Small Wars Journal

The Battle of Tskhinvali Revisited

Wed, 10/08/2014 - 3:11pm

The Battle of Tskhinvali Revisited

Frederic Labarre


More than half a decade has passed since the first conventional war of the 21st century – however brief – came to an end. This author had produced one of the first case studies of the battle of Tskhinvali, published as “Sustainable Armor Capability for Small Powers: The Case of Georgia in the August War” in the Baltic Security and Defence Review (Vol. 11, number 2) in late 2009. The main objective of the article was to shape a case study to inform small power policy-making on the procurement and employment of a sustainable armored capability defined as “main battle tanks” (MBTs).

In effect, the article served to inform the policies of the Baltic States where the author was posted in 2000-2001, and 2008-2010. The battle of Tskhinvali served as a cautionary tale to small powers, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who consider procuring an armour complement to their force structure. The Baltic States have integrated the lessons of the battle of Tskhinvali, and are jointly purchasing 50 million Euros’ worth of anti-tank ammunition for their existing Carl-Gustav recoilless guns.[i]

Yet, there are many aspects of this battle that were unknown in the few months following the event. The events described in this case study have been pieced together from three separate interviews conducted in early 2009 with three serving Georgian officers who have participated in the conflict, and with discussions with South Ossetian eyewitnesses and other experts. Their recollections have been corroborated to the greatest extent possible from open sources. At that moment, the Russian point of view, had been represented from media analyses, namely from Krasnaia Zvezda (Red Star), and other Russian news outlets. Today, many sources offer analyses of the events from the Russian perspective, and many other details have emerged besides (not least through official investigations led by the European Union). The time has come for an update of “Sustained Armor Capability” to acknowledge the new information that has come to us, and more particularly, the information that has come from the Russian side of the equation. This article is therefore a synthesis of the best available literature coming from the Russian side, and which is employed here to test the validity of the information collected by the author in interviews conducted in early 2009, as well as the quality of the information that was available at the time from open Russian sources.

This exercise is important precisely because of the saliency of information as a factor of influence in warfare. This has always been true, especially when one analyses information within the context of signals and intelligence. But information here is understood as public information, i.e., the news as a lever of influence of the two sides. It is an interesting coincidence that the first war to be covered by reporters occurred not far from Georgia; a few hundred kilometres to the west, in the Crimea in the middle of the 19th century. The influence of information on the popular consciousness and consequently on the outcome of the war effort can be ascertained by Alfred (Lord) Tennyson’s poem, the Charge of the Light Brigade, celebrating the folly of Lord Cardigan’s charge at Balaklava in October 1854.

So imagine now, if you will, the performance of military action, both by the Russians and Georgians, within the context of social media scrutiny. Not only was this the first conventional war of the 21st century (in many ways, the last war of the 20th century, perhaps), but this was also the first war conducted under the aegis of Facebook, VKontakte, and YouTube. Although we do not analyse the importance of this fact here, we postulate of its saliency because of the potential for disinformation by either side’s official channels, as well as by independent individuals. Therefore to reappraise an article which was written within and published within a year of the events is necessary. To do it five years after the event is prudent.

The method we will use here is to retake the text which was submitted in 2009, and bring correctives and additional information to the text. Some stylistic changes were also made to ease reading, as we bring in more information on the Russian and Georgian force structures. The reader should also be aware that the text uses the 24 hour military time depiction, so that midnight is 0000 hours and noon is 1200 hours. The sources employed for this come from Ruslan Pukhov’s (ed.) The Tanks of August, published by the Centre for Analysis, Strategies and Technology (CAST), in Moscow in 2010, as well as Anatoliy Dimitrievitch Tsyganok’s Voina 08.08.08: Prinuzhdenie Gruzii k Miru (The War of 08.08.08: The Georgian Assault on Peace), published at Moscow’s Vetche publishing house in 2011. As we will see, from an informational point of view, some questions about the course of events remain unanswered.

This is an attempt at establishing the facts as to how Georgia’s armored capability fared against what emerged to be as the Russian 58th Army’s 19th Motor Rifle Division (MRD) which descended upon Tskhinvali through the Roki tunnel.[ii] An article in Aviation Week & Space Technology spells out the nature of this confrontation as a “flawed fight: Georgians anticipated no response and Russian pilots expected no opposition.”[iii] Perhaps with new information, we can refine on that judgment.

Tskhinvali Battle Case Study

In the late afternoon of 7 August 2008, Major Z.J. turned off his computer, and prepared to leave his work at the General Staff of the Georgian Armed Forces (GAF) in Tbilisi.[iv] His phone rang as he closed his office door. He was told that the GAF was on alert level three (mid-range in a five level gradation, with 5 being normal readiness level, and 1 all-out war).[v] This was unusual. Elsewhere in the GAF, there were no such dilemmas; Maj. R.B. was on duty in the 4th Brigade in Avnevi, and Maj. B.A., of the 1st Brigade, was patrolling the Iraqi sands. For these three men and some ten thousand others, these were the last hours of relative calm at the end of what had been a busy week.

Georgian troops had moved up to the South Ossetian border in response unusually intense mortar and small arms fire from South Ossetia. According to Tsyganok, this in fact represented the “third phase” of Georgia’s preparation for blitzkrieg, with the 3rd Georgian Infantry Brigade in first echelon. By the evening of 7 August, some 75 tanks and 12000 GAF and interior ministry troops would be arrayed against Tskhinvali.[vi] Until then, Georgian officials had been conferring with the Russian peacekeepers[vii] in the restive province since 2 August, date at which the Russian 58th Army had just returned from its annual “North Caucasus” exercise.[viii]

During the day of 7 August, following week-long negotiations with Georgian Minister for Reintegration (and later Georgian Ambassador to the United States) Temuri Yakobashvili, the Russian peacekeepers told the Georgians that they could no longer “control the South Ossetians.”[ix] At 2335, Georgian artillery opened fire on Tskhinvali and its environs. Anton Lavrov, writing for CAST, places a conversation between Georgian General Mamuk Kurashvili and Russian Major General Marat Kulakhmetov ten minutes later where the Georgians emitted guarantees for the safety of the Russian peacekeepers.[x] However Tsyganok places a final conversation between the two officers at 0042 in the night of 7 to 8 August, in which Georgia’s intention to restore the constitutional order by force was intimated.[xi]

At 0300 on the morning of the 8th of August, Maj. Z. J. was woken up; “we’re at level one. Your presence is required at the Gori command center immediately.”[xii] Only then did he learn that a Georgian artillery brigade located on the outskirts of Gori had been attempting to delay an alleged Russian advance towards the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali with its “Grad” batteries. Georgia was now at war. By some accounts, Georgian artillery had already been working Tskhinvali over for some time, submitting it to a 14-hour bombardment which resulted in the destruction of up to 70 percent of the city.[xiii]

The “Grad” multiple rocket launchers were laying their fire at the limit of their range, between the town of Djava and on a string of villages loyal to Tbilisi, but it is probable now that some fire was also coming from the east, along the Prisi heights, as the Georgian 3rd Brigade made successful inroads in that direction early on in the conflict. Anton Lavrov reports that the remote town of Leningori was also subjected to Georgian fire, which lends credence to this notion.[xiv] Other batteries targeted the town of Khetagurovo due west of Tskhinvali. It is likely that this latter barrage was preparing the passage for Georgia’s 4th Infantry Brigade, located in the village of Avnevi, and were invested by 41 and 42 Georgian Infantry Battalions, while 43 Battalion moved to the town of Znauri.[xv]

From the latitude of Gori, the GAF can use three roads to meet a force coming from the Roki tunnel, through which the Russian 19th MRD eventually fed its 135th, 503rd and 693rd motor rifle regiments (MRRs).[xvi] In effect, we have reports that Russian troops received orders to move at 0100 and crossed into South Ossetia at 0200, while the 503rd was put on alert at 0300 in the morning of 8 August.[xvii] All three roads lead through the very center of Tskhinvali, where the Russian peacekeeping mission has its headquarters. On the western side of Tskhinvali, Georgia’s 4th Armoured Brigade can move to the center of Tskhinvali from the west by route 23 and quickly end up behind the South Ossetian presidential palace after crossing the railroad tracks. From the south, the separate tank battalion and the 1st Brigade’s tank battalion that would see most of the action in the following day can best move from Gori up route P54 and make a short western detour by the villages of Kvemo Niqozi and Niqozi. Further to the south east, P2, which is actually the main road, allows an outflanking by the east of the whole town, if any tank column is so adventurous to engage onto the narrow roads leading up to Kheiti, Mamita and Dzartsemi from the east. Otherwise, a left turn from that road into town some five kilometers in the city (near the football stadium) allows a junction with P23 and P2 on the way to the Roki Tunnel, and the Russian peacekeepers’ headquarters.

In the night of the 7th to the 8th, the Georgian armed forces’ 4th Brigade’s 42nd  infantry battalion maneuvered from the village Avnevi through Khetagurovo, accompanied by fourteen T-72 tanks and four BTR-80 armored infantry fighting vehicles belonging to the 1st Brigade’s tank battalion. This tank battalion, commanded by Major D., had orders to move in the direction of the north western edge of the city of Tskhinvali on route P23. Very soon after proceeding, the tank column engaged enemy vehicles. Four cars (evidently South Ossetian fighters) equipped with SPG-9 anti-tank guns were destroyed close to the village of Tbeti, no doubt helped by the improved night-vision capability of the Georgian T-72s. Dawn would neutralize this advantage. As the 4th Brigade continued towards its assigned position, Major D. received the order to turn right into the city, at the level of the railway station. This separated the tanks from the infantry units of the 4th Brigade, which made the tanks vulnerable to South Ossetian fighters.

That day would be murderous for Major D.’s force; his tank battalion lost five tanks and crews between the railroad tracks and the city’s north western edge, at the latitude of the Russian peacekeepers’ headquarters. We now know that this damage was caused by a combination of South Ossetian militia action and Russian close air support air strikes. The action of Russian peacekeepers can safely be discounted here, as Lavrov attributes some of these hits to Anatolii Barankevitch, a high official in South Ossetia’s administration, and confirms that the intensity of the Georgian artillery had prevented Russian peacekeepers, at that moment, from effectively responding.[xviii]

While most of the 42nd battalion remained west of the city, in the open, one of its infantry companies pushed through to find itself with its back to the Russian peacekeepers’ headquarters, and face to what possibly became in the afternoon the left flank of the Russian 693rd MRR and the right flank of the 135th MRR, which was likely already within Tskhinvali. This meant that the 42nd infantry battalion’s company, which had moved up to contact without tank cover, had become unwittingly surrounded.[xix]  This contributed to the rumour in the Georgian camp that the 42nd infantry battalion had “disappeared” and this created quite an upset, momentarily demoralizing and disorienting the GAF effort.[xx] This may account for the charge made by Tsyganok that Georgian action was “incoherent” and “chaotic”.[xxi] The independent tank battalion was sent from Gori to help it disengage.[xxii] Proceeding along route P54, it passed through the Niqozi villages, then swung back to cross the railroad tracks on the south west corner of Tskhinvali. “I don’t know why they did this, but they went directly into the town. This was a mistake” says Maj. Z.J. Contact by Georgian infantry and interior ministry troops with South Ossetian irregulars was reported at 0230 in the morning of 8 August, and this may account for the decision.[xxiii] The independent tank battalion moved nevertheless some four kilometers from its base into the city.

Meanwhile, the Russian 135th MRR was maneuvering towards the north western heights above Tskhinvali, north of the village of Tbeti. Reports put the 135th MRR at the location of the Russian peacekeepers’ headquarters at 0630 on 8 August, which is a huge distance to cover in these conditions, from the Roki tunnel (25km away), if the MRR received the order to move at 0100.[xxiv] Meanwhile, the Georgian 3rd Brigade reported severe contact with a South Ossetian unit of company strength on the outskirts of Eredvi, to the east of Tskhinvali.[xxv]

Around mid-morning of 8 August, the Georgian forces attempted to effect the capture of Tskhinvali by pushing along north east along west-southwest axis, with the Georgian 4th Brigade spearheading the attack from the west, while further south, elements exited the Niqozi villages along the boulevard of Heroes and October boulevard. Another assault group used Isaakievskiy street, and moved toward Stalin street. At 1100 on 8 August the last of the Russian regiments exit the Roki tunnel. We can presume from collected reports and evidence of casualties that the Russian 135th MRR came in first, followed by the 693rd, and finally, the 503rd Russian MRRs.[xxvi] By then, Tsyganok believes that Georgian forces hold half of Tskhinvali, but Lavrov suggests that the Georgians never held more than 30 percent of the town and surrounding areas.[xxvii]

At noon on the 8th of August, the 2nd Georgian Brigade deployed from its base in Senaki.[xxviii] This brigade’s task was to control the access to the Georgian interior from Abkhazia, Georgia’s other separatist province. When the GAF understood the magnitude of the opposition, they had no choice but to commit every unit available. Indeed, in the north west of Tskhinvali, a fierce battle was raging. Inside the town, the Georgian forces have managed to get their tank battalion to occupy the junction of Moscow street and the street leading to the railway station via October street and Isaakievskiy streets.[xxix] This tank battalion became engaged by infantry close to the peacekeepers’ headquarters, and lost four tanks and crews to anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). It is doubtful that the loss was inflicted from Russian tactical air forces. UN satellite sources show that sorties were concentrating mainly on targets located deep in the Georgian rear. It is now likely that those weapons were launched from vehicles of the 19th MRD, although it was hitherto believed that they would come within range of Tskhinvali only in the afternoon of the 8th of August, we now know that elements of the Russian135th MRR were already progressing much farther south than anyone expected, along with the Russian 693rd MRR.

Meanwhile, back in the 4th Brigade, Major D. had managed to move the remaining tanks of his armored battalion (attached to the 1st Brigade) to defend the western plains of Tskhinvali. His position was in the shade of the oak grove, possibly between the 135th and the 693rd MRRs which were materializing above Tskhinvali. We now have more information as to what happened in the grove. It seems that this is where the most severe tank and human losses took place in a single instance for the Georgians. At around 1400, Major D. was alerted to an imminent air strike on the 4th Brigade. He ordered everyone out of their tanks, but as they were in the open, the Su-24s dropped anti-personnel cluster munitions on the area, wounding the Major in the leg.[xxx]  According to Lavrov, three tanks were lost to Russian air action, as well as more than 20 Georgian personnel. In addition, the 2nd Brigade was sent to relieve the 3rd Brigade in the Eredvi district to the east. This greatly contributed to the demoralization of the Georgian forces.Although wounded, Major D. ordered the tanks back, and he was rescued by civilians who took him to an aid station. The 19th MRD elements arrived in the southern suburbs of Tskhinvali in the afternoon of the 8th of August.[xxxi]

At 1400, the Georgians retreated from Tskhinvali, while president Mikhail Saakashvili announced at 1415 the opening of a humanitarian corridor to help evacuate the remaining residents of Tskhinvali. This corridor would be open between 1500 and 1800.[xxxii] Georgian interior ministry troops use this opportunity to pull back to the Niqozi villages to the south, but elsewhere, the withdrawal is massive. The ceasefire allowed the independent Georgian tank battalion to migrate back to its baseline in Gori. There is also evidence that the tank battalion of the 4th Brigade was also returning to south western positions.

It is tempting to believe that the Russian side didn’t “respect” this cease-fire, as artillery fire coming from the 693rd MRR started landing on Georgian troops at 1500. In fairness, there is no evidence that the Georgian side tried to negotiate a cease-fire with the Russians, merely that there was a unilateral lull in the fighting from the Georgian side. Whether by design or by misunderstanding, the Russian artillery went into action, and increased the Georgian panic, according to Lavrov.[xxxiii] It is during this period that the presence of the Russian air force was felt more keenly, as it hit Georgian bases in the rear, at Marneuli and Bolnisi.[xxxiv] The Russian employment of the air force is at variance with Soviet tradition, which saw this instrument more as additional artillery and close air support. In this case, the Russian side seems to have attempted to replicate some of the tenets of the American doctrine of “air-land” battle, where the air force is used in a strategic context, and not in a tactical or operational one. On the other hand, this employment agrees with the tasks given the three MRRs. According to Tsyganok, their objectives were the bases of Marneuli, Gori, Mtskheta (suburb of Tbilisi) and Senaki.[xxxv] According to Lavrov, however, the next day the Russian 4th Air Force concentrated on targets within the Tskhinvali theatre.

At 1800, Georgian forces attempted to retake Tskhinvali. Tsyganok reports that 25 tanks and 30 other infantry vehicles made an attempt along the Khetagurovo axis, so there are grounds to believe this was once again the 4th Brigade in action, supported by elements of the 2nd Brigade and the 43rd Georgian infantry battalion.[xxxvi] Meanwhile, Georgian interior ministry troops make another attempt out of the Niqozi villages to the south, and only manage, although supported by the 41st infantry battalion, to reach the southern outskirts of Tskhinvali (the so-called Shanghai district).[xxxvii]The Georgian interior ministry troops have, between 0600 and 2000 hours on 8 August, made no less than five attempts to penetrate and hold their section of Tskhinvali – to no avail.[xxxviii]

By the evening of the 8th of August, at least two Russian motor rifle regiments were attacking the Georgians in and around Tskhinvali. The 135th MRR was already to the west going down to repulse elements of the 2nd Georgian Brigade which had arrived from Senaki, most likely the 22nd and 23rd infantry battalions.[xxxix] The 693rd was pouring below Tamarasheni (north) and the 503rd was possibly by-passing the city from the east.[xl] The Russians were taking deliberate care not to enter Tskhinvali itself with their armored equipment. The plain on the west of the city would allow the Russians to fan out and dislodge the traffic jam in their rear. Some one hundred and twenty T-72 MBTs, one hundred and ninety BMP-3s and ninety-five BTR-80s were deploying against Georgia’s remaining tanks and infantry vehicles.[xli] Here, the assessment made by Tsyganok at this time during the battle seems more accurate than Lavrov’s. The former suggests that in the evening of 8 August, 4000 men, 100 armoured units, and 100 artillery units, including some 20 “Smersh” and “Uragan” systems, were descending upon South Ossetia[xlii], while the latter evaluates the force structure at 3000-3500 men and 30 tanks.[xliii]

Contrary to what this author had reported in 2009, the GAF did not own the day, despite three important successes. First, the GAF had managed to pin down the Russian peacekeeping forces. Second, they had managed to conquer and hold the Prisi heights to the east, which gave them an excellent vantage point over Tskhinvali and artillery reach all the way to Djava and the Roki tunnel, and third, they managed some maneuvering successes, mostly with the elements of the 2nd Brigade which were used to support the attack of the 3rd Brigade to the east during the early part of the day, and in support of the 4th Brigade to the west, after 1800.

Still it is now clear that by 2200, Russian and South Ossetian forces had cleared the territory of Georgian troops, although the 3rd Brigade and elements of the unready 5th Brigade clung to the north-eastern edge of the South Ossetian territory. The presence of elements from the 2nd Brigade is puzzling, as it is well known that the 2nd Brigade was ordered out of Senaki on the 8th of August with a twelve hour delay. It is possible, after all, that the totality of the brigade managed to assemble south of Tskhinvali only during the 9th of August, but that certain elements had already been despatched to battle stations to the east and west of the town.

At the end of the day, the Georgians declared a cease-fire which lasted until the morning of the 9th of August. The intensity of Georgian artillery fire, the presence of Georgian infantry, and the traumatic experience of the battle of Grozny thirteen years before and doctrine compelled the Russians to bypass the city. This would set the scene for the action on the 9th of August, which was dominated by the Russian air force.

On the 9th of August, there was no Russian-Georgian contact in the capital itself, and mainly, this was the day that the 43rd Georgian infantry battalion attempted to retake Znauri via Khetagurovo and Agara, coming two kilometres short.[xliv] According to Maj. Z.J., the Russian Air Force happened over a more or less deserted Tskhinvali, and dropped bombs on targets inside the city, but the pilots possibly mistook elements of the 503rd for Georgian troops.[xlv] This accounts for some fires that were detected by UN satellites on the main street of Tskhinvali, as well as with the reports made by Tsyganok that suggest that the 503rd was well on its way into Tskhinvali, but from the west, and not from the east, as previously believed.[xlvi] By early morning, the Russian 58th Army occupies the northern half of South Ossetia and nearly all of Tskhinvali.  Spearheaded by the 135th MRR, the Russians finally encountered the Georgian main force around 1530 in the Shanghai district of the Niqozi villages.[xlvii]

It is during this encounter that a Georgian reconnaissance platoon performed a successful ambush killing Major General Khrulëv, the 58th Army’s commanding officer, near the village of Khermeti.[xlviii] The Georgians successfully blocked the advance of the 135th MRR, to the point that the now-famous “Vostok” battalion from Chechnya was called in to help it disengage. The Russian 135th MRR’s 1st infantry battalion, who had been so hard pressed by Georgian forces, was withdrawn from Tskhinvali during the night.[xlix] In the afternoon, Georgian infrantry tries to retake positions near Gufta, and assault Tskhinvali from the Niqozi villages, but despite making a valiant show, had to withdraw in the late afternoon. During that time also, the 3rd Brigade was repulsed from the Prisi heights causing severe casualties to the attacking Russians in the village of Argvitsi.[l] To the west, the Georgian 43rd infantry battalion, which had managed to conquer the Znauri village only a few hours before, began withdrawing in panic.[li] By the end of the day, Georgian forces had come close to seizing and holding the south western part of Tskhinvali, but were repulsed a final time.

Early in the morning of 10 August, the Russian forces completed their maneuvers to ensure control of South Ossetia. Beginning at 0400, the 503rd crossed the Didi Liakhvi, and made its way towards Tskhinvali. New information suggests it was followed by the 1st and 2nd motor-rifle battalions, the 1st tasked with holding downtown Tskhinvali, while the 2nd was to effect a linkage to relieve the Russian contingent at Argvitsi. Lavrov reports that at 0700 the 503rd MRR entered Tskhinvali by the west, and not the east as previously believed.[lii]It is clear that the Russian 76th airborne brigade, based in Pskov, near the Estonian border, was in theatre by the 10th of August, but Lavrov argues that this unit was already present the day before.[liii]

By then middle of the day of 10 August, half of Georgia’s tanks were out of commission due to destruction or capture, and the 3rd Brigade, to the north east, had already begun withdrawing further east, past Eredvi. The combined action of South Ossetian militias and Russian air force repulsed the remaining Georgian troops, save for a handful of soldiers who would successfully ambush a small armoured column at Zemo Khviti the next day.[liv] At 1400, Georgian evacuate Zugdidi and the South Ossetian territory.

On 10-11 August, 1966 troops from the 1st Brigade arrived in Gori from Iraq to be reunited with Major D.’s tank battalion.[lv] Upon disembarking, it seemed to Maj. B.A. that the sky was swarming with airplanes. “All one had to do was point a man-portable air defense system (MANPAD) skyward and pull the trigger for the missile to find a target”[lvi] he claims. Until then the Russian Air Force had been concentrating on targets deep in the Georgian rear. But now it seemed the Georgian skies were filled with airplanes searching frantically for artillery positions and other tactical targets. According to Maj. R.B., batteries were so well concealed that the Russian air force did not score any hits.[lvii]

Time was running out for the GAF. The unilateral cease-fire offers of the 8th and 10th of August had been offerings that the Russians had no reason of taking. Lulls in fighting allowed the 693rd and 503rd to complete the encirclement of the city. Apart from a lone contact near the stadium (allegedly between two tanks), where the Georgians prevailed, there was no contact in Tskhinvali for the remainder of the battle. By the 11th of August, the Russian 20th MRD had taken advantage of the departure of the 2nd Brigade from Senaki to enter Georgia from Abkhazia, the 76th Airborne troops from Pskov Oblast had arrived, the “Vostok” (east) and “Zapad” (west) battalions from Chechnya were already south of Tskhinvali, and the Black Sea Fleet had sunk the Georgian navy practically at anchor. At noon, the Georgians were overwhelmed, and at noon began a general retreat towards the city of Mtskheta, the north western suburb of Tbilisi. The battle of Tskhinvali was over, and the battle of Tbilisi was expected to begin. Hot on the heels of the retreating Georgians, the Russians, spearheaded by the 76th airborne, pushed all the way to Mtskheta, the north western suburb of Tskhinvali. At the end of the day, 14000 Russian troops, equipped with 100 tanks, 100 artillery pieces, 400 BMPs and 200 BTRs occupied South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and parts between Gori and Mtskheta. On the morning of the 12th of August, at 0859, Russian President Medvedev declared an end to military operations.[lviii]


Basil Henry Liddell-Hart, writing shortly after the First World War, has argued that tank formations should be used to effect breaches whereupon following infantry would expand into the opponent’s lines as an “expanding torrent”. Georgia was unable to create these conditions in the battle of Tskhinvali, and lost the engagement both tactically, operationally, and with extremely negative strategic consequences for its domestic and international objectives. We will not dwell on this here, but we will attempt to draw the appropriate conclusions, which do not differ much from those of 2009.

To recapitulate, most of the Russian-Georgian contact was composed of infantry engagements. And most if not all tank destruction occurred at the hands of infantry and air strikes, the latter after the tanks had been abandoned. In 2009, only one engagement had been alleged as being tank-on-tank, but recent revelations suggest that this is inaccurate, and that no tanks were lost – on either side – to opposing armor. According to Maj. R.B., hits on Russian tanks by Georgian infantry “required no less than four rockets to destroy a single tank.” In one instance, the first two hit the tank’s glacis, but did no damage save clearing the infantry that was riding on the vehicle at that moment. The third knocked out a track, and the tank became immobilized. The fourth hit between the turret and the chassis which made the tank erupt.[lix] Another soldier decommissioned a tank by dropping a hand grenade down the open hatch.[lx] Georgia lost nearly half of its tanks during the combats, and had to abandon most of the other half as it retreated towards Tskhinvali. The Russians report the loss of a dozen tanks. This author will not discuss further the “tally” of the Russo-Georgian war as sources are too discrepant in that regard, and also because a military intervention should never be about attrition, but about compelling the adversary to do your will.

As Lavrov has argued, it remains puzzling as to why the Georgian columns didn’t proceed directly to the Roki tunnel from their launch point in Avnevi-Khetagurovo and Gori. Instead the Georgians became repeatedly bogged down in Tskhinvali, and although they could relatively easily disengage, they never succeeded in effecting a breach precisely because of the presence of Tskhinvali. The Russian side appears not to have made this mistake and allowed only one of its MRRs to proceed south, but in this case, the belated arrival of the Russian 4th Air Force and the imprecision of its orders made a combined attack more difficult than it should have been, and offered the opportunity to the Georgians to maul the 135th somewhat, when it made it through to the southern edge of Tskhinvali. Had Russian air dominance been more assertive on the afternoon of the 8th, the war may have been shorter still and Georgian tank losses would have occurred nearly all on that day.

Yet as a method of armored force protection, Georgia developed original and efficient air defenses. Pairs of infantrymen would patrol the theatre on recreational vehicles, one driving, while the other would engage targets with his MANPAD. One of the tasks of these “motorcyclists” would be to protect the Georgian tank formations which had been positioned in a crescent all around the southern tier of the city.[lxi] These “motorcyclists” have acquitted themselves of their task successfully, no tanks having been lost to air during the battle of Tskhinvali itself, at least on the 8th of August. Here we see the triumph of innovation and a can-do attitude.

There are additional explanations for this success. The first is that the Russians were initially conducting air operations in the rear of the GAF. The second is obviously the generous provisions of air-defense arsenal that the Georgians have procured. The third may be doctrinal. Apparently Russian pilots do not have a flight mission when they leave their base; they are guided by forward air controllers (FACs) to their targets. Since the FACs were stuck in traffic several kilometers behind, pilots had to communicate with friendly South Ossetian (but inexperienced) elements on the ground by cellular phone.[lxii] Finally, Georgian sources say that Americans re-assigned a satellite whose data was being tapped by the Russians, giving it a 500 meter discrepancy. This accounts for Russian errors in targeting (including the hits on civilian structures) and explains why civilian communications were left untouched.[lxiii]

These two arguments keep alive the “tank debate”. On the one hand, it is clear that cool-headed infantry is more than a match for armor, especially in an urban environment. This lesson had been put to the test many times and many years before, by many countries. One wonders therefore why it wasn’t applied by the Georgians. On the other hand, the efficiency of the air defence supports the thesis that tank units can achieve theatre success. In the battle of Tskhinvali, the 3rd Brigade can be said to have achieved the most striking success, followed closely by the 2nd Brigade, which came in late, but was essential in keeping the Georgian hopes alive. One of the unanswered questions is the role played by the 2nd Brigade, especially since some sources do not agree (or cannot define) the time of its arrival in theatre. While elements of it came in support of both the 3rd and 4th Brigades to the east and west respectively, a form of maneuver success must be acknowledged here, as it had to cover some 20 km in either direction from its Gori launch points to assist the other units.

Finally, the performance of the Georgian artillery – which operated in typical “Soviet” fashion –is noteworthy. It operated without interruption – if sporadically – until well after the theatre of operations had been deserted by Georgian troops, and never suffered a loss. The significance of this can be attributed to the fact that in Soviet days, the Red Army’s artillery school was located in Tbilisi, but also the consequence that Soviet methods in this case may bring better results than “western” ones.


Aminov, Said, “Georgia’s Air Defense in the War with South Ossetia”, Moscow Defense Brief, 3:13, 12 Septembre 2008.

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Online sources

Interview subjects

Mr. A.P., a citizen of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia/Georgia

An unnamed American (CIV), NATO Intelligence Division

Mr. Bruce Jones (UK A, ret.) an independent analyst working in Tallinn, Estonia

Major B.A. (GEO A), a member of the 1st Brigade

Major R.B. (GEO A), a member of the 4th Brigade

Major Z.J. (GEO A), a member of the Georgian General Staff


Table 1: Georgia-Russia regimental force structure comparison 2000


Sources: Jane’s World Armies 2000,

Table 2: Georgia-Russia regimental force structure comparison 2008

Sources: Military Balance 2008, Military Balance 2009,, Ministry of Defence of Georgia, Strategic Defence Review 2007.


Table 3: The shift towards mobility in the strength numbers of a typical MRD with Georgian force structure comparison

Sources: Glantz, Soviet Military Operational Art…, 163-212, Jane’s World Armies 2000, Military Balance 2008, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Arms Trade Register 2007, and

* The number of Georgian personnel and tanks was calculated in 2009 based on the evidence provided by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the site, and SIPRI data on international trade. However, the data provided by Ruslan Pukhov, concerning the defence reform carried out under President Saakashvili paints a different story. Indeed we can add some 60 tanks to the total force structure, and 3000 men (or the equivalent of a full brigade) more. See Ruslan Pukhov, ed., Les Chars d’Août, Moscow: Vetche, 2010, 16-19.

End Notes

[i] Jaroslaw Adamowski, “Baltic States divided about Merging Armed Forces” DefenseNews (online), 11 August 2013.

[ii] The exact timing of the crossing of the tunnel is disputed. See infra.

[iii] David A. Fulghum, Frank Morring, Jr., and Douglas Barrie, “Georgians anticipated no response and Russian pilots expected no opposition”, Aviation Week & Space Technology, 1 September 2008, 23.

[iv]  The author is grateful for the three interview sessions held with three officers of the Georgian Armed Forces (GAF) and their patience in explaining the sequence of events. The author is also grateful to the Russian and South Ossetian officials who have provided support and advice, and, to the limit of their authority, offered to confirm the data presented here. As these individuals are still serving in their respective forces and agencies, they are referred to by their initials in this paper. The author is also grateful to other individuals who have vetted the events, Lieutenant General (ret.) Michel Maisonneuve, Lieutenant Colonel Michel Beauvais, Colonel Kristian Ekroll (NO A), Major Brian Boyce (USMC) for their generosity in sharing their expertise for this essay.

[v] A. D. Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08: Prinuzhdenie Gruzii k Miru, Moscow: Vetche, 2011, 115, reports that defence condition 1 readiness level had already been invoked at 1400 on 7 August 2008.

[vi] Anton Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations militaires russes et géorgiennes en août 2008 », in R. Pukhov, Les Chars d’Août, Moscow : Centre for Analysis, Strategies and Technology (CAST), 2010, 49.

[vii] Interview February 27 Maj. Z.J.

[viii] “Russia begins exercises in volatile N. Caucasus Region”, RIA Novosti, 5 July 2008, Online English version, Ironically on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Kursk.

[ix] Interview February 27 Maj. Z.J, corroborated by Marie Jégo et al., “Spécial Crise géorgienne: Autopsie d’un conflit”, Le Monde, 31 août-1er septembre 2008, 13. “Marat Koulakhmetov, le commandant de la ‘force de paix’ mixte, reçoit le négociateur [Temur Yakobashvili, minister for re-integration] géorgien. Au cours de la conversation, il lui dit son ras-le-bol des séparatistes ossètes, devenus incontrôlables.” Author’s trans.: “Marat Kulakhmetov, commanding officer of the “peacekeeping force”, receives the Georgian negotiator, Temur Yakobashvili. During the conversation, he confides in him that he is fed up with the Ossetian separatists who have become out of control.”

[x] Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08…, 116, and Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 49.

[xi] Ibid., 116.

[xii] Interview February 13, 2009, Maj. Z.J., Maj. B.K., Maj. R.B.

[xiii]  Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08…, 105.

[xiv] Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 52, puts the movement of the 3rd Georgian Brigade at 0600 on the morning of 8 August 2008, on the outskirts of Eredvi. See also “Satellite evidence of combat zone”   Ambassador Salomé Zurabishvili, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, speaking at a conference sponsored by the Austrian National Defence Academy’s Peace and Conflict Institute (IFK) 4 March 2009, spoke of the “Sanakoyev Project” where Dmitri Sanakoyev was “installed” by Tbilisi in that region to balance against Russia’s Eduard Kokoity in Tskhinvali. Although many ethnic maps declare that area as being controlled by forces loyal to Tbilisi, there is wide acknowledgement that Sanakoyev’s legitimacy was heavily challenged.

[xv]  Ibid., 46-50.

[xvi] Mark A. Smith, Russian Chronology July-September 2008, (Shrivenham, UK: Advanced Research and Assessment Group (ARAG), 08/27 November 2008, 63. “The president of Abkhazia, Sergey Bagapsh, says that a Russian military battalion from NCMD [North Caucasus Military District] entered South Ossetia.” According to Tsyganok, elements of the Russian 58th Army are already in the Roki Tunnel, separating Russia from Georgia/South Ossetia. See Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08…, 117. However, Lavrov on p. 51 says that the 503rd was put on alert at 0300 on the morning of 8 August, but gives no details as to its position. Further evidence given by Tsyganok suggests that the 135th MRR at least, was already out of Russian territory in the early morning of the 8th of August.

[xvii] Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 50. Tsyganok quotes sources from CAST to argue that the MRRs were in fact the 135th, the 503rd and the 429th, although the latter is scarcely mentioned in the texts.

[xviii] Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 56.

[xix] Email message from Maj. R.B., 21 March 2009. This email message pertains to a conversation held between Maj. R.B. and Major D. (1st Brigade), wounded midday 8 August 2008 on the western side of the capital. A.P., a Tskhinvali resident, noted two burnt out tanks on the eastern side of the railroad tracks passed the western village of Tamarasheni (Note that there is a second village called Tamarasheni, north of Tskhinvali). This information was shared with the author 4 March 2009, in a private discussion at a conference on Georgia hosted by the Austrian National Defence Academy’s Peace and Conflict Research Institute (IFK), Vienna, Austria, held 3-5 March 2008.

[xx] Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 56.

[xxi] Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08…, 106-107.

[xxii] Some accounts suggest that this may have been the mechanized element of the 5th Brigade, but by the admission of Maj. Z.J., the 5th Brigade is merely a “paper unit” and was not capable at that moment. This is supported by the fact that Bruce Jones, an independent expert working in Estonia, forwarded to the author a presentation made by the Georgian Ministry of Defence in early 2008, where four of the five Brigades are clearly identified and located, but where the fifth is missing. The report that a mechanized battalion from the 5th Brigade can be read in Marina Perevozkina, “Eto ne konflikt – eto voina”,  Nezavisimaia Gazeta, 8 August 2008, Author’s translation: “According to Anatolii Barankevitch, Georgia is preparing for major aggression. ‘Right now, not far from here [Tskhinvali] is the mechanized battalion of the 5th Georgian Brigade.’ Others [units] are headed in our direction.”

[xxiii] Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08…, 119.

[xxiv] Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 53.

[xxv] Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 52.

[xxvi] Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 53-54. If the 135th MRR is reported alongside the Russian peacekeepers’ headquarters well within the town at 0630, the 693rd is still at the Gufta bridge by late morning. Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08… 118 seems to suggest that the 135th MRR was the first at contact, and lost 12 men early in the morning of 8 August.

[xxvii] Ibid., 55. Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08…, 122-123.

[xxviii] Email of 29 January 2009, Maj. Brian Boyce (USMC), United States Defence Attaché Office, Tbilisi, Georgia.

[xxix] Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08…, 122-123.

[xxx] This is corroborated by a Tskhinvali resident contacted in Vienna, 4 March 2009, who says that there was very little air activity over the city that day. Interview with Maj. R.B., 13 March 2009. The information from interviews carried out in 2009 is hereby confirmed in Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 56.

[xxxi] I have not been able to verify the authenticity or the exact origin of the sources made on this site, but it now seems that we are talking about the southern suburbs of Tskhinvali, and not the northern suburbs.

[xxxii] Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08…, 123, and Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 57.

[xxxiii] Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 56-57.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 57.

[xxxv] Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08…, 125.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 124. The 43rd infantry battalion was indeed proceeding along the axis Khetagurovo-Znauri by the 9th of August.

[xxxvii] Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 58.

[xxxviii] Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08…, 127, and Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 54-55.

[xxxix] Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 60.

[xl] This order of battle can be deduced from piecing several sources together. The identification of the units is provided by Sergey Vasilev, “Podarivshinie Tskhinvali zhizn”, Krasnaia Zvezda, 14 August 2008,, Sergey Bogdanov, “Tsena mira”, Krasnaia Zvezda, 11 August 2008,, Mikhail Barabanov, “The August War between Russia and Georgia”, Moscow Defence Brief, 3:13, 12 September 2008, The “” site mentions only a few losses in tanks for the Russian armed forces, but identifies the location of the destruction of one T-72 belonging to the 693rd in Zemo Niqozi, a village south by south west of Tskhinvali, while other sources put the 135th above the western village of Tbeti. This leaves the 503rd unassigned, and this must have been the unit proceeding east of the city and the river.

[xli] “Russian Federation”, Jane’s World Armies 2000, Issue 6, December 1999, and James Hackett, ed., The Military Balance 2008, (London: Routledge, February 2008), 219-220, corroborated by Mikhail Barabanov, “The August War between Russia and Georgia”…

[xlii] Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08…, 128.

[xliii] Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 59.

[xliv] Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08…, 128-129.

[xlv] Aleksander Khrolenko, “Khornika prinuzhdenija k miru”, Krasnaia Zvezda, 11 August 2008, Evidently a cease-fire is worthy of the name only if all sides abide by it, otherwise, it is merely the cessation of combat by one side. Khrolenko refers to this situation cryptically; “Boi na okrainakh Tskhinvali to zatikhaiut, to vozobnoblayutsja.” Author’s translation: “Combats on the outskirts of Tskhinvali at some times die down, at others, become louder.”

[xlvi] See Appendix: “Satellite evidence of combat zone”, and Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08…, 128.

[xlvii] Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 63.

[xlviii] Ibid., 63, also Aleksander Khrolenko, “Khronika prinuzhdenia k miru”…, who in 2008 reported then that Khrulëv had been injured, not killed.

[xlix] Ibid., 65.

[l] Sergey Vasilev, “Podarivshinie Tskhinvali zhizn”…, and Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 65.

[li] Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 64-65.

[lii] Ibid., 68.

[liii] Ibid., 68. Tsyganok puts the 76th airborne in theatre at 0545 on the morning of 10 August.

[liv] Lavrov, « Chronologie des Opérations… », 72.

[lv] Corroborative notes from Maj. B.K. 16 March 2009, Lavrov puts the number of troops at 2000, see p.65.

[lvi] The February 13, 2009 interview session with Maj. Z.J., Maj. R.B. and Maj. B.K. suggests a lot of air activity over Tskhinvali, but Konstantin Makienko, “Air Farce: The Russian Air Force didn’t perform well during the conflict in South Ossetia” Russia & CIS Observer, 4:23, November 2008, says that on the 9th there was next to no activity. While a Tskhinvali resident told the author (4 March 2009, Vienna, Austria) that there were never more than two or three airplanes over Tskhinvali at any given time. Georgian sources claim up to nineteen victories over Russian aircraft, all from ground fire. While the Russian Defence Ministry will acknowledge the loss of four aircraft, Mikhail Barabanov, “The August War between Russia and Georgia” claims that the overall losses were one Tu-22M3 Backfire, one SU-24MR Fencer E, and four Su-25 Frogfoot. Said Aminov, “Georgia’s air defences in the war against South Ossetia”, Moscow Defence Brief, 3:13, September 2008, www.mdb.cast/mdb/3-2008/item3/article3/?form=print claims the same numbers but adds a possible three additional victories. Therefore the total verifiable could be as high as seven to ten airplanes shot down. Russian authorities blame the Buk-M1 surface to air missile for some of the losses, and this is corroborated by Georgian sources. See Konstantin Makienko, “Air Farce…”

[lvii] This is disputed by Mikhail Barabanov, “The August War between Russia and Georgia”… but James Hackett, ed., The Military Balance 2009, London: Routledge, February 2009, 177, proves otherwise. In February 2009, Georgia had a total of two-hundred and thirty-six pieces of artillery, and in the detail, there is no difference between the 2008 and the 2009 data. Even Tsyganok confirms that Georgian artillery continued firing, if sporadically, until 13 August 2008.

[lviii] Viktor Khudoleev, “Voiska zadatshu vypolnili”, Krasnaia Zvezda, 13 Aug. 2008, and Mark Smith, Russian Chronology…77.

[lix] 13 February 2009 interview with Maj. Z.J., Maj. R.B., and Maj. B.K. This is not uncommon and a critical factor in procurement and anti-tank force generation; RAdm Sir Anthony Buzzard, “The Possibility of Conventional Defence”, Adelphi Paper, 6, December 1963, 8. Evidence of Russian losses to anti-tank guided munitions and other man-portable anti-tank weapons is discussed in Similar experiences have been shared by South Ossetian militia, and have been reported by Tsyganok, Voina 08.08.08…124.

[lx] Conversation March 30, 2009, Maj. R.B., Maj. B.A.

[lxi] 13 February, 27 February and 12 March interviews with Maj. Z.J., Maj. R.B. and Maj. B.K.

[lxii] William P. Baxter, The Soviet Way of War, (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1987), 151, 192-193. The use of cellular phones is corroborated by notes from a presentation made by Lieutenant General Michel Maisonneuve at the Fall Atlantic Council of Canada conference 4 November 2008, Cadieux Auditorium, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Canada, Ottawa.

[lxiii] 12 March interview Maj. R.B.


About the Author(s)

Frederic Labarre is a strategic analyst specializing on NATO-Russia relations, the former Soviet Union and the security of Central and Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus States. He is currently the co-chair of the Regional Stability in the South Caucasus Study Group, sponsored by the Austrian Ministry of Defence and the Partnership for Peace Consortium. In his capacity as private advisor, he has worked for the Government of Canada, the Republic of Austria, Fortune 500 companies, as well as military and civilian education institutions. From 2008-2010, he was Head of the Department of Political and Strategic Studies at the Baltic Defence College, from 2001-2007 he worked at the National Defence of Canada, in charge of the international liaison of the Royal Military College of Canada, and then seconded to the NATO Defense College as Advanced Distributed Learning chair. From 2000-2001, he was policy advisor to the Ministry of Defence of Estonia. He has written over 50 articles and book chapters since 1999.



Fri, 10/31/2014 - 3:10am

Good article, with interesting detail. This battle/war is definitely an important case study.

However, the "death" of armor has long been touted as inevitable and certain, based on the idea that if armor is not indestructible, then it is irrelevant. But armor has never been indestructible, and indeed throughout its history has taken huge losses - from WW1 to recent wars (such as the 1991 Gulf War - the losses being on the Iraqi side). Yet, militaries rightfully still need armor, and it will remain a key component of land forces. How and when it might be used may evolve in the future, but the alternatives being footsoldiers who move by foot, land battles dominated by infantry, IFVs, and APCs, or no ground forces at all is simply not likely. It has also always been known since their maturation that tanks were always vulnerable in urban areas. But here again, the alternative of no tanks was not an improvement.

The reality is that tanks must be committed to combat for certain outside of cities, and more likely than not in cities, though a relatively high attrition rate in urban areas will simply be a reality.

Except when it isn't. Such as the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom wherein US armored forces (3rd Mechanized ID) rolled up to and through Baghdad with minimal losses. Even the occupation experienced a low loss rate of MBTs.

As the author here cites, war is not really about attrition, it is about achieving the political-military objectives. If a handful - or even a good number - of MBTs are lost but the operation is a success, then the losses are acceptable. The Georgians did not lose South Ossetia because of MBT losses, but because they faced an overall superior enemy and, having failed to stop the inflow of Russian forces from the beginning, they had essential no chance of even returning to the status quo without foreign intervention and driving back Russian forces.