The Russian putsch in Crimea has the West scrambling for an adequate response. Ukraine continues to battle against Moscow-backed separatists in its eastern regions. In nearby Poland and the Baltics, NATO troops are keeping a watchful eye on Russian activity.
Warsaw, although a loyal member of the Atlantic alliance, isn’t making the mistake of relying on German solidarity—and is boosting its defenses.
Across the Black Sea, the country of Georgia has its own Russia problem. Much like Poland, the tiny, pro-West republic is preparing for battle … in order to preserve what remains of its territory in the face of Russian expansion.
Georgians know the Russian threat all too well. Moscow’s forces occupy 20 percent of Georgian territory, displacing 300,000 ethnic Georgians in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In August 2008, the two countries fought a brief but bloody war. The Georgian military dislodged South Ossetian irregulars with ease but got steamrolled by the Russian army.
True, the Georgian military was able to score a few surprise victories against Russian aircraft, even shooting down a Tupolev bomber flying a reconnaissance run. But the air defenses could do little to hold back Russian forces from plunging into Georgia on multiple fronts.
Although Moscow won an unqualified military victory, the downing of its aircraft and a rash of cascading operational failures compelled some soul-searching within the Kremlin. The result was a new kind of Russian army—the lighter, sneakier, faster-moving force that quickly seized Crimea starting in late February.
It wasn’t that the Russians were a very good fighting force in 2008. It’s that’s the Georgians were, on the whole, so much worse.
That could be changing.
Russia was not the only one who learned something from the 2008 experience. While the previous Georgian government’s initial reaction to its military’s poor performance was to restock its arsenal of Soviet vintage equipment, the current government has taken a very different approach.
After assuming office in 2012, defense minister Irakli Alasania has de-emphasized the acquisition of new weaponry in favor of improved doctrine, organization and intelligence.
Georgia is building a new kind of army—one that might actually be able to defend the tiny country.
Almost as soon as he took office, Alasania ordered a comprehensive military review of the chief failures of the 2008 war effort. As it turned out, Tbilisi’s biggest problems in 2008 had little to do with Russia’s well-known advantages in numbers and equipment. Rather, the Georgian military demonstrated poor command and control, communications, intelligence and reconnaissance.
What needed fixing first wasn’t the brawn, but the brains.
Alasania has embarked on big structural reforms. He scrapped mandatory conscription—long the mainstay of post-Soviet militaries—in favor of an all-volunteer professional force.
The defense minister also dismantled the troubled military reserve system, which was supposed to turn out tens of thousands in 2008 but in fact totally broke down. Alasania is building a new reserves call-up system—this time with NATO’s help.
Under the new minister, there’s more civilian oversight and better transparency. Doctrinally, the Georgian military is trying to shed its post-Soviet pedigree and embrace the Western model of highly trained, highly mobile units.
Alasania has reportedly fixed the widespread communications problems that were most glaring in 2008. “Georgia is much better-prepared today than we were in 2008,” Alasania told War is Boring in a recent conversation. “Without question.”
Reforms matter, but there’s no substitute for experience. In Afghanistan’s restive Helmand province, Georgia’s army has gotten that, too.
Tbilisi boosted its deployments to Afghanistan in 2009 and soon became one of the most prominent contributors to the international mission. By October 2012, Georgia had sent nearly 1,600 crack troops to fight alongside U.S. Marines in Helmand, making Georgia the top per-capita troop contributor and largest non-NATO force in the country.
Georgia has committed to sticking around alongside U.S. troops even after most NATO countries finish pulling out of Afghanistan this year.
By all accounts, the Georgians have performed well in Afghanistan. Unlike many NATO members, Tbilisi demanded no national caveats. They went wherever they were needed, no strings attached. The Georgians took some heavy casualties, but won the respect of their U.S. counterparts.
“You could always rely on the Georgians,” said one Navy corpsman who recently returned from Afghanistan with his Marine unit. “They had a reputation as guys who would get shit done.”
The Afghanistan mission has earned the Georgian army more than just plaudits from their U.S. peers. Rigorous pre-deployment training and long months in combat conditions have transformed the Georgian army into a well-prepared, battle-hardened force.
For the Georgians, Afghanistan has been a master class in combat operations in an austere environment—and they’ve paid close attention. “They’re hungry to learn,” one U.S. Marine instructor based in Georgia told me. “These guys are real professionals.”
Today, Georgia boasts some 10,000 troops whom it claims are trained to the highest NATO standards. This is reportedly a bigger trained force than even many current NATO states can field.
Tbilisi’s forces have so impressed Western officials that Georgian troops are set to join the NATO response force—the alliance’s 25,000-strong rapid reaction unit—in 2015.
With reforms, training and battle experience shaping the Georgian army into something recognizably Western, Tbilisi is looking for good equipment to match. Equipment isn’t everything—training and organization can sometimes compensate for substandard hardware, while vast arsenals operated by ill-trained troops can be worthless … or worse.
But as Russian troops and their irregular proxies carve off pieces of Ukraine, Georgia is keen to get whatever edge it can get to deter against attack and, should diplomacy fail, inflict maximum punishment against an invading force.
During a recent visit to Washington, Alasania focused on two issues—NATO membership and defensive capabilities. Tbilisi is lobbying hard to join the Atlantic alliance.
Georgia is a democratizing country with a pro-West political consensus. It possesses an increasingly credible military and is a meaningful contributor to international security operations in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and, more recently, the E.U.-led mission in Central African Republic.
By admitting Georgia into the alliance, NATO could send a message to Russia. But by the same token, some Western officials worry that Georgia joining NATO could provoke Moscow.
Visiting Washington, Alasania not only laid out the case for Georgian accession, but sought to calm fears that Georgia would be dragging anyone into a war—and that Tbilisi expects other countries to do the main work of defending Georgia. “No one is asking for others to do our fighting for us,” he said.
But collective defense is exactly what NATO is for. Some member states strongly oppose admitting Tbilisi.
Alliance membership aside, Alasania has asked the U.S. and Europe to help equip the Georgian military with more advanced anti-air and anti-tank weapons. “We’re just asking for the the tools we need to defend ourselves,” Alasania said.
Even without new weaponry, thanks to smart reforms the Georgian army is better able to defend its country than it was just six years ago. Not that anyone wants to test Tbilisi’s improved armed forces in another round of fighting with Russia.