In the summer of 2008, although many people have forgotten, Russia and Georgia fought a brief war. The war began when Georgia launched an invasion of its rebellious province South Ossetia. South Ossetian resistance was bolstered when Russia launched a massive intervention. Georgian and Russian forces fought for several days, ending in a resounding Georgian defeat.
The American perspective of the war reflects American suspicion of Russia, dating from the hostility of the Cold War. Georgia, most grudgingly acknowledge, did start hostilities. But Russia’s response was extremely disproportionate and, in this view, deserves to be condemned. On the other hand, the war has revealed that Georgia is definitely not ready to join organizations such as NATO or the EU.
This article, by Mikhail Barabanov of the Moscow Defense Brief, provides a fascinatingly different perspective. It is from the Russian point-of-view, specifically a military one. Mr. Barabanov begins by celebrating the quick victory of Russian forces:
Initially, Georgia’s attack on the capital of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia on August 8, 2008, seemed like it would lead to yet another bloody, drawn out Caucasus war. However, the quick, energetic, and sustained intervention of Russia (the guarantor of peace in South Ossetia since 1992) escalated by August 11 into a powerful blitzkrieg against Georgia proper. Commentators who until recently described the Georgian Army as the “best” in the post-Soviet space were at a loss for words.
He then paints a picture of the situation that stands at stark contrast with the usual Western perspective. America’s media generally describes Georgia as a reforming country moving towards democracy and rule-of-law.
Mr. Barabanov, on the other hand, describes Georgia as a war-hungry nation intent on building its military:
…Mikhail Saakashvili devoted exceptional efforts to the creation of a fighting armed force that could return the separatist autonomous republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to the Georgian fold…Significant funding went into force generation: during Saakashvili’s rule, Georgia broke world records for defense spending, which grew by 33 times to reach about $1 billion per year in 2007-2008. Last year’s defense budget was 8 percent of the Georgian GDP. Only Saudi Arabia, Oman, and North Korea spend more as a proportion of their national wealth.
The rest of the article then details the mechanics of the war, and the Russian perspective on the Georgian defeat. Unsurprisingly, Georgia is characterized as the aggressor and Russia. Mr. Barabanov argues that Georgia suffered a total defeat, also unsurprisingly (and, to be fair, not unrealistically).
There is one final point which Mr. Barabanov makes, and this one is something that is worth dwelling upon. While acknowledging the strength of the Western armies themselves, he is far more skeptical about Third-World armies trained by the West. Armies like these (i.e. the Georgian army), he argues, have consistently underperformed vis-a-vis the technology they have. The quote is relatively long, but it is worth stating in full:
A clear analogy can be drawn between the fate of the Georgian Army and the collapse of the armed forces of South Vietnam in 1975. Like the Georgian Army, the South Vietnamese Army was built, trained, according to the American model and was well equipped. However, when they fought against the forces of North Vietnam, which combined local combat techniques with Soviet and Chinese organization and tactics, the outwardly impressive South Vietnamese forces proved to be much less effective than expected and fell apart after several defeats. In Georgia, as in South Vietnam, the imitation of Western methods of organization and force generation failed to match Western levels of military effectiveness. The creation of an effective national military machine requires long-term work on the part of the state, and an ability to take national characteristics into account. In and of themselves, “Western” standards of force generation do not guarantee superiority over “non-Western” armies. Those who believe in the a-priori superiority of the West in military affairs have learned yet another unpleasant lesson from the Georgian affair.
Here Mr. Barabanov’s words strike quite squarely on the truth. America has never been very good at training non-Western forces. The South Vietnamese and Georgian cases indicate this. Today the United States is once again desperately trying to train a national Afghani army to Western standards. Americans would be wise to take Mr. Barabanov’s words into account.