Military Modernization in Post Rose Revolution Georgia (Part Three)

The article below (part three) is the conclusion of my series on Georgian military modernization in the years following the Rose Revolution of 2003.

In parts one and two, I examined the catalysts for the re-prioritization of national security and defense policies and capabilities under former President Mikheil Saakashvili and how the path to membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and pursuit of the NATO security umbrella compromised Tbilisi’s effort to modernize the Georgian military sufficiently to defend Georgia against external attack. Today, I will examine the military reform process and assess Georgian military modernization in the context of the Georgian military’s performance against Russia in the war of August 2008. Further, I will finish this three-part series by assessing the success or failure of national security and defense re-prioritization under Saakashvili’s government.

You can find parts one and two here:

Part One

Part Two

Thank you for reading.

Eric Jones
Foreign Intrigue


The Military Reform Process Under Saakashvili

Much of the prioritization of security and pursuit of NATO membership (a policy which in turn caused insecurity in Moscow), revolved around the issue of the unresolved separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As stated by Robert Legvold in his chapter “Outlining the Challenge” in Statehood and Security: Georgia After the Rose Revolution:

The reality that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are defacto mini-states within Georgia’s borders, that Georgian writ has no standing in areas seen as integral to the Georgian state, and that the national government remains powerless to change the question of national security as nothing else can.

Because Russia is universally perceived as originally a party to Abkhazian separatism, subsequently as an obstacle to a Georgian-Abkhazian settlement, and ultimately as manipulating the Russian-Abkhazian relationship to pressure Tbilisi, the internal dimension of Georgian security automatically becomes international and highly inflammatory. Russia, viewd from the Georgian perspective, constitutes the single most dangerous factor in Georgia’s international environment. The reasons are many: Russia is seen as having stalled on the removal of its remaining military basese in Georgia in order to intimidate Georgia’s leaders or at least to prevent these facilitites from falling into U.S. or NATO hands.; it is viewed as bullying and willing to violate Georgian sovereignty if it thinks its war in Chechnya warrants it; it is assumed to be behind past attempts to assassinate former President Shevardnadze; and it is suspected of doing everything from interrupting gas services to conniving with the regime’s opponents in order to dictate Georgia’s choices. But what consolidates these impressions and gives them special resonance is Russia’s assumed readiness to abet Abkhazian and Ossetian separatism or, at a minimum, to exploit these conflicts with the aim of weakening or pressuring Georgia’s national leadership. (Robert Legvold, “Outlining the Challenge,” in Bruno Coppieters and Robert Legvold, eds., Statehood and Security {Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2005}, 13-14.)

The issue of separatism was impacted greatly by the Saakashvili government’s efforts to modernize the Georgian military in the wake of the Rose Revolution. The Georgian military had previously gone through phases of reform and modernization after independence. After performing below acceptable standards in the battle against Abkhazian separatists in the wars following independence, efforts had been made by the Shevardnadze government to sustain a level of competence in executing the basic tasks of defending the country from external attack as well as battling the separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In the aftermath of the civil war, reform for the Georgian military was determined to be a high priority. In assessing the shortcomings of the performance of the Georgian military during the civil war, Pukhov notes:

On the whole, the Georgian military effort in Abkhazia was plagued by the lack of a single military command and the resulting inability to concentrate the resources and manpower where it really mattered. It also suffered from undisciplined commanders in the field, who were often too eager for glory to follow orders. (Vyacheslav Tseluiko, “Georgian Army Reform under Saakashvili Prior to the 2008 Five Day War”, The Tanks of August {Moscow: Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, 2010}, 10)

Tseluiko goes on to assess the impact of the reforms that took place under both Shevardnadze and Saakashvili and how they contributed to the performance of the Georgian military during the war in August 2008. Specifically, Tseluiko notes procurement of arms and equipment by Georgia in the years following the civil war and prior to the revolution under the leadership of Shevardnadze:

Apart from training, Georgia also received foreign assistance in the form of arms and equipment. The United States donated scores of trucks and 10 Bell UH-1H helicopters (four of them were to be cannibalized for parts). Another two helicopters of the same type were received from Turkey. Ukraine gave 10 L-29 trainer jets and the Tbilisi fast attack craft-missile (Project 206MR). On the whole, the Georgian army had begun to improve undershevardnadze- but that process continued at a much greater pace following the arrival of Saakashvili. (Vyacheslav Tseluiko, “Georgian Army Reform under Saakashvili Prior to the 2008 Five Day War”, The Tanks of August {Moscow: Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, 2010}, 10)

Photo courtesy of DivineDanteRay and Wikimedia Commons.

Photo courtesy of DivineDanteRay and Wikimedia Commons.

Under Saakashvili, the modernization process surged. A noted reformer and a man deeply skeptical of Russian motivations and security goals, Saakashvili’s military reforms were borne largely out of fear that Russian aggression would eventually materialize in the form of armed conflict in Georgia. Saakhashvili ordered reviews of defense policy and sought to gain understanding of the types of reform policies that would improve Georgia’s ability to defend itself against attack. Priorities were listed as territorial integrity, stability in the Caucasus and the Black Sea region, and securing a role for Georgia as a transit corridor. (Ibid, Tseluiko) In addition to priorities, Saakashvili also laid out the challenges that the country’s army would face. They included violations of Georgia’s territorial integrity, the spread of armed conflict from outside the country, military aggression by other nations, terrorist attacks and sabotage against infrastructure, contraband and international crime, and the threat posed by Russian military bases located on Georgian territory pending withdrawal. (Ibid, Tseluiko) The threat posed by large-scale aggression was prioritized the highest. While the priorities were appropriately understood and the threats anticipated correctly, the Georgian military found itself failing in its test during the war in 2008. In short, the execution of policies driven by the priorities and the threat assessment led to the failure of the army in performing the task of defending the country during the war of August 2008.

Preparations for conflict, primarily in the style of large-scale aggression, were codified in planning strategy. Additionally, the Georgian forces were required to be able to take part “…in military action as part of a coaition as well as to fight on their own in situations such as foreign aggression.” (Ibid, Tseluiko) This latter point speaks to Saakashvili’s motivation to prove that his military forces were capable of both defending the territorial integrity of the country as well as integrating into a joint military command effectively. These two points are salient: these requirements were an effort to ensure that the country was following the path laid out in MAP to membership in NATO. But as Tseluiko points out, the reorganization of the Georgian army in that effort meant a diversion of forces and valuable supplies to missions where NATO and the US participated. In this respect, the diversionary nature of the Iraq war reduced the effectiveness of the Georgian army. While the army’s participation in the Iraq war gained it valuable experience in joint operations, it diverted from time that would have been spent training the force to defend against large-scale aggression. In a campaign of counter-guerilla warfare in Iraq, the Georgian army did not experience the type of mission that would it would later have to face in the war against the Russian invaders. The priorities of the Saakashvili policy reforms, to defend against a conventional large-scale aggressor, were left behind as the army fought an unconventional campaign in Iraq. Tseluiko summarizes it this way:

  1. The development of Georgia’s military capability in 2003-2008 was adversely affected by two contradictory approaches to the overall task of protecting the country from large-scale foreign aggression. One was for Georgia to join NATO, the other to rely on its own army.
  2. Georgia was making no secret of the fact that it viewed Russia as its most likely adversary. Russia figured first and foremost in the Saakashvili regime’s planning for both the most dangerous scenario (large-scale aggression) and the most likely (escalation in the form autonomies).
  3. The requirement for the Goergian army to be prepared for the two different scenarios (the most likely and the most dangerous) translated into the need for a universal combat capability.
  4. To fend off potential Russian aggression, the Georgian government relied on the doctrine of Total Defense, based on the heavy involvement of the civilian population as part of a large military reserve. (Vyacheslav Tseluiko, “Georgian Army Reform under Saakashvili Prior to the 2008 Five Day War”, The Tanks of August {Moscow: Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, 2010}, 10)

The restructuring of the command elements under Saakashvili was another important aspect of the regime’s reform efforts. These were made in accordance with NATO recommendations. (Ibid, Tseluiko) The issue arose that this restructuring was fundamentally at odds with Saakashvili’s “ambition to ‘restore the territorial integrity’ of the country. (Ibid, Tseluiko) The army was increased from 28,000 to 32,000 in personnel strength on September 14, 2007. (Ibid, Tseluiko) Many of the new elements were not provided time to complete training courses and were consequently not ready for employment against an armed aggressor. Later, in July 2008 as the army was again expanded (this time to 37,000), the restructuring was far from complete and the command element reconceptualization had not been streamlined for capability.



So, in the final sense, what caused the failure of the military modernization policy reformation and the effort to ensure Georgian defense capability against the Russian invasion? In total, while the prioritizations of defense against a large-scale aggressor and the modernization of equipment, weapons, and training were appropriately laid out by Saakashvili’s government after it took power, the Georgian army failed in its test against Russia largely due to two overarching factors:

  1. The deployment of Georgian army elements to Iraq was in support of an unconventional mission. This was in direct contravention of established priority to modernize the military to defend the country against a large-scale aggressor and to regain control over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The task of fighting an unconventional mission was at the expense of training to fight a conventional threat.
  2. The failure of the Georgian army to thoroughly complete the training of new units and the expansion of the ranks to include personnel with no previous experience constrained the time by which the army could be prepared to fight the invading Russian force. This rapid modernization effort traded efficiency for numbers.
Photo courtesy of Rob Sinclair and Wikimedia Commons.

Photo courtesy of Rob Sinclair and Wikimedia Commons.

Exacerbating the conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow was the Georgian army’s preoccupation with the war in Iraq. This diversion effectively reduced training time for new army personnel, affected the integration of a new command structure and its familiarity with the force, and provided unconventional war experience to an army that would be called upon to fight a conventional fight in 2008. Further, while the priorities laid out by Saakashvili in his effort to reform the military were focused and proved to be anticipatory of the threat that Georgia would face, the earnestness in which Saakashvili pursued joint integration with the U.S. proved to divert the military from training time concentrating on large-scale aggressor threats and placed a large component of the Georgian military abroad (in Iraq) during the time that Russia invaded.

The decision to deploy the Georgian army in support of U.S.-led operations in Iraq perhaps enticed the Russian government, under the leadership of Medvedev, that invading in August 2008 would lead to an easy victory. It is likely that the lack of readiness, embodied by the ineffective training of the new force personnel and the deployment of forces to Iraq during the timeframe of the summer of 2008, encouraged the Russian command to recommend invasion in August 2008. The speed at which the Georgian army modernized was beneficial in procurement of weapons and equipment. While the enlargement of the force structure itself, from 18,000 to an eventual 37,000, was impressive, it was not adequately trained. Thoroughness in training the new force was expended for the expediency of garnering experience in joint command through participation in the Iraq war. While the army itself grew rapidly and impressively, its capability in defending the country against attack in the war of August 2008 was rendered ineffective due to execution of policy, not the prioritization of reform policies.

(Featured photo courtesy of Paata Vardanashvili and Wikimedia Commons)


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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: