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Georgian Military Folds Under Russian Attack

Aug 15, 2008


Miscalculations have defined the Georgian-Russian conflict. Georgia thought it could get away with occupying South Ossetia; Russia anticipated a militarily and politically painless counter-attack.

All of these missteps are now connected to the huge, international concern about oil and the prizes it brings with it.

Early reports indicate that pipelines running through Tbilisi from the Caspian Sea oil fields were targeted unsuccessfully by the Russian air force, which employed front-line Tu-22M3 bombers in the conflict. The stout Georgian air defenses, one of the few effective elements of the country's military, have shot down some Russian Su-25s with shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), say European-based U.S. officials. The heavier SA-11 Buk-1M also appears to have contributed to the Frogfoot strike-fighter losses and was certainly the cause of the Backfire bomber's loss, say U.S.-based analysts.

In recent years, Russia has used the cutoff of oil exports to punish Latvia and Estonia. Intercepting or damaging the Georgian pipelines would be a heavy blow. But simply the insecurity to oil supplies that fighting in the region has triggered could do even greater harm, both to Georgia and the West, if investors chose to buy oil through more secure venues. Russia also fired at least 15 SS-21 Tochka/Scarab short-range ballistic missiles at Georgian military targets during Aug. 8-11, according to Washington-based U.S. officials. They have a range of 70-120 km. (43-75 mi.), enough to threaten the Black Sea oil terminal at Supsa, Georgia.

At least one of the pipelines was also near the line of farthest advance by the Russian army between Gori and Tbilisi. Georgian officials thought the three major pipelines that go through Georgia would buy them political and economic stability and the support of the West, whose economies are being battered by high oil prices. However, these pipelines offer direct economic competition to Russian ones, so this could be a factor in Russia's overwhelming military foray.

Russia relied on long-range tube and rocket artillery to reach targets well inside Georgia without having to commit large numbers of troops outside of South Ossetia. It also deployed the equivalent of a motor rifle division, says Felix K. Chang, a former Defense Dept. intelligence officer who is now a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The force included units from the 58th Army, based nearby. These were reinforced by elements of the 76th Air Assault Div. from the Leningrad Military District and the 96th Airborne Div. and 45th Intelligence Regiment based in Moscow, says Chang. They are elite formations from Russia's strategic reserve that were in more than 100 airlift sorties.

The World Bank-financed pipelines connect the Azer-Chirag-Gunehli oil fields in the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan's Sangachal Terminal with oil terminals in Supsa and Ceyhan (Turkey) on the Mediterranean. The Russian offensive from the north through South Ossetia has cut the main east-west road at Gori in central Georgia. A second thrust by ground forces came from the breakaway region of Abkhazia in the west and cut the road again in western Georgia.

U.S. analysts say Russian soldiers were operating in Georgian territory late last week, but without any intention of occupying the country. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said Georgia had been taught a lesson and Russian troops would return to lines along the border between Georgia and the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

U.S. defense officials point the finger of blame at the Georgians for the seemingly suicidal decision to push into South Ossetia, noting their almost complete disregard for Russian air superiority and ability to assemble and launch an overwhelming ground force. One possibility, they say, is that the Georgians hoped to take advantage of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's distraction with the Olympics to present him with the fait accompli of an occupation of South Ossetia's capital on his return.

But the effort foundered as "Georgian command and control broke down" almost immediately after the initial foray, says a U.S. defense official. "We don't know if it was because of Georgian military incompetence or the result of an effective electronic and cyber-attack by the Russians."

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