In August 2008, Russia had its own Kargil. On the night of August 7-8 the former Soviet state of Georgia launched an assault on its breakaway region of South Ossetia killing dozens of Russian peacekeepers stationed in the region. Russia responded with a devastating counter-strike that routed the Georgian military.
For all their differences, above all duration, the wars in Kargil and in South Ossetia had certain similarities. In both conflicts the attackers sought to occupy territory. Both Pakistan and Georgia tried to mislead international public opinion about the nature of the conflict. While Islamabad denied the involvement of its regulars in the attack, Tbilisi claimed it was only responding to a Russian attack. Both assailants attempted to internationalise the conflict but miscalculated.
Like India, Russia drew its lessons from the war in South Ossetia, and these may be of interest to the Indian defence community.
The first strictly military analysis of the war was recently brought out by the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), a premier Russian defence think tank. “The Tanks of August” is a 144-page collection of essays on the background, conduct, and fallout of the five-day Russian-Georgian war of August 2008.
In contrast to Kargil, the attack on South Ossetia did not take Russia by surprise. Its intelligence agencies had gathered enough information about Georgia's designs, short of the exact date of attack, in order to prepare contingency plans. According to CAST experts, Russia had assembled substantial forces in the region that began pouring into South Ossetia through the Roki Tunnel within an hour after the Georgian attack. A minute-by-minute account of the hostilities gleaned by poring through Russian, Georgian and international sources convincingly debunks Georgia's myth that it only responded to a Russian attack. The speed and power of the Russian counter-attack, apparently unexpected by Georgia, foiled its plan to seal off the only lifeline road linking Russia and South Ossetia across the North Caucasus mountains. This was the key to defeating the Georgian blitzkrieg.
In South Ossetia the Russian armed forces for the first time faced a western-style army, trained by U.S. and Turkish instructors and armed by many NATO countries and Israel. Even though the Georgian army failed to stand up to the Russian military because of organisational, training and command deficiencies, the CAST study warns against complacency. Within a year of the conflict Georgia not only rebuilt its armed forces, but “substantially enhanced” its combat power .
The conflict — Russia's biggest combat engagement outside its borders since the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan — showed that its army is a formidable force, but has important weaknesses. The main among these are outdated communications and poor coordination among different branches of the armed forces. According to CAST analysts, out of six aircraft Russia lost in the conflict, four succumbed to “friendly fire.”
The conflict prompted Moscow to speed up a radical overhaul of the armed forces to prepare them better for local conflicts. In the opinion of CAST experts, the reform is creating certain risks for Russia as it leads to a temporary weakening of its military might while Georgia may be gearing for a new attack.
“Georgia remains a flashpoint of instability and a source of potential aggression and war in the Caucasus,” the study says. “Georgia's military build-up has a patently revanchist character and… a growing anti-Russian thrust, and is oriented, not so much at retaking Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as militarily challenging Russia itself.” The “Tanks of August” study comes to the conclusion that Georgia continues to pose a “direct and immediate threat” to Russia.