Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


In Georgia, Russia saw its Army's shortcomings

Decades of neglect, outdated technology, and an ineffective conscript system reduced the capabilities of the Russian Army.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 10, 2008

Military giant? A Russian soldier works on his truck.

Seiron Baroian/AFP/Getty Images

Enlarge

Moscow

The global perception of the Russia-Georgia war this summer is that an armored juggernaut of old Soviet military proportions rolled over its puny rival after a five-day conflict.

Skip to next paragraph

But the view from Moscow is different. Many Russian military experts are still shaking their heads in dismay over a catalog of delays and mistakes that plagued the Russian Army's thrust into South Ossetia.

"The war made it clear that we have all kinds of shortcomings in equipment, training, battlefield coordination, and intelligence," says Alexei Arbatov, a military expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

The Russian Army's questionable performance has prompted urgent debate here over Russia's need for a modern, mobile, professional army capable of rapidly responding to challenges that might erupt along Russia's long borders with its unstable post-Soviet neighbors. In fact, the August conflict is giving fresh impetus for a 30 percent jump in defense spending, and a military modernization plan.

It comes on top of years of accumulated oil revenues, and an increasingly patriotic public mood.

"Russia has changed a lot lately, and the spirit in the country is different from what it used to be," says Lt. Gen. (Ret) Gennady Yevstasyev, a senior adviser to the PIR Center, an independent security think tank in Moscow. "The public will now support major military reform, even if it entails financial hardship. Many things that were stalemated for years will now move forward."

Already, Russian defense budgets are set to leap next year to a post-Soviet record of over $50 billion. Similar jumps are projected for coming years as well.

The fresh increases, announced by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in late September, are in addition to a special $200-billion procurement program aimed at restoring the country's degraded strategic forces.

Mr. Arbatov argues that Russia's military problems run deeper than just two decades of neglect. "There is no political leadership over military organization. Nor is there any democratic control. The system needs to be changed," he says.

Russian forces entering South Ossetia lacked even basic intelligence regarding Georgian artillery positions and troop deployments, which led several of their leading units into costly ambushes. In one surprise attack, the 58th Army's senior commander, Gen. Anatoly Khrulyev, was badly wounded and had to be evacuated.

In a desperate effort to get information, the Russians sent an electronic reconnaissance version of the Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire bomber over the battlefield and it got shot down. In all, Russia lost four planes, including three Sukhoi Su-25 attack fighters to unexpectedly effective Georgian air defenses. Some Russian commanders reported using cellphones to communicate with their units when their own radios failed.

Additionally, the tanks deployed by the Russian Army did not have night sights for their guns, and the reactive armor designed to protect them from Georgian antitank weapons proved unreliable.

President Dmitry Medvedev spoke about the Georgia war as a wake-up call for the Kremlin. "A war can flare up suddenly and can be absolutely real," he said to military leaders late last month. "Local smouldering conflicts ... can turn into a real conflagration."

Permissions