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War reveals Russia's might and weakness

Georgia Russia
A Russian military vehicle rolls in the outskirts of Gori, northwest of the capital Tbilisi, Georgia, on Monday. Gori sits on Georgia's only significant east-west road, meaning Russian occupation could effectively cut the country in half. Sergei Grits / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Russia's lightning war against Georgia looks like a military triumph: An armada of Russian tanks easily crushed Georgia's modest army in a show of muscle intended to punish its U.S.-allied neighbor, scare others and reaffirm Moscow's influence on its former Soviet turf.

But the conflict also revealed crucial weaknesses in Moscow's military preparedness — including faulty intelligence, a shortage of modern equipment and poor coordination.

The swift Russian victory presented a stark contrast to the war in Chechnya in the 1990s, where Russian troops were bogged down for years, suffering a string of humiliating losses at the hands of lightly armed rebels.

When Georgia launched an offensive Aug. 7 to regain control of the breakaway province of South Ossetia, Russia responded immediately, sending thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks through the mountain tunnel that cuts through Russia's border with South Ossetia.

At the same time, dozens of Russian warplanes ranged over Georgia, attacking military bases, airports, communications and transport facilities.

Russia uses smart weapons
During the two wars in Chechnya, Moscow faced widespread criticism for leveling the capital of Grozny with carpet bombings and airstrikes. This time, the military says Russian aircraft used smart weapons to make precision attacks on equipment and installations.

On Monday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev flew to Vladikavkaz, near the border with Georgia, and trumpeted the attack as he decorated 30 soldiers and servicemen.

"It has been only 10 days since you faced a cowardly aggression," he said, standing on a drill square in front of camouflage-clad soldiers and officers he called "heroes."

"I am sure that such a well-done, effective and peacemaking operation aimed at protecting our citizens and other people will be among the most glorious deeds of the Russian military," Medvedev said.

But while Russian airstrikes for the most part seemed to pinpoint their targets in Georgia, AP reporters also witnessed heavy bomb damage to civilian areas in at least two places — the central city of Gori, where several residential structures were hit, and Ruisi, a village ravaged by Russian warplanes.

Outdated military equipment
Human Rights Watch said at least 11 civilians were killed and dozens wounded by cluster bombs in Gori and Ruisi, and strongly urged Russia to stop using the weapons. The Russian military denied using cluster bombs, which disperse small "bomblets" over a wide area.

Moscow-based aviation analyst Konstantin Makiyenko said the civilian casualties appeared inadvertent. "Even the U.S. military, which has a greater number of smart weapons, sometimes accidentally hits civilians," he said.

Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said the war showed that the Russian air force is still short of precision weapons and continues to rely on older types of bombs and rockets.

Some civilian casualties could probably have been avoided if Russia's equivalent to the U.S. GPS satellite navigation system was fully working. But the GLONASS system doesn't yet have the necessary number of satellites in orbit and, more importantly, portable navigation devices are still a rarity in the Russian military, according to officials.

Georgia said it downed at least 21 Russian warplanes, while Russia confirmed the loss of just four aircraft, including three Su-25 ground attack jets and a Tu-22 long-range bomber.

The conflicting claims couldn't be resolved, but even the loss of four aircraft is a heavy toll given the small size of Georgia's military.

Russia's deputy chief of General Staff, Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said the Georgians shot down the planes from hidden locations outside military facilities using Soviet-built Tor and Buk anti-aircraft missiles supplied by Ukraine. He said Russian pilots grew more cautious as the campaign continued.

While Russia would have to expect to lose some low-flying ground attack jets, former Russian air force chief Anatoly Kornukov said the loss of the heavy bomber — which the military said was on a reconnaissance mission — should have been avoided.

"They sent the Tu-22 crew to their deaths thinking that the Georgian air defense would mount no resistance," Kornukov told Interfax news agency.

'Using a microscope to drive nails'
Moscow-based independent military analyst Alexander Golts said that sending the heavy bomber on a reconnaissance mission over Georgia was a mistake.

"Using the Tu-22 for a reconnaissance mission over Georgia was the same as using a microscope to drive nails," he said.

Some Western experts believe that Russia spent months preparing for the invasion, and provoked the confrontation that led to Georgia's attack on the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. They pointed to military exercises the Russian military conducted just across the border in July, the lingering presence of extra Russian troops in the region in August and the speed and efficiency of Moscow's response.

Russian military officials insist, however, that they were surprised by the attack and organized their response in a matter of hours.

Although the deployment was swift, it didn't always run smoothly.

As hundreds of battered Russian armored vehicles wound through the mountain passes toward Tskhinvali, an AP reporter saw a number of tanks broken down in the road, blocking traffic; or being repaired, with soldiers working underneath them with wrenches; or even being towed by other vehicles.

Numerous armored vehicles also broke down en route to Chechnya 14 years ago.

After a hasty march to Tskhinvali, a Russian general in charge of the entire Russian military force in the region recklessly drove into the city in an advance convoy and was ambushed by Georgian forces. He suffered a leg wound.

Russia said 74 soldiers died and more than 170 were wounded in fighting, but Georgian officials claimed Russian losses were much higher.

Georgian officials said they lost 160 soldiers and that 300 are missing. Russia said the figure is much higher.

The physical damage inflicted by the air war on Georgia's military and equipment is unclear. But there is no doubt of the political damage it caused.

The bombing campaign complicated Moscow's efforts to persuade the world that the motive behind its intervention was the protection of South Ossetian civilians.

Media coverage in the West has tended to paint Georgia as the victim in the conflict. The Georgian assault on South Ossetia has often been overlooked in reports that focused on the Russian attack.

While foreign political reaction has been divided — with the U.S. offering the harshest condemnation of Russia — most countries have at least criticized Russia's actions as disproportionate.

"The victorious Russia has found itself in complete isolation. That raises the question of whether it was a victory," Golts said.

Russia may also have made ousting Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili a key goal in its brief war. If so, it failed. After the fighting stopped, a pro-government rally in the Georgian capital drew tens of thousands of people.

"Georgia's military losses were higher than Russia's, but financial, political and moral losses of Russia were much higher than those of Georgia," Andrei Illarionov, former Kremlin adviser turned opposition activist, said in a commentary posted in the online Yezhednevny Zhurnal.