Georgia Eager to Rebuild Its Defeated Armed Forces

Just weeks after Georgia’s military collapsed in panic in the face of the Russian Army, its leaders hope to rebuild and train its armed forces as if another war with Russia is almost inevitable.

Georgia is already drawing up lists of options, including restoring the military to its prewar strength or making it a much larger force with more modern equipment, like air-defense systems, modern antiarmor rockets and night-vision devices.

Officials at the Pentagon, State Department and White House confirmed that the Bush administration was examining what would be required to rebuild Georgia’s military, but stressed that no decisions had been made. The choices each pose difficult foreign policy questions.

Georgia’s decision to attack Russian and South Ossetian forces raises questions about the wisdom of further United States investment in the Georgian military, which in any case would further alienate Russia. Not doing so could lead to charges of abandoning Georgia in the face of Russian threats.

In Moscow, President Dmitri A. Medvedev said Tuesday in an interview that he no longer considered President Mikheil Saakashvili to be Georgia’s leader, calling him a "political corpse."

Georgian statements have hardened as well, even before the army has identified and buried all of its dead.

"Our mission is to protect our country from Russian aggression," Davit Kezerashvili, Georgia’s 29-year-old defense minister, said in an interview last week when asked what missions the military would be organized to perform. "Large-scale Russian aggression. The largest aggression since the middle of the 20th century."

Russian officials last week repeatedly expressed concern about the possibility that the United States would undertake a major effort to rebuild Georgia’s military. "The Americans will enter Georgia," said Dmitri O. Rogozin, Russia’s representative to NATO. "I believe that soon there will be an American military base in Georgia, officially. And not only advisers. There will be a flag, tanks, artillery, aviation, even marines."

So far the Bush administration has chosen to trumpet its humanitarian efforts in Georgia, and has avoided publicly discussing efforts to study how best to rebuild the Georgian military.

The official silence reflects worries in Washington about tensions between the United States and Russia, officials said, and explains why the Bush administration policy makers and military officers who discussed these efforts did so only after demanding anonymity.

One brief, public discussion of American efforts came last Thursday, when Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a news conference that Georgia was "a very important country to us" and that the United States intended to continue the military-to-military relationship.

"It’s going to be very important that the government of Georgia makes some decisions about what they want to do, and then I think the U.S. would be in a position to respond to that," he said.

Military rebuilding will take years, which means that long-term decisions about American support to Georgia will fall to the next presidential administration.

Republicans and Democrats alike have signaled strong support for Georgia.

Mr. Saakashvili has cultivated close ties to both the McCain and Obama campaigns. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee for vice president, visited Mr. Saakashvili last month, as did Cindy McCain, the wife of Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. Mr. McCain has been a vocal proponent of Mr. Saakashvili’s government, and a strong critic of the Kremlin.

Defense officials in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, said that at a minimum they hoped to re-equip the army’s four existing brigades with modern equipment, and increase the size of the country’s air force. Georgia’s military now includes 33,000 active-duty personnel.

Mr. Saakashvili said he also planned to emphasize officer training in the years ahead. "We have no problem with the individual skills of soldiers," he said in an interview. "We need to do this same thing with the officers."

Georgia also hopes to acquire an integrated air-defense system that covers the country’s entire airspace, to arm its land forces with modern antiarmor rockets, and to overhaul the military’s communication equipment, much of which was rendered useless by Russian jamming during the brief war.

It also wants to distribute large numbers of night-vision devices to the country’s forces, which could help create parity in the field against the numerical superiority of Russian armored units.

Russia’s military, while able to overpower and scare off the inexperienced Georgian Army, went into battle with aging equipment, including scores of tanks designed in the 1960s, and armored vehicles that broke down in large numbers along Georgia’s roads.

One option, Mr. Kezerashvili said, would include creating up to four more combat brigades. He said that training and equipping new brigades, re-equipping existing forces and installing a modern air-defense network could cost $8 billion to $9 billion.

"Together with Europeans and the United States, we have to rebuild our army and make it stronger, because it is in the common interest," he said, adding that Russia could attack another neighbor, and must be deterred. "Who will be the next victim? Nobody knows."

But as Georgia and the West begin to discuss military collaborations, the conversation is informed by the events of last month, in which the Georgian military scattered under fire.

Georgia’s own analysis is straightforward: its principal vulnerabilities, which it said proved decisive, were its comparative weakness to Russian air power and its inability to communicate effectively in combat.

These problems, according to Mr. Kezerashvili and Batu Kutelia, Georgia’s first deputy defense minister, could be remedied with investments in equipment.

"We know 100 percent that we need a very, very sophisticated air-defense system, that is multi-layered, to defend all of our airspace," Mr. Kutelia said.

But interviews with Western military officers who have experience working with Georgian military forces, including officers in Georgia, Europe and the United States, suggested that Georgia’s military shortfalls were serious and too difficult to change merely by upgrading equipment.

In the recent war, which was over in days, Georgia’s Army fled ahead of the Russian Army’s advance, turning its back and leaving Georgian civilians in an enemy’s path. Its planes did not fly after the first few hours of contact. Its navy was sunk in the harbor, and its patrol boats were hauled away by Russian trucks on trailers.

The information to date suggests that from the beginning of the war to its end, Georgia, which wants to join NATO, fought the war in a manner that undermined its efforts at presenting itself as a potentially serious military partner or power.

Mr. Saakashvili and his advisers also say that even though he has no tactical military experience, he was at one time personally directing important elements of the battle — giving orders over a cellphone and deciding when to move a brigade from western to central Georgia to face the advancing Russian columns.

In the field, there is evidence from an extensive set of witnesses that within 30 minutes of Mr. Saakashvili’s order, Georgia’s military began pounding civilian sections of the city of Tskhinvali, as well as a Russian peacekeeping base there, with heavy barrages of rocket and artillery fire.

The barrages all but ensured a Russian military response, several diplomats, military officers and witnesses said.

After the Russian columns arrived through the Roki Tunnel, and the battle swung quickly into Russia’s favor, Georgia said its attack had been necessary to stop a Russian attack that already had been under way.

To date, however, there has been no independent evidence, beyond Georgia’s insistence that its version is true, that Russian forces were attacking before the Georgian barrages.

During the battle, one Western military officer said, it had been obvious that Georgia’s logistical preparations were poor and that its units interfered with each other in the field.

This was in part because there was limited communication between ground forces and commanders, but also because there was almost no coordination between police units and military units, which often had overlapping tasks and crowded one another on the roads.

One senior Western military official said that one of the country’s senior generals had fled the battle in an ambulance, leaving soldiers and his duties behind. Georgia’s Defense Ministry strongly denies this.

No one disputes that the army succumbed to chaos and fear, which reached such proportions that the army fled all the way to the capital, abandoning the city of Gori without preparing a serious defense, and before the Russians had reached it in strength. It littered its retreat with discarded ammunition.

[Source: By C.J. Chivers, The New York Times, Tbilisi, 02Sep08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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