Over the past year, the United States has dusted off its international relations textbooks from the Cold War era and prioritized “revisionist powers” like the Russian Federation and China in terms of reshaping its military strategy and doctrine. The 2008 Russia-Georgia War, nearing its ten-year anniversary, is worth reexamining to understand how these “revisionist powers” will fight in the twenty-first century.
In this article, we summarize the main findings of the Modern War Institute’s recently published Contemporary Battlefield Assessment (CBA). A CBA is a comprehensive report that examines modern “warm conflict zones” through the use of on-the-ground fieldwork—including in-depth interviews with key participants and eye witnesses, terrain analysis, and a “staff ride”—to inform current US military doctrine and strategy. Past CBAs have examined the use of siege warfare in Sarajevo and enemy-centric counterinsurgency in Sri Lanka. The aim of these reports is to merge the disciplines of anthropology, political science (international relations, comparative politics), and military science, applying our theories of warfare to a contemporary conflict, as a way to understand the changing character of war.
In the summer of 2017, a team of West Point faculty and cadets toured the battlegrounds of Georgia, interviewing dozens of military officials, politicians, opposition figures, academics, journalists, and locals. The main finding of this year’s CBA is twofold: First, Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia provided a template of what was to follow in Ukraine and had American and European military officials and policymakers paid more attention to the war, they would have been better prepared to respond to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent war in Ukraine’s eastern regions. Second, the Russia-Georgia war, despite being a limited war fought in a backwater part of the world, signified the first case of Russia’s brand of “new generation warfare”: fought across multiple domains, part civil war, part interstate conflict, fought using conventional forces as well as unconventional proxies and unmarked mercenaries, integrating cyber, psychological, electronic, and information warfare.
With Russia front and center in the news, from the suspected poisoning of former spies in the English countryside to its alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential elections to Vladimir Putin’s boasting of “invincible” nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching anywhere in the world, we outline a few key lessons from the conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine on how to counter Russian aggression.
The Guns of August
To recap: In the dog days of August 2008, a column of Russian tanks and troops rolled across the Republic of Georgia’s border and into South Ossetia, sparking a war that was over almost before it began. The war, while not insignificant, lasted all of five days. The number of casualties did not exceed 1,000, the annual threshold most political scientists use to classify a war, although thousands of Georgians were displaced. By historical comparison, when Soviet tanks entered Hungary in 1956, the fatality counts exceeded 2,500 for the Soviets and 15,000 for the Hungarians.
The Russia-Georgia conflict was a limited war, with limited objectives, yet it was arguably a watershed in modern war. It marked the first invasion by Russian ground forces into a sovereign nation since the Cold War. Senior military commanders in Tbilisi and Gori emphasized to us that had Western military strategists and policymakers paid closer attention to the war in 2008, they may have avoided Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent fighting in the Donbass region.
Even though Russia “won” the 2008 war—Tbilisi was forced to sign a ceasefire that ceded one-fifth of its territory and all but nixed its chance of ever joining NATO—it was a wakeup call for Russia’s military, whose Soviet-era tanks and unprofessional conscripts paled in comparison to their US-trained Georgian adversaries. Moreover, the state of some of its Soviet-era military equipment, not to mention its command-and-control capabilities, proved to be an embarrassment. The war would spur Russia to modernize its military, boost the sophistication of its information operations, and avoid repeating the same mistakes in Ukraine after it annexed Crimea in 2014.
Indeed, as previously mentioned, the 2008 war would mark a breakthrough in the integration of cyberwarfare and other nonkinetic tools into a conventional strategy—what some have called Russia’s “new generation warfare,” or hybrid warfare. The conflict foreshadowed the kinds of military actions Russia would later take in Ukraine, including its “creeping annexation” of places like Crimea.
To be certain, the 2008 Russia-Georgia war did not highlight a new form of conflict, but rather the incorporation of a new dimension to that conflict: cyberspace. Where once states tried to control the radio waves, broadcast television channels, newspapers, or other forms of communications, they now also seek to control cyberspace and its component aspects, websites, social media, and more. Propaganda, disinformation, and the manipulation of the informational aspects of both conflict and nonconflict settings have been persistent attributes of state behavior.
The new dimension added to the conduct of hostilities created by cyberspace is both a challenge to conventional hybrid information manipulation tactics and a benefit. Even though the tactical gains achieved through cyberspace in Georgia by Russian nonstate actors had limited impact, the strategic and psychological effects were robust. The plausibly deniable nature of the cyber side of conflict should not be understated and adds a new dimension to hybrid warfare that once required state resources to accomplish. Now, managed through forums and social media, decentralized noncombatants can join the fight. Arguably the inclusion of cyber means into a kinetic battle, not as a standalone effect, but rather as a force multiplier, constitutes a logical progression to the natural evolution of conflict and demonstrates the value of information operations during conflict.
Through various means, both kinetic and nonkinetic, Russia has sought to prevent former Soviet satellites from leaning too far toward Europe. To keep Georgia weak and divided, Russia sought to keep the lid on the separatist wars along Georgia’s periphery, and to effectively “freeze” them as a way from keeping Georgia unstable and dependent on Russia. No European organizations would come knocking on Georgia’s door so long as large swaths of its territory were in dispute and the subject of periodic violence. On its breakaway provinces, Russia has taken a position of integrating them without formally incorporating them. Inhabitants were handed Russian passports. An oft-heard line about the farmer who goes to bed in Georgia and wakes up in South Ossetia, because of the unilateral moving of the administrative boundary line (ABL), is scarily true. Some have called it a creeping annexation but in fact, Russia is fine with the status quo and not fully making Abkhazians and South Ossetians full Russian citizens. Observers should expect to see similar developments in Ukraine’s east.
Lessons from 2008 and 2014
Russia’s ability to achieve operational and strategic success in its border regions is a direct result of what it learned and perfected following the 2008 war. Here are some other military lessons that can be learned from Russia’s two campaigns in Georgia and Ukraine:
- Strategic preparation. The ability of Russia to take Crimea without a shot being fired was brilliant, but could not have occurred without the groundwork laid months and years in advance. In addition to operational planning and staging forces along the border as a strong deterrent, Russia had been conducting subversion long before introducing “little green men.” Russia identified points of vulnerability in the economy, armed forces, and state administration and used bribery or intimidation to coerce local officials. Additionally, Russia supported and financed political and cultural organizations loyal to Russia, and used its media to create narratives favorable to Russia and counter to the Ukrainian government.
- Strategic interests. In 2008 and 2014, Russia demonstrated it was willing to use force to prevent a former republic from joining NATO or the EU. While the annexation of specific territory (Crimea) is clearly the exception, the strategic value of owning the base and its surrounding territory on the Black Sea made it unique. Russia’s actions in the Donbass (the contested area in eastern Ukraine) demonstrate they generally do not prefer annexation and instead, simply desire a semiautonomous separatist region in Ukraine, just like Georgia, making it almost impossible to join an organization like NATO that requires its alliance members to have territorial integrity.
- Escalation dominance. Like Georgia, Ukraine highlights Russia’s ability to achieve escalation dominance on its frontier and do so in a big hurry if it needs to. Along these lines, Russia will continue to pursue a policy of “new generation warfare,” given that it is effective and cheap. Russia has moved beyond its Soviet-era mentality and has advanced its thinking on military operations. However, although Russia has taken great steps to professionalize its military, it still relies on sizeable numbers of conscripts with reportedly low morale. This partly explains its preference for nonconventional means.
- Military professionalization. From a military perspective, Russia is smaller, more flexible, and more professional than its previous post-Soviet self. It has reduced both its overall size and the size of its general staff to become a more agile and adaptive fighting force, moving from over two hundred divisions during Soviet times to just five today. To improve its mobility, Russia relies primarily on brigades equipped with advanced antitank weaponry, having rolled out a new fleet of heavily armed vehicles. Russia’s senior staff reckons that any future armed confrontation will be lethal, fast, and favorable to the first striker, not unlike the perceived conditions that predated the outbreak of World War I. A recent RAND report found that Russia would overrun NATO forces based in the region in a matter of hours.
- Soft power. Russia will continue to wield its “soft power” in the region, as it does in Georgia, given that many fellow Orthodox Ukrainians, even those who are anti-Russia, are still socially conservative. Putin will paint himself as a defender of traditional values against a decadent West to win over these people’s affection; however, in the process he may galvanize and alienate a much larger segment of the population.
- Information Operations (IO). Having lost the IO battle in Georgia, Russia continued to invest in its IO efforts. Russia combined “secrecy, deception, threats, and accusations in crafting the narrative for the international community” and continually denied Russian involvement to promote a consistent message. Many of the initial targets for Russian agents in Crimea and the Donbass were media outlets so they could replace Ukrainian broadcasts with Russian television to establish an information monopoly. In Crimea, Russians nearly eliminated all Ukrainian landline, internet and mobile services.
- Cyber Operations. Russia has continued to expend its cyber capability and has effectively employed cyber operations at the tactical level. Russians have reportedly used “malware implant[s] on Android devices to track and target Ukrainian artillery units.” Additionally, Russia conducted a cyberattack to disrupt Ukraine’s power grid.
- Electronic Warfare. Russia has expanded its use of electronic warfare to include jamming to damage or destroy command-and-control networks, hampering radar systems, and spoofing GPS signals. There are multiple reports of Russians hacking into Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicles. Additionally, Russia has penetrated cellular phone networks to send text messages to individual commanders and Ukrainian troops, often tied directly to their IO strategy to undermine their enemy.
- Avoidance of overt military force. With each conflict, Russia has decreased the role of overt military forces, realizing the political cost associated with it. During its intervention of Lithuania in 1991, Russia used live ammunition against civilians and drove tanks through demonstrators, which killed fourteen civilians. Intense political pressure followed and the Soviets responded in Georgia by waiting to send troops across the border until after the Georgians initiated shelling into South Ossetia. For Crimea, instead of conventional military forces, the Russians instead sent in “little green men” which they continued to deny as Russian operatives. In the Donbass, instead of deploying large formations, smaller units were sent across the border, which they claimed were simply Russian troops on leave that were not acting on behalf of the state. Similar use of unmarked privateers is occurring in Syria and other theaters, providing the Kremlin a cloak of plausible deniability.
- Other tactical developments. While a relatively new technology that was not employed in Georgia, Russia has greatly expanded its use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Ukraine, primarily using them in an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance role often tied directly with artillery to control fires and conduct battle damage assessment. At the same time, counter-UAV technology and techniques are underdeveloped. In terms of artillery, the Russians favor multiple launch rocket systems as opposed to precision munitions, often employing them from populated areas where they know their opponent must respond judiciously. The Russians have decentralized artillery down to maneuver battalions to make them more responsive and have pursued longer-range guns and ammunition. The increased lethality has led to an increased emphasis on counter-battery radar. Finally, modern Russian tanks are fairly invulnerable, with the exception of advanced antitank guided missiles, such as the US Javelin, which the Ukrainians largely lack.
Putin has recently made bold claims about Russia’s growing conventional and nuclear capabilities. But Russia’s preferred “way of warfare” is neither conventional nor nuclear—it is unconventional and often nonkinetic, incorporating psychological and cyber warfare. This is where Putin gets the biggest bang for his ruble, a lesson learned back in those dog days of August 2008.
The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Image credit: kremlin.ru