Allan Mallinson, Defence Historian / Reuters & – 2008-08-10 20:58:09
LONDON (August 10, 2008) — The problem the Russians face in South Ossetia is that their peacekeepers have had to make the transition overnight to what is, in effect, a war-fighting force. While they are not operating like Scandinavian peace forces in light blue berets, the transition will not have been smooth.
Ironically, as former peacekeepers, they may be inflicting far more civilian casualties than would a force that had been training and planning for combat operations.
Not least, this is because they did not have enough force to deploy overwhelmingly and therefore decisively from the outset — which might have overawed the Georgians without a shot.
This has forced them to over-rely on artillery, one of the least discriminating weapons systems, especially the multi-barrelled rocket launcher.
Nor has the speed with which the fighting developed helped the civilian population either to evacuate the combat zones, or take effective cover.
The Russians will no doubt justify their use of air power beyond Ossetia as defensive action in depth and draw comparisons with the United Nations’ use of ground-attack aircraft in Bosnia during the peacekeeping mandate; but it will also be in some measure an attempt to overwhelm the Georgians psychologically, and with the only means to hand.
The reinforcements being sent by Moscow will be special forces — more subtle, more highly trained than the troops already on the ground. However sinister their deployment sounds, they should be welcomed for their professionalism.
Despite the money pumped into the army by Vladimir Putin, the quality of its regular officers is a problem. Despite South Ossetia’s semi-autonomous status, the Georgian army is operating on essentially interior lines of communication, while the Russians are deployed at the end of a very long line indeed. On paper, Georgian forces number some 18,000, but there are probably fewer than 12,000 effective combat troops, which is why the contingent in Iraq is being recalled.
The Georgians, though outnumbered, in the shorter term have several advantages. They are not badly equipped. The former Soviet T72, for example, their main battle tank, is a reasonable match for the Russians’ T90. The army has been American-trained, and increasingly American-equipped, for the past 10 years, and strongly focused on Nato admission: there will be some capable commanders and staff officers, therefore.
It is a strange irony to note that their troops have seen action, against Chechen rebels, but fighting alongside the Russians.
Background: The Tussle for South Ossetia
The breakaway region of South Ossetia, which has close ties with Russia, wants independence from pro-western Georgia
LONDON (August 8, 2008) — South Ossetia, about 60 miles (100 km) north of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, broke away from Georgia in a 1991-92 war that left several thousand people dead. It has close ties with the neighbouring Russian region of North Ossetia.
The majority of the roughly 70,000 people living in South Ossetia are ethnically distinct from Georgians. They complain that they were forcibly absorbed into Georgia under Soviet rule and want self-determination.
A peacekeeping force made up of soldiers from Russia, Georgia and North Ossetia monitors a 1992 truce. Tbilisi accuses Russian peacekeepers of siding with separatists, something Moscow denies. Sporadic clashes between separatist and Georgian forces have killed dozens of people in the last few years.
South Ossetia’s location
The Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, has proposed a peace deal that would give South Ossetia “a large degree of autonomy” within a federal state. But the separatist leader, Eduard Kokoity, says he wants full independence.
In November 2006, Georgian-controlled villages inside South Ossetia elected a rival leader, the ex-separatist Dmitry Sanakoyev. While he is endorsed by Tbilisi, his authority only extends to a small part of the region.
Russia has found itself pitted against the west for control of the Caucasus region, which is increasingly important as an energy transit route.
This tension has been heightened by Georgia’s pro-western government, and more recently its application to become a member of Nato, which would bring western forces right up to Russia’s borders.
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