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.
Indeed, upon his seizure of power in the “Rose Revolution” of 2003, 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. Moreover, Saakashvili wagered on the broadest possible alliance with the United States and NATO, and on the formation of the Georgian Army according to Western models, with significant US military assistance. 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. Georgia has recently made massive purchases of military equipment, including Soviet-made arms from Ukraine and Eastern Europe, as well as modern Western and Israeli equipment. A significant part of the new Georgian army got real field experience in Iraq, in cooperation with the US Army.
The Georgian air-defense system represents a symbiosis of what it inherited from the collapse of the Soviet Union and new acquisitions from former Warsaw Pact and Soviet successor states.
During Soviet times, the 19th Tbilisi Air-Defense Army of the Soviet Air-Defence Troops was deployed in Georgia (reduced to an Air-Defense Corps in 1991). It included three SAM brigades in Tbilisi, Poti, and Echmiadzin, armed with S-75 (SA-2) and S-125 (SA-3) SAM systems, a separate SAM regiment armed with S-75 SAM systems (SA-2, deployed in Gudauta, Abkhazia), and a separate SAM regiment near Tbilisi, equipped with S-200 (SA-5) long-range SAM systems, as well as two radar brigades. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, some of the Soviet Armed Forces, including air defense, did not fall under Georgian jurisdiction, but remained under Russian control. During the early 1990s, all of the aforementioned air-defense divisions on Georgian territory were dismantled and their equipment transferred to Russia for scrapping. Nonetheless, Georgian forces seized some air-defense equipment from the Russian military, including at least one S-75 and two S-125 SAM battalions, as well as a few P-18 Spoon Rest radars. These systems were put into service to form the base of the air defenses of the Georgian armed forces. The Georgians used the S-75 SAM battalions in the war with Abkhazia in 1992-1993 and shot down a Russian Su-27 fighter near Gudauta on March 19, 1993.
The S-75 battalion was removed from service in Georgia, but the two S-125 Neva-M low- to high-altitude SAM systems battalions was deployed in Tbilisi and Poti (a total of seven quadruple rail launchers) and those in service with the Georgian Air Force had been modernized by Ukrainian specialists by 2005.
We begin by setting the stage. The region of South Ossetia is largely surrounded by nearly insurmountable mountains. Except for groups of mountain infantry without much by way of heavy equipment, and the odd mountain goat, the eastern and western sides of the roughly oval-shaped quasi-republic are quite impenetrable. In the south, a single pass leads into the region from the Georgian town of Gori, coincidentally Iosif Stalin's birthplace; this pass eventually exits into a hilly countryside and empties into something like a bowl-shaped depression, in the middle of which lies Ossetia's capital city of Tskhinvali (also pronounced "Tskhinval") - pre-war population of between 20 and 30 thousand. Beyond Tskhinvali, a single road leads north towards the only route navigable across the region's northern border by any sort of transport - the Rok Tunnel, which had been cut through miles of rock back during the Soviet days and connects directly with North Ossetia, an autonomous region of the Russian Federation. The remainder of South Ossetians are scattered in villages around Tskhinvali, although before the war several ethnic Georgian enclaves also remained.
(...) Deployment of the opposing sides prior to the conflict was as follows.
The Georgian military before the conflict numbered approximately 20,000 combat troops, with another 10,000 logistical and administrative personnel and a further 7,000 of Interior Ministry troops (glorified SWAT teams with armored vehicles). Equipment was generally of Soviet make, with official pre-war strength at 82 T-72 and 110 T-55 tanks of all marks with first-generation ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor); about 150 BMP armored fighting vehicles, another 80-100 medium and heavy APCs and at least 100 light wheeled APCs; roughly 40-50 self-propelled (all 152mm) and 130 towed (about 100 122mm, the rest 152mm) artillery pieces, plus 35-45 multiple rocket launch systems; 15-20 combat aircraft plus another 15 light jet trainers and roughly 80 helicopters of all types.
(...) On the other side of the mountains, we have Abkhazia with between 5,000 and 10,000 regular troops (the number varies year-to-year) plus 28,000 reservists; roughly 60 tanks, about 40 of them T-72s and the remainder T-55s; 116 APCs and BMP IFVs; 85 artillery pieces and mortars (total); 5 SU-25 aircraft, about a half-dozen other fixed-wing and 2 rotary aircraft, and 21 patrol boats. Think - a brigade, maybe two, with modest armor and artillery support.
Finally, pre-war South Ossetia - a region with a total population of significantly lower than 120,000 (just how much lower depends on whether one counts the ethnic Georgians, most of whom have now surely fled; 70,000 to 80,000 is likely the "real" number here) - had 3,000 regular troops and 15,000 reservists (pretty much any male old enough to hold a gun and not yet so old as to preclude him from using it effectively), plus 200 "militarized SWAT" and 900 police; nominally 75 T-72s and 12 T-55s, 80 BMP-1 and BMP-2 IFVs and 85 BTR-70 and BTR-80 APCs; 42 122mm and 152mm "Gvozdika" and "Akatsia" self-propelled artillery vehicles plus another 80 towed artillery and mortar pieces; a few ZSU-23 "Shilka" and towed 100mm AAA, plus "Igla" MANPADS, an unspecified amount of RPG-7 and RPG-22 weapons, and 4 Mi-8 helicopters. There may have been a few more combat helicopters, including - ground reports indicate - at least 3 American UH-1s (don't ask me how they got there...). Basically, one brigade, plus or minus. As it turned out, "minus", due to the issue with Ossetia's tanks and BMPs (see below).
(...) And oh yes - the Russians. The Russians, as it happened, had designated the entire area as the "Caucasus Military District", with the bulk of the military forces therein provided by the 58th Army, with air support provided by the 4th Air and Air Defense Army. The 58th's somewhat-dated OOB included the 19th Motor Rifle Division, the 205th Motor Rifle Brigade, the 136th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, the 135th Motor Rifle Regiment, the 291st Artillery Brigade (equipped with towed 152mm 2A65 guns); the 943rd Multiple Rocket Launcher Regiment (220mm "Uragan" MRLS); the 1128th Anti-tank Regiment; the 67th AA Rocket Brigade (first- and next-generation SA-11); and the 487th Helicopter Regiment (Mi-8 and Mi-24 "Hind" helos). The 19th Motor Rifle includes 3 Motor Rifle regiment (each with a tank battalion), a separate tank regiment (mostly T-72s, I believe), an "Akatsia" 152mm SP artillery regiment; and organic air defense. Prior to the conflict, apparently the 58th Army was reinforced with some of the newer weapon systems in the Russian arsenal, such as the S-300 long-range SAM, the new MRLS system (forgot the designation, but makes the 220mm Uragan pale by comparison), etc. The 4th Air Army has several regiments of Mig-29 (F-16-like) and Su-27 (F-15-like) fighters as well as Su-24 (F-111 equivalent), Su-25 (A-10-like) and Tu-22 bombers and recon aircraft, plus Mi-24 Hinds and a bunch of transport helicopters.