MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian soldiers rode into battle against Georgia perched on top of their armored personnel carriers, not out of bravado but because a flaw in their amour can make it more dangerous to travel inside.
The conflict — Russia’s biggest combat operation outside its borders since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — showed its armed forces have emerged from years of neglect as a formidable fighting force, but revealed important deficiencies.
Those weaknesses, especially in missiles and air capability, leave Russia still lagging behind the image of a world-class military power it projects to the rest of the world.
“The victory over the Georgian army ... should become for Russia not a cause for euphoria and excessive joy, but serve to speed up military transformations in Russia,” Ruslan Pukhov, director of Russia’s Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technology, wrote in a report.
The performance of the armed forces will be examined closely by NATO planners, who have been prompted by Russia’s newly assertive foreign policy to start viewing the Kremlin once again as a potential adversary.
It could also hold lessons for defense strategists in the Middle East: Russia supplies some of its hardware to countries such as Syria and Iran, while their foe Israel helps equip Georgia’s security forces.
Russian forces were deployed in response to Georgian troops moving into Georgia’s Moscow-backed breakaway region, South Ossetia. Russia quickly crushed the Georgian army and its troops pressed on to within 45 km (30 miles) of the capital, Tbilisi.
It was never in doubt that Russia would defeat the much smaller and less well-equipped Georgian force, but the manner of the victory exposed some shortcomings:
* Anatoly Khrulyev, the commander of the 58th army which spearheaded the operation, was wounded in a Georgian attack on day two of the Russian deployment.
Media reports said he was traveling in a column of armored personnel carriers (APCs), along with a group of Russian journalists, when they were ambushed by Georgian troops.
Analysts said Russian APCs are not well protected against strikes by large-caliber weapons or land mines, which is one reason why troops often prefer to travel on top.
* Russia said four of its aircraft — including one Tupolev-22 long-range supersonic bomber — were shot down by Georgia’s air defenses.
“It was remarkable that they shot down a number of Russian fighters, which Russia probably did not expect,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Dr. Marcel de Haas, Russia and security expert at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael.
Analysts said Russia failed to destroy Georgia’s anti-aircraft systems fast enough, probably because they did not have the aerial reconnaissance to establish where they were.
“Initial reconnaissance was difficult,” Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of Russia’s General Staff, told Reuters. “We will be introducing serious changes, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, for example.”
* Russia’s tactics broadly followed a Soviet pattern, with an air and artillery attack followed by the deployment of a large ground force.
Analysts said the need to send in a large ground force may have been dictated by a shortage of precision-guided missiles.
“Missiles and rockets would negate the need for large-scale troop deployments in the way they had to carry them out,” said Colonel Christopher Langton, Senior Fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The Kremlin has declared modernizing its armed forces a priority. Its defense budget for last year was 22 percent higher than in 2006 and it plans to spend $189 billion on new hardware over eight years.
Improvements were in evidence in the Georgian campaign. In contrast with the rag-tag conscripts humiliated in Russia’s rebel Chechnya region in the 1990s, commanders said the force in Georgia was made up entirely of professional soldiers.
Reuters reporters on the ground saw disciplined, well-equipped troops. Petrol trucks shuttled around the front line refueling tanks and APCs, and trucks ferried supplies of rations to soldiers manning checkpoints.
But Langton said Russia’s campaign in Georgia left many questions about its military capability unanswered.
“There is no way they could say from this operation that they are capable of carrying out operations against something as sophisticated as NATO forces,” he said. “It wasn’t a serious test for them.”
Additional reporting by Aydar Buribaev in Moscow, James Kilner in Tbilisi and Oleg Shchedrov in Sochi; writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Tim Pearce