Russia's Five-Day War: The Invasion of Georgia, August 2008
It is difficult to write a comprehensive history of even a five-day war in just 64 pages, but Mr. Galeotti has done an admirable job of providing a pretty good synopsis of what some have called the first "hybrid war", where the more conventional military forces on land, sea and in the air were augmented by armed proxies, cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns, and terrorist attacks. When Russian forces invaded Georgia on August 8, 2008, there was no doubt of the outcome; however, the Western trained Georgian forces, despite being smaller and still using mostly older Soviet produced weapons, put up a tough fight that revealed Russian weaknesses and incompetence, and reportedly led to changes in Russian military doctrine, strategy and tactics. Undoubtedly, someone somewhere, perhaps Mr. Galeotti, is writing a companion volume about Russia's current war in Ukraine, which has followed some of the same strategies as the war against Georgia.
Author: Mark Galeotti
Illustrator: Johnny Shumate
Photos: 53 color
Color Plates: Eight pages of the different combatants, none of vehicles
- Reforming the Georgian Army
- Russian & Allied Forces
- The Strategy of tension
- The War: Day One, August 8
- Day Two, August 9
- Days Three to Five, August 10-12, The South Ossetian Front
- The Abkhaz Front
- The War in the Air
- The War at Sea
- Further Reading
The first chapter delivers a concise history of what led up to the war, specifically Russia stirring up ethnic divisions between the Georgian government and the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where conflict had been going on since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.
The next chapter, Reforming the Georgian Army, discusses then-President Saakashvili's efforts to bring Georgia into NATO, followed by his successor, Shevardnadze who sent ever-increasing numbers of troops to Iraq, and then Afghanistan. Trainers from the US Special Forces, US Marines, and British Army worked with Georgian units while the military began the process of replacing Soviet weapon systems with more modern Western weapons. Not only were the troops and their equipment being changed, so was doctrine, which led to some problems during the war.
The Russian & Allied Forces chapter describes Russia's main maneuver units, as well as the Abkhazian and South Ossetian orders of battle.
The Strategy of Tension provides background on efforts, starting in 2004, by the government to station police and Interior Ministry special forces units in ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia, which led to skirmishes between the two sides. Over the next few years, the tension did indeed build until the Georgian president miscalculated the amount of support he would receive from NATO, and pushed Russia too hard.
The war began after several days of cross-border incidents by South Ossetian irregulars attacking Georgian civilians and government forces, in addition to artillery strikes and sniping. Finally, Saakashvili gave to order to launch Operation "Clear Field" - Moscow had got its war. This chapter on the War's First Day describes the Georgian plan; Initial Bombardment; Confusion in Moscow; the Advance on Tskhinvali; Street Fighting; the Turning Point; the Russian Ground Advance.
Day Two, August 9 covers Moscow Strikes Back, and does a good job of describing the artillery, surface-to-surface missile, armor, air, and infantry attacks.
Days Three to Five, August 10-12, the South Ossetian Front, describes the Continuing Russian Advance; Georgian Failures of Command; and Ceasefire. The next topic, The Abkhaz Front, covers the fighting in the Kodori Gorge.
The War in the Air briefly describes the uneven match between the overwhelming Russian Air Force and the Georgians. Although the Georgian's had a squadron of SU-25 ground-attack jets, they were grounded a few hours after the war began because of the Russian interceptors and robust anti-aircraft weapon systems present on the battlefield. At least three Russian SU-25, two SU-24M bombers, and one TU-22M3 bomber were lost, all but one SU-24M and the TU-22M3 were victims of "friendly fire".
The War at Sea was also a very lopsided affair, with most of Georgia's small navy destroyed, most sitting at anchor. There is a photo of the Moskva returning to its Crimean port after a brief appearance along the Georgian coast. As is well known, the Moskva would be sunk by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles on April 13, 2022.
The Analysis chapter provides a good Summary as demonstrated in the final sentence: "In hard fact, neither side in the Five-Day War especially covered themselves with glory." The section on Georgia does a very good job of explaining how Soviet attitudes were affecting the attempts to reform the military to Western standards, lauding the junior NCOs and soldiers and laying the blame for failures on commanders who had failed to adopt a new way of fighting. The following section, on Russia, explains that although the outcome was a clear political victory, it also revealed serious military flaws, again due to the same Soviet way of thinking and active resistance by those in command to make the changes in doctrine and strategy that had been talked about for years.
In Aftermath, Russian Gains are described as the move by then-President Medvedev to recognize Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's independence from Georgia. Once done, that meant that one-fifth of Georgia's territory was acquired by Russia as "military protectorates". Another outcome was President Saakashvili's party losing its parliamentary majority in 2012 and Saakashvili losing the presidency in 2013. His replacement, Ivanishvili, adopted a more conciliatory stance towards Russia, but also continued to strive for eventual NATO membership. Georgia also provided over 20,000 soldiers to serve in Afghanistan between 2009-2021.
I'll close this review with Mr. Galeotti's final paragraph:
"As for Moscow, it had demonstrated the will and capacity to use a short, sharp dose of military violence to punish a recalcitrant neighbor in what Medvedev called Russia's 'sphere of privileged interests'. The war also prompted a military reform program that appeared to give it much more capable forces than in 2008. Arguably, this impression - reinforced by success in a small-scale operation in Crimea, and an expedition to support President Assad in Syria - would lead Moscow into the dramatic miscalculation that was the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, ongoing at the time of writing. In which case, Tbilisi got the last laugh after all."
Highly Recommended for those interested in the Russian-Georgian war of 2008.
Thanks goes out to Osprey Publishing for providing this book for review.
Reviewed by Joseph "Mac" McDaniel
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