now, are defenseless without using nuclear weapons. If Putin decides to test his chances there, and NATO fails to respond, it could bring the end of NATO. Among the reasons for NATO’s defenselessness in the Baltics is the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997. NATO promised not to deploy permanent troops and nuclear weapons to the former Warsaw Pact members, and Russia in return promised to respect the territorial integrity of its neighbors. Even though Russia is in violation, making the agreement obsolete, NATO is still abiding by the terms of the agreement.
In short, the lesson Russia learned from Georgia was that its military needed renovation, and that it needed to entirely rewrite its military doctrine. What the United States and Europe learned was to strongly condemn Russia and move on.
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Theater nuclear weapons are usually referred to as tactical nuclear weapons or non-strategic nuclear weapons. Ask yourself this: If a Russian theater nuclear weapon detonates in Manhattan tomorrow, is it a tactical move or an act of war? The size of a weapon does not determine whether it is tactical or strategic. It is the use of it that determines it.