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Ukraine and the Lessons of Georgia

January 18, 2015

Today Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, breathed fire about his country’s ultimate victory in its war with Russia. Perhaps encouraged by reports of a local victory at Donetsk airport, which has seen a major uptick in fighting this weekend, Poroshenko assured Ukrainians with tough talk that “invaders” will be evicted from their country’s soil, every last inch.

This, however, is more optimistic blather of the sort Poroshenko has applied considerably in recent months, without much action to show for it. Ukraine needs not peace marches and blustery speeches, rather force generation, counterintelligence, and above all strategy. I laid all this out in my piece yesterday, which got considerable pushback from those who think Ukraine can be defended with wishful thinking and the right hashtag.

As I explained, Ukraine needs to get serious about the war if it wants to win it. Croatia two decades ago, when that country lost a third of its territory in 1991, only to regain it four years later after building the right military and applying it strategically, offers a model for success if anybody in Kyiv is looking for one. That template is imperfect but far better than any others out there right now.

What Ukraine must not do is emulate Georgia, and I’m providing this warning clearly because there’s a good chance that Poroshenko and his cadres of image-over-substance pols will be tempted to ape Tbilisi when they need to follow the Zagreb model. What I mean by the Georgia model is the road to disaster followed by President Mikheil Saakashvili in the run-up to his country’s stomping by Putin in Georgia’s brief, painful war with Russia in August 2008. This is especially relevant because Saakashvili, a strategic illiterate, thought he was following the Croatian model of the 1990’s when, in fact, he did the opposite.

For Saakashvili, getting Georgia into NATO was the primum mobile of his foreign and defense policy; as to Ukrainians of a certain ilk, accession to the Atlantic Alliance seemed to offer the only real security guarantee against rapacious Russia. To be fair to pro-NATO people in Tbilisi and Kyiv, getting those countries into the Atlantic Alliance is stated U.S. policy, and has been for years, and remains so today — though Washington, DC, is publicly committed to getting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO sometime between this afternoon and the end of time. In other words, this is something even cautious liberals like President Obama have to say to keep neocons like John McCain quiet, but which they have no intention of actually doing.

Getting into NATO is a tricky business, with enormous political and bureaucratic hoops for any applicant to jump through, and it’s never a quick or cheap process. On the military side, this means transforming your armed forces and defense ministry to look and act in Western ways: you have to ditch Soviet-era tactics, techniques, and procedures, at a minimum. Your military’s software needs modernization. On the hardware side, your military’s Soviet-legacy gear will need to get cut back too, because it’s expensive to maintain and not very interoperable with NATO members.

From the time he became president in 2004, Saakashvili didn’t just transform his military to “NATO-ize” it, he actively courted favor with the Pentagon and the George W. Bush administration, sending troops to Iraq to help battle the rising insurgency there. The Georgian army was reduced to five brigades, nearly all light infantry, ditching practically all its armor and artillery in favor of a counterterrorism and counterinsurgency approach to warfare, which of course was what U.S. military trainers working with the Georgians encouraged.

Most consequentially, as explained in the excellent book on the 2008 war written by the late Ron Asmus, Saakashvili had a chat in 2006 with Stipe Mesić, Croatia’s president, who knew that his country would soon join NATO, which was the Holy Grail for Tbilisi.  Helpfully, Mesić told his Georgian counterpart that what he needed to do was reassert control over all their territory or they would never get into NATO — which was good advice — and to do that Georgia needed its own Operation STORM … which turned out to be deadly advice.

As I explained yesterday, Operation STORM was Croatia’s August 1995 victory offensive, the biggest military operation in Europe since the Second World War, which in a few days thoroughly defeated Serb rebels and restored the country’s territorial integrity. Wholly ignorant of military affairs, yet brimming with confidence, Saaksahvili became obsessed with the idea that Georgia could pull off its own Operation STORM and thereby humiliate Russia, achieving glory and entry to NATO. He did not dwell on the fact that Georgia’s military was totally incapable of anything like what Croatia achieved in 1995, nor that Russia is not Serbia.

Before long, Moscow got wind of Saakashvili’s intentions, specifically his ardent desire to reclaim Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were lost in the early 1990’s and were de facto under Putin’s control, protected by the Russian military.  Eager to cut Saakashvili down to size and message NATO that it needed to back off, Russian military intelligence (GRU) turned up the heat, unleashing Special War against Tbilisi, and it was only a matter of time before the Georgians walked right into a GRU trap.

Which happened in the summer of 2008, when months of Russian provocations in South Ossetia presented an opportunity that Saakashvili stumbled blindly towards, not understanding the consequences. It only took a few days in August for Putin’s forces to lay waste to Georgia’s unready forces. The only brigade of the Georgia Army that was battle-ready was not on hand since it was — you guessed it — serving with U.S. forces in Baghdad, while the other four maneuver brigades were in various stages of disrepair. They were, in the words of an American liaison officer, “beginning to walk, but by no means were they running … If that was a U.S. brigade it would not have gone into combat.”

Predictably, Russia’s better equipped and trained forces, including mechanized brigades, crushed Georgian light infantry like a bug and Tbilisi saw its dreams of reconquest evaporate in blood and humiliation. Putin made his point about what happens to countries in the post-Soviet space who court NATO too openly, while Saakashvili, whose political career was in tatters, learned the cost of magical thinking in military matters, particularly when coupled with hope masquerading as strategy.

Since 2008, Georgia has quietly rebuilt its shattered military while toning down talk of NATO, especially when Russians are in the room. Mikheil Saakashvili, in courting war against a much more powerful neighbor with his own weak military, has provided an ideal how-not-to guide on dealing with Vladimir Putin. Georgia learned painfully that it’s a terrible idea to act like you’re in NATO when actually you are not.

Fortunately for Kyiv, Ukraine is a vastly bigger and more populous country than little Georgia, but it faces serious strategic hazards at present. Defiant words, as Poroshenko used today, when not accompanied by military means to back up tough talk, can lead to catastrophe, particularly when Russians are on the other side. If Ukraine wants to win the war that Putin has forced upon it, Kyiv must emulate Croatia’s hard work in the 1990’s that created a path to victory. If Poroshenko opts for the Georgian model, Ukraine may not survive the coming strategic debacle.

From → Strategy, USG

9 Comments
  1. Nariman Namazov permalink

    Ukraine must fight Russia, but Ukraine must not fight Russia.
    Good advice, John, thank you.

    • Fight Russia the smart (Croatian) way, not the stupid (Georgian) way.

    • califax permalink

      There’s a difference between resistance and suicide. When David went against Goliath he kept a safe distance and used a slingshot. He didn’t dreamwalk into a sword-fight.

  2. Jon permalink

    John, I have personal (military) experience in both the Croatia and Georgia cases you cite in this piece.

    1. The Croatians received help from the U.S. via civilian contractors (yes, before they became famous/infamous in Iraq) in transforming the Croatian Army from a very patriotic yet disorganized element to something that was superior to what the Kraijina Serbs could muster and later the Bosnian Serbs. The forgotten piece to the Dayton Peace story was that the Croatian offensive into northern Bosnia is what compelled the Serbs to go to Dayton and not just the US/NATO air strikes.

    2. As for Georgia, I differ with your description to some extent. The Georgian military was not reduced to five brigades but rather increased from about 4 battalions to 5 brigades. Second, Georgia did go on a buying spree in 2006-2007 acquiring tanks, artillery, and MRLs from Ukraine and Slovakia DESPITE the advice from the U.S. side. Concern from DoD was the ability of the Georgians to sustain these weapon systems from both a training and logistical perspective.

    There is more about the U.S. training wrt Georgia I can go into but prefer you DM me @JonChicky

    • Hi Jon — I’ve spent quality time with those teams too, so …

      1.It’s easy to overvalue MPRI’s role, as both DC and Belgrade, for different reasons, tend to do. It helps, and was very well timed, but planning and execution of BLJESAK and OLUJA were in Croatian hands. ODF has likewise been overvalued by NATO & USA. IRL, it was Op MAESTRAL-2 in SEP 1995 that broke the back of the VRS in Western Bosnia, ODF was irrelevant or nearly so. Not to mention that NATO seriously overestimated ODF’s impact on the VRS in their BDAs. And it was USG intervention that stopped the HV/HVO drive on Banja Luka. The Croats were knocking on the door until the call came. Speaking of what-if’s…

      2. In Tbilisi in 2007 the “coming liberation” of South Ossetia was spoken of in not very hushed tones by MoD, et al, so it’s no wonder the Russians knew too. Bottom line is Saakashvili and his amateurish security advisers grossly misread the military equation and paid the price. No USG advice was going to talk them out of it,this was their fumble.

  3. Russia has intensified their Grad and artillery attacks into Ukrainian territory over the last week. Their Russian mercenaries in the Donbass have been talking about making further territorial gains, while Ukraine has done its best to stick to the December ceasefire.

    It looks like the Ukrainian pushback at Donetsk airport has been have been limited to the border agreed in the Minsk agreement. This suggests that Ukraine is sending out the message, that they will robustly resist any further attempted incursions into their territory in violation of the Minsk agreement and are not looking to start a full war with Russia.

    Neither side wants a frozen conflict, Ukraine as they will have effectively lost the Donbass region and Russia, as it needs the Ukrainian running sore to press every time they are not happy with what Kyiv are doing.

    The question now is, how will Putin respond?

    The question then is whose side in time on and I think it is Ukraine’s where they need to work on their political and economic problems, while strengthening their military, whereas with Putin although they will also carry on modernising their military, I expect economic and political problems to grow.

    • I quite concur. Putin’s next move is the critical question, but the long game here really belongs to Kyiv if they are smart enough to let time work for them. As yet, not so much …

  4. Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    Interesting background on Russian strategy.

  5. From Moscow permalink

    Biggest allies for Ukrainians are EU/US sanctions against Russia. If EU/US see that there is no active Russian support for rebels, they may stop the sanctions. At present time hardest sanctions are valid till this summer. To continue showing that Russians support rebels, Ukrainans must keep going little pressure. To stay in tempo rebels need constant military logistical support from Russia. Donetsk airport theatre is nice contained space to keep show going.

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