Ah. Problem number five. You see, the Georgians clearly had assumed that their brave troops, trained by equally brave Western advisors (the U.S., Britain, Turkey - the Ukraine, even - all pitched in to one degree or another), as well as their brave officers, would actually conduct themselves with a modicum of tactical skill. Because, you see, a lack of said skill could present a problem insofar as any Blitzkrieg goes. Especially if they happen to run smack into veteran enemies. Put differently, in a conflict involving a Panamanian Army Battalion and a USMC Battalion you'd want to be on the side of the USMC, not the brave Panamanians. In theory, at least.
These problems delineated, we return to the action of August 8-9.
As mentioned previously, one way or another the Georgians barged their way into Tskhinvali while pounding the city from the heights above. Meanwhile, a second column lunged to cut the road north of Tskhinvali to the Rok Tunnel.
The Ossetians were not idiots. They expected pretty much this exact turn of events. Roughly 300 "kamikaze" light infantry remained in Tskhinvali itself, their job to keep the Georgian main column busy for as long as possible. Meanwhile, virtually every other man under arms and every functioning piece of equipment was thrown at the smaller Georgian force attempting to cut the road to the Rok Tunnel.
By midday on August 8 (or thereabouts), this smaller Georgian force (quite likely outnumbered by the Ossetians attacking it, though certainly not outgunned) was pushed back away from the north road, though the Georgians could still subject portions of it to artillery and sniper fire. In Tskhinvali, the 300 "Spartans" fought a vicious battle as the Georgians barged their way into town, nearly reaching its center before becoming bogged down in street combat. At least some of the Georgian tanks became separated from their supporting infantry, with three being destroyed in the first hours of the fighting. The total Georgian force - estimated at 3,500-4,000 men - milled about largely in the southern half of the town while artillery pounded the northern side.
The Russian peacekeepers around Tskhinvali also proved a tough nut to crack; most of the battalion's buildings and vehicles were destroyed quite quickly, however a good three quarters of the troops remained combat capable and putting up whatever resistance were possible in the face of tank and self-propelled artillery fire over open sights. Still, the battalion CO gave the order to destroy all documents and radios, clearly expecting to be overrun sooner rather than later.
In the air, the Georgians sent the occasional SU-25 flight to drop bombs on Tskhinvali or the surrounding villages. The Ossetians' one military airfield, however, remained largely unmolested, and their helicopters began raiding Georgian reinforcement columns. Thus, by some time in the afternoon on August 8, a column of 3 Georgian tanks and 8 APCs or IFVs was completely destroyed from the air as it approached the Georgian group in Tskhinvali. Field reports at this juncture indicate that the Georgians aren't following basic "air security" procedures; their vehicle columns are streaming forward with no AA protection of any kind, while their artillery and MRLS crews are piling stacks of shells and rockets right next to the guns and launchers themselves, such that one cannon burst in the general direction of the firing position was usually enough to completely obliterate the gun or launcher and its crew. At the same time, reports also surfaced that the 300 "Spartans" in Tskhinvali managed to somehow trap a chunk of the Georgian force in the town, and had even captured a few of their BMPs and one Humvee (suggesting that the Georgian soldiers had fled rather than put up a fight against an outnumbered and outgunned enemy). The announcement of a captured Hummer drives the Russian general public (as represented by Internet postings of all shapes and sizes) even more up a wall than it had already been. Of course, the "Spartans" are pretty jumpy - the 3 UH-1s beloging to the Ossetians seem to all be shot down by friendly fire from the captured BMPs (who, in turn, had thought that these were Georgian attack helos making a run).
By around 1400-1500 hours local time, the Russian 19th Motor Rifle Division - mobilized that morning - begins to rush through the Rok Tunnel and south towards Tskhinvali. The delay took place partly because it took until morning to determine that this was a full-scale Georgian attack rather than just an especially powerful raid - and because the UN meetings called at Russia's behest could not meet much earlier. By this time, of course, Russian television channels were broadcasting full-on images of frightened Ossetian civilians fleeing the area or digging themselves out from under the rubble of Tskhinvali, crying into the camera about lost loved ones and begging for help. How I love effective TV blitzes...
At any rate, by late afternoon on August 8, the Russians engaged the Georgians, first linking up with the Ossetian troops on the northern road and detaching a force to contain the smaller Georgian column, and then pushing into the northern outskirts of Tskhinvali itself. Meanwhile, Russian aircraft and helicopters - plus artillery detachments - began counterbattery fire against the heights around Tskhinvali, although this was not extremely successful.
By midday on August 9, the situation in South Ossetia had changed dramatically. Russian and Ossetian troops surrounded and began to reduce the Georgian pocket in the north, as well as a portion of the Georgian troops in Tskhinvali proper. Meanwhile, the first Russian reinforcements reached the peacekeeper battalion further south, and Russian artillery and aircraft continued to pound the heights around the city. Georgian reinforcement columns were also vigorously attacked.
The Georgian troops from the main column - those who had not been trapped in Tskhinvali, at least - began their retreat almost as soon as they saw the Russians entering the town. Certainly some detachments stood and fought, but the majority went back to their "second line" positions to regroup. During the night, the artillery duel continued, and by the morning of August 9 several Georgian tank and infantry attacks had been launched to reach both the trapped Georgian detachments (the one in Tskhinvali and the one alongside the road north); these proved unsuccessful, with the Georgians losing 12 tanks in one attack on Tskhinvali proper. The Georgian government began to move reserves into position, although reports indicate that by this time, the bulk of these were "reservists" who did not have much fight in them. Some ethnic Georgians also began to flee South Ossetia, fearful of reprisals (justifiably so). All throughout, detachments of Georgian troops that had fanned out to the villages on either side of Tskhinvali continued to raze them to the ground with tanks and artillery; mass executions of the civilian populations were reported but not independently confirmed.
On August 10, the main Russian forces were still semi-stuck around Tskhinvali, trying to push the Georgians off the heights while reducing the pockets of resistance in the town proper. The Ossetian troops by now were largely moved to help with securing Tskhinvali and with escorting refugees out of the city and the surrounding areas. In addition to the 19th Motor Rifle Division, several Paratrooper detachments (from the 58th Air Assault Division, I believe) were arriving by aircraft while Russian marines landed in Abkhazia, ostensibly to support the Russian peacekeepers there. Other 58th Army units were also streaming into the area, as were the two Chechen battalions (whose arrival was a welcome surprise some time around the morning of August 10). The Chechen battalions quickly managed to capture enough Georgian BMPs to ferry themselves about and launched an attack towards Gori, which ran into a massive Georgian ambush that caused few casualties but took most of the day to resolve.
By this juncture, the 4th Air Army had had enough and began to bomb and strafe airfields in Georgia proper while also patrolling the skies with Su-27 fighters. Reports of solitary Georgian Su-25 aircraft ineffectually strafing Ossetian and Russian positions continued through August 11, however these may have been able to sneak in "through" the overall aircraft traffic in the region (given that both sides were relying primarily on Su-25s for ground attack mission at this point, not entirely surprising); it is at this juncture that the Russians discover, to their considerable displeasure, that the Georgians are fielding next-generation SA-11 SAMs (one of which brought down a Tu-22 bomber flying a reconnaissance mission, although the crew was, apparently, extricated one way or another). These are presumably hunted down and suppressed over the next couple of days, together with their (presumably Ukrainian - because the Georgian army simply did not have any qualified or "trained-up" personnel to use these systems) crews, as well as any other air defenses in the region, but the Russians still lose about a half-dozen birds in the process. Nevertheless, massive strafing of Georgian reinforcements continues.
Tactically, Russian infantry is content to follow tanks and 152mm "Akatsias" firing over open sights while helicopters support from overhead; the Georgians are unbelievably outgunned on just about every front.
To make matters worse for the Georgians, on August 10 or thereabouts, the Abkhazi begin moving troops into the contested Kodori gorge (prior to which the Russian peacekeeper battalion deployed there politely moved out of the way), with tanks and artillery leading the way, at precisely the point when the Georgians were shifting all available troops and equipment (right down to cramming men of draft or reservist age into buses, threatening them with 4-year jail terms if they "desert" and driving them to the front) to try and stabilize the South Ossetia front. Much unpleasantness ensues. Also by August 10, the Russian Black Sea Fleet takes positions around the Georgian coastline, sinking initially one Georgian missile boat and eventually two or three more before the next day dawns.
By August 11, the Georgian army in South Ossetia is completely and thoroughly routed; its artillery and heavy equipment blown away or abandoned, its troops suffering massive casualties from air and artillery attacks. The pockets in Tskhinvali and along the northern road pretty much cease all resistance, though to date there is no word on prisoners. The Georgians' two combat brigades thrown into the assault at the start effectively cease to exist, while the remaining army and reservists - those who were back in Georgia or had managed to escape to Gori - continue fleeing. The remaining Georgian regular army is pulled back to protect Tbilisi itself, while most Georgian military installations are being abandoned; the brigade that had been stationed in Iraq is being flown back in (reportedly in U.S. transport aircraft), however it, too, is positioned primarily to defend Tbilisi against a Russian strike.
Meanwhile, the Russians continue to push south, as do the Abkhazi. The latter clear out the Georgian defenses (and 11 villages) on the southern side of the Kodori Gorge and dig in against any counter-assault. The Russians launch a full-scale air and sea bombardment of just about any military structure or facility in Georgia - the port facilities of Poti are damaged (though not Batumi - which is a city not of ethnic Georgians but of a recently-"pacified" pro-Russian Adjari minority); Russian aircraft blow up the military depots in Gori (the secondary explosions from which damage the surrounding civilian buildings, which are then showcased in CNN and BBC reports on the subject of "Russian airstrikes against innocent civilians"); Russian troops move towards Gori and Sugdidi. Georgians are leaving Tbilisi to the east, hoping to escape to a somewhat-more friendly Azerbaijan.
Conclusion of combat operations.
By August 11-12, it was only a matter of when a cease-fire would be signed, and on what terms. The terms, essentially, were dictated by the Russians. Militarily speaking, the Russians continued to bomb, shell and otherwise attack Georgian military infrastructure; moreover, Russian platoon- and company-sized detachments race towards now largely-abandoned Georgian military basis, e.g. the one in Gori, and proceed to methodically destroy or dismantle any piece of military or other equipment therein. This process was ongoing through at least August 14-15 if not later, prompting Western cries about "Russian occupation". Radar installations, ammunition depots, armored vehicles - everything was and is being either destroyed or "appropriated for the benefit of the Russian state", while the Georgian military is reduced to a collection of regulars and reservists, largely in the form of light infantry with few remaining vehicles. The Georgian Navy and Air Force, such as they are, have apparently ceased to exist by this juncture. While there is no word on Georgian military or civilian casualties, at least the former can be estimated at upwards of several thousand. Russian losses through August 11-12 are comprised of 70-75 KIA, 19 MIA, and roughly 190-200 WIA; these totals include 15 KIA and more than 100 WIA from the Georgian initial atack on the peacekeeper battalion. Russian tank and equipment losses are less well-known, but are probably in single digits in all categories; those of the Georgians are probably pushing 75%-100% of all units of a given type.
One. Tactical proficiency. The Georgian troops showed themselves to be a) less than well-versed in unit tactics (e.g. getting surrounded, with units carved up, by a much smaller force; being ignorant of air support; not being able to follow through on a suburban ambush of a Russian vehicle column and instead being pounded into dust over the next few hours; etc.); b) ****e to running away at the first sign of trouble (the very fact of captured undamaged BMP infantry fighting vehicles - in large enough numbers to be used as mounts for entire battalions - is very illustrative); and c) only include a small proportion of troops who are at least capable of putting up something resembling a fight (once the initial two brigades were ground down, Georgia effectively had no trained troops left - and two brigades does not even cover its standing army).
Clearly the Georgian army looked better on paper than in practice. One only wonders what all those American and British (and Ukrainian, and Turkish...) advisors were doing all this time.
The Ossetians showed the most tactical prowess merely by the fact that they managed to hold the road open while a very small force turned Tskhinvali into something of a major annoyance for the Georgians' main column. Considering that we're talking about mostly light infantry attacking large combined-arms forces with, initially, little by way of air cover, the feat does seem quite impressive. Even when adjusted for the Georgian troops' apparent less-than-competence.
The Russians were the Russians - on the one hand, perceived by their opponents as lumbering drunkards with a penchant for mass attacks, and, on the other hand, actually quite happily and aggressively using their armor, artillery and mechanized infantry to carve up and smash an already bogged down enemy. Not that a huge degree of tactical skill was needed, of course - a substantial firepower advantage offsets many a shortcoming. The 4th Air Army, in fact, underperformed, given that, at least on paper, it should have shut down all Georgian air traffic on the first day of fighting, not on the third or thereabouts. Although here one does not know precisely when the rules of engagement were revised to allow it to strike into Georgia proper - nor is it clear just how many aircraft did it or could it deploy to the area.
Two. Operational execution. The Georgians had set ridiculous, by my understanding of the various factors involved (terrain, opposition, etc.), objectives for their troops, and, of course, failed miserably to do much more than lunge into Tskhinvali on the first day. They then continued to make the situation ever more untenable for themselves by not giving up, retreating to their jump-off points and asking for a ceasefire, but instead launching attack after attack to relieve their surrounded troops - against a rapidly mounting opposition. Secondly, something must be said for the fact that when things really began to go against the Georgians, their commanders did not clog up the narrow pass in front of Gori with defenders, but instead pulled back all the way to Tbilisi, effectively leaving the republic's underbelly wide-open. Theoretically, the Russians could have just loped off most of Georgia leaving a rump state of Tskhinvali - as it turned out, they are content to range around smashing military hardware up with relative impunity.
The Ossetians had one job to do - stall the Georgians. After that, their role became almost "humanitarian" (i.e. centered on assisting civilians rather than pressing the attack); not that they didn't want to be at the forefront of the Russian columns, it's just that the Russians were in no mood to watch the Ossetians exact revenge from Georgian towns and villages.
The Russians did quite well, given the logistical constraints (e.g. one road leading into the region). STRATFOR, in fact, came out with a report where it professed amazement at the rapidity and extreme effectiveness of the Russian counter-assault. Granted, the heights around Tskhinvali took time to clear, but again, given the difficulty of moving a single division into the place (while refugees are streaming out along the same road - more than 20,000 registered with Russian Immigration Services on the northern side of the tunnel by August 10, and who knows how many more had gone in unregistered). Besides which, the 58th Army's operational task encompasses the entirety of the Caucasus region, which means that only a portion of it could be detached at a given point in time (though this is where Russian paras and the Chechen battalions came into play).
Three. Strategic outcomes.
The Georgians must have been smoking crack and watching 1930s-era German propaganda films when they concocted this little stunt of theirs. Tactically and operationally, not only was the whole affair deemed to fail - but, as it turned out, Georgia had no reserves to even form a line of defense once the attacking brigades were ground up. Throwing everything you have, effectively, on a gamble like this, bespeaks strategic foolishness of the extreme kind. Especially if your closest friend and ally (represented by Condi Rice) told you, to your face, to step off about three weeks before you got started.
The Ossetians - and the Abkhazi - were sly devils who were prepared for the eventuality. The Ossetians couldn't have just concocted a response plan like the one actually executed overnight; and the Abkhazi waited for the precise moment when the Georgians became fully engaged in Ossetia - then launched a limited Blitzkrieg of their own, smashing the Georgian troops in the Kodori Gorge and, theoretically speaking, establishing themselves in a prime position from which to threaten Sugdidi, the regional center Kutaisi, and most of the Georgian plain. Should such a threat be required by political considerations.
The Russians had to have known something was coming. And had to have planned their response, such that the only thing left was, really, the determination of when the troops could go based, among other things, on when could the Russians convene the UN Security Council in New York (the 8-hour time difference makes for awkward timing). Kudos to Russian Intel (which, nevertheless, had missed the SA-11s...), and points to the Kremlin for planning this operation ahead of time - and for executing it more or less according to plan. By the time the Russians are finished, Georgia will have been reduced to...well, militarily a non-entity, and strategically a very difficult proposition for the U.S. (which still wants the place "on its side" given the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline route). One only wonders what other "contingency plans" they may already have in place, whether one agrees with what they are doing or not.
The Americans, on the other hand, were far too surprised to make me congratulate them. They clearly seemed to be in shock to see the Georgians actually launch the operation; and were in an even greater shock at the Russian response. Somebody at the State Department - or the CIA, or the Pentagon, or all of the above - seems to be operating under the assumption that this is still the 1990s, Russia is still politically and militarily impotent, and America's "friends and allies" necessarily know what they are doing. [Point of fact, I would fully expect the State Department to "encourage" Georgia's opposition parties to, erm, "democratically replace" the republic's current leadership in the wake of this catastrophe.] But this is really getting away from the military side of the discussion. Suffice it to say, strategically, the U.S. would have gained more - assuming it wanted military action in the first place - for the Georgian offensive to have been launched at a later date, with better preparation, more consistent objectives...although on the other hand, what else could the Georgians really do? The whole thing seems like a suicide operation, more or less...
So this is where we are. Almost certainly additional facts and detailed chronologies of the combat will be published by the various sides in due time. In the meanwhile - the Georgians lost, as well they should have, because I still cannot believe that they had honestly expected to a) win to begin with and b) to have any shot once they saw Russian tanks and aircraft swarm over the mountains and start smashing up forward Georgian units (remember, for a good 24-36 hours after the Russians became engaged, the Georgians kept launching attacks - straight at them).