Armenia / Georgia
Armenia / Georgia


by Richard Giragosian

For nearly a decade and a half, Armenia enjoyed a period of relative stability in the region, with little or no abrupt shifts or sudden threats to security. In fact, since the 1992 ceasefire with Azerbaijan, it has been only inner turmoil that has threatened stability—from routinely failed elections, to an act of terror (parliament 1999), to last spring's horror in the streets of the capital.

The lack of any real change during this rather predictable period also meant that the virtual blockade of Armenia only continued, however, with its borders and trade routes closed to both the East and the West. And the lack of any significant breakthrough in the region's unresolved conflicts also tended to only entrench hardline positions on all sides.

Nevertheless, the conflicts over Nagorno Karabakh, as well as those over South Ossetia and Abkhazia in neighboring Georgia, sparked no new hostilities, even coming to be defined more as "frozen" than "hot" conflicts, with a preference for mediation over military force. But Georgia's unresolved conflicts differed greatly from Nagorno Karabakh, as Russia has openly supported both Abkhazia and South Ossetia financially and, through the presence of Russian peacekeepers along both regions' borders with Georgia, has also provided an unofficial security guarantee. Moreover, in recent years, Russia has even granted citizenship to an overwhelming majority of the population in both regions, even more firmly declaring Moscow's influence.

The one remarkable exception to this period of relative calm was, of course, the so-called "Rose Revolution" in Georgia from November 2003-January 2004, which forced the aging former President Eduard Shevardnadze from power and ushered in a much younger, openly pro-Western, reform-minded and seemingly democratic Mikheil Saakashvili as the new Georgian president.

The new Saakashvili government steered Georgia decidedly toward the West, even going as far as formally applying for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and seeking to eventually join the European Union. This strategic reorientation paved the way for sizable Western support and assistance, including symbolically significant new military training from the United States, and only spurred the development of regional energy links with Azerbaijan and Turkey, most visibly demonstrated by the completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline.

But at the same time, Georgia's new strategic stance also triggered an anxious reaction from Russia, which was increasingly threatened by Georgia's pro-Western stance and NATO aspirations and was effectively bypassed by the BTC pipeline. Russia was also uncomfortable with what it saw as a Western-backed case of "regime change" in Georgia, interpreting the emergence of the Saakashvili government as a result of "interference" by powerful Western elements behind the scenes.

For Russia, its hold over Georgia's conflicts offered a useful tool. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) analyst Liz Fuller, Russia "has for years—if not ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union—seen the South Ossetian conflict as a means of exerting leverage on Georgia. Initially it was the Russian military that used the South Ossetian conflict as a way to hit back at Shevardnadze, because they held Shevardnadze responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. More recently, since Georgia unequivocally said it wants to become a member of NATO, then by fueling the conflict and demonstrating that the Georgian armed forces aren't capable of controlling the entire territory, Russia has been tacitly trying to demonstrate that Georgia isn't fit to become a NATO member."

After a similar political shock in Ukraine, with an "Orange Revolution" exactly one year later, from November 2004-January 2005, where yet another pro-Western leader rose to power, Russia adopted a more aggressive course seeking to prevent and even preempt any such "colored revolutions" in other key areas along its periphery, or "near abroad." This course featured an increasingly common and effective use of energy as leverage over many of the former Soviet states. It also included a policy of more direct confrontation with Georgia, culminating in a virtual trade war in 2004, with new Russian restrictions on Georgian products and commerce.

Against this backdrop of mounting tension, Russia's overwhelming response to a Georgian military attempt to restore control over South Ossetia in August should not be seen as unexpected, as originally thought. But the scale and scope of the clash between Georgian and Russian forces posed the most significant shift in regional security in more than 15 years. More specifically, the Georgian-Russian conflict rapidly expanded, directly impacting Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey. It further sparked both direct intervention by the European Union and NATO and even triggered a fresh row between Moscow and Washington.

Although the roots of the August clash can be traced to the mounting tension between Russian interests and Georgian aspirations, it was initiated by a Georgian miscalculation. The conflict began with a large-scale Georgian assault on the break-away region of South Ossetia, which the Georgian side contended was in response to sporadic cross-border attacks and mortar fire targeting Georgian positions. But as Georgian forces entered South Ossetia and initially seized the capital Tskhinvali in attempt to subdue the separatist region, Russian forces responded with an overwhelming show of force, deploying substantial military forces and ground troops and quickly repulsing the Georgian incursion.

Looking back at the military campaign, it is now clear that the Georgian military strategy was significantly flawed from the start, based on an underestimation of the Russian response and an over-confident assessment of its own capabilities, compounded by an unrealistic expectation of Western support. Operationally, the Georgian offensive was also inadequate from the start. Georgian forces launched an infantry assault against Tskhinvali, which is situated in a valley surrounded by Georgian-populated villages. The offensive followed a preparatory artillery attack that included the use of notoriously imprecise truck-mounted GRAD multiple-barreled rocket launchers, widely seen as an instrument more suited to indiscriminate attacks on civilians and non-military targets.

Such a tactic seemed to also have been aimed at forcing out the population of South Ossetia, which numbered a mere 70,000 during peacetime and was considerably less in the wake of a mass evacuation in the days just prior to the military campaign. Such an attempt to forcibly alter the demography of the region tends to be confirmed by the Georgian failure to attack the Roki tunnel, the sole reliable land link between South Ossetia and neighboring North Ossetia within the Russian Federation. But Georgia's apparent failure to target the tunnel was a fatal mistake, as this land route gave Russian forces secure and unopposed access and greatly reduced the danger of over-extended supply lines.

The second stage of the Russian campaign opened a new front in northwestern Georgia, as Russia deployed 1,000 airborne forces from three assault companies to Abkhazia, Georgia's larger and second separatist region. Landing in ships from the Russian port of Novorossiysk, this force established a bridgehead and assumed positions along Abkhazia's Black Sea coast, moving quickly to prepare to challenge Georgian positions in the Upper Kodori Gorge, a valley strategically dividing Abkhazia from Georgia proper. This force was also tasked with securing the road to Abkhazia to prevent any attempt by Georgian units to reinforce its positions.

For the Georgians, the Russian response was both rapid and overwhelming and, as the first military offensive beyond Russia since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, its severity was unexpected. It was equally unexpected for the United States, which had just days before shifted the one satellite covering the South Caucasus region to South-West Asia in order to provide greater surveillance of Pakistan because of the forced resignation of then-President Pervez Musharraf during the same week in August. This deprived the U.S. of realtime intelligence on the battlefield situation and contributed to the fact that both the U.S. and Georgia were caught off-guard by the Russian deployment.

Although the duration of open hostilities was fairly brief, the Russian response significantly decimated Georgian military capabilities while shattering Georgia's NATO aspirations and destroying any chance of it regaining Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The Russian military campaign moved well beyond the objectives of securing South Ossetia and Abkhazia and pushed through to secure a perimeter security zone within Georgia proper. An essential element of this plan was to decimate fundamental Georgian military capabilities by pursuing retreating Georgian units, destroying as much heavy equipment as possible and by specifically targeting all Georgian military facilities and bases, even those not involved in the conflict, in order to disrupt the Georgian military's critical infrastructure. Russia's targeting of key Georgian military resources included successful air attacks on the Georgian bases at Kojori, Senaki and Gori, as well as against Black Sea port facilities at Poti, the Marneuli and Vaziani airfields, and an aviation plant outside of Tbilisi. The cumulative effect was the near-complete destruction of each component of Georgia's military infrastructure.

In addition, although reflecting President Saakashvili's political agenda of restoring his country's territorial integrity by restoring central control over the break-away regions, in strictly military terms, the offensive was the first, and last, test of his U.S.-trained Georgian troops.

In light of the combination of fundamental tactical shortcomings and serious strategic blunders in the Georgian campaign to retake South Ossetia, it seems clear that the flaws in Georgian military planning were based on two key factors: an over-confident assumption of its own combat readiness and capabilities, as well as a serious underestimation of the scale and scope of the Russian response.

The first of these factors can be traced to the U.S.-run $64 million "Georgia Train and Equip Program" (GTEP) and the subsequent "Sustainment and Stability Operations Program" (SSOP). Yet despite the seemingly impressive U.S. efforts, even after several years of training and equipping, the Georgian military remained incapable of taking on the Russian military in a direct confrontation. Moreover, neither U.S. program was ever aimed at enhancing the combat readiness or offensive capabilities of the Georgian armed forces.

For Armenia, there are three main implications from the Georgian experience. The first lesson for Armenia was a political demonstration of Russian willingness to confront any perceived threat to its interests along its borders. Without judging the Russian response to Georgia, it seems clear that the events of this August confirmed Russia's determination to reassert its power and influence in the South Caucasus. From an Armenian perspective, it has also tended to dampen any Armenian hopes for greater flexibility in deepening its ties with the West in general, or with NATO in particular (though such aspirations have always paled compared to Armenia's understood allegiance to Mother Russia).

Another negative element of this political lesson was that although Moscow extended diplomatic recognition of the independence of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, there would be no such recognition of Nagorno Karabakh. In this way, Russian policy, even toward its "allies," was limited and not always as pro-Armenian as many in Yerevan fervently believe.

A second, related lesson for Armenia was that the danger of military conflict in the region was not as distant or implausible as once thought. Similarly, the Azeri view of the Georgian-Russian conflict posed a new worry for Armenian military officials. Specifically, Azerbaijan's assessment of Georgian actions differed from most by judging that President Saakashvili's most important blunder was not necessarily that he resorted to a military attempt to resolve his country's unresolved conflicts by force. Rather, Azerbaijan argued that the Georgian mistake was to use the military option against South Ossetia prematurely, before its military was adequately prepared or strong enough. The implication for Armenia is that Azerbaijan remains committed to possibly exercising a military option to take back Nagorno Karabakh, but only once it is ready and powerful enough to ensure success.

The third implication for Armenia, concerning the economic vulnerability of relying on Georgia as a key trade and transit route, is by far the most significant. The immediate economic impact on Armenia from the conflict in Georgia was a powerful shock, culminating in a sudden five-day shortage of gasoline and a one-third reduction in imports of Russian natural gas. But the longer term significance was that Armenia continues to be dangerously vulnerable to relying on Georgia for much of its energy imports and as a major trade route for both imports and exports.

As long as its eastern and western borders remain closed, Armenia will be vulnerable to Georgia's relationship with the outside world in order to maintain its own connection of trade and overland communication—vulnerability graphically demonstrated during tense weeks in August.

Richard Giragosian is a Yerevan-based analyst specializing in military issues and geopolitics of former Soviet countries.

Originally published in the November 2008 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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