The Tanks of August
By M.S. Barabanov, A.V. Lavrov, V.A. Tseluiko; Edited by R.N. Pukhov
Moscow, Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, 2010. 144 pp.

“The Tanks of August,” the title of this work, is a clear reference to “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman, the famous book about the events leading up to the First World War. It is the book John F. Kennedy was reading during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Tuchman gave a brilliant portrayal of how the great powers were dragged into a military conflict, even against the inclinations of their leaders.

The war of 2008, which began as a local conflict, quickly overgrew into a war between two countries. One of them was a great nuclear power, the other an ally of the United States – the world’s only remaining superpower. Out of the blue, two decades after the end of the Cold War, there was a distinct smell of a hot war in the air. Comparisons to “August 1914” seemed ominous but not at all exaggerated. In those weeks, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin were both speaking of a radical turn for the worse in international relations, and of Russia’s readiness for another confrontation with the United States. Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states was clearly an attempt to prevent another act of aggression by Georgia, which had received Washington’s direct support.

That local war could well have spiraled into a regional conflict if the Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Viktor Yushchenko had reinforced by his order the decree signed by the President Yushchenko about compulsory inspections of the Russian warships crossing the Ukrainian maritime boundary on their way from Sevastopol. Had an actual order to that effect been given to the Ukrainian Navy, a clash at sea between Russia and Ukraine would have been inevitable.

Once started, such a conflict would not have been limited to sea. In all likelihood, it would have turned into a battle for the Crimea. At some point, one could imagine that America’s 6th Fleet could have become involved. If that had happened, the Black Sea would have come to resemble the Caribbean during the Cuban missile crisis. Fortunately, that did not happen – but all sides must draw lessons from the events of 2008. This collection of essays published by the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, offers an in-depth analysis of the Russian-Georgian conflict, in particular its military aspects. It contains a detailed and carefully verified timeline of the events, which draws on a variety of sources, and gives a very professional account of the Five Day War.

War is always the main and essentially the only real test for an army. Mikhail Barabanov’s essay in this collection contains an interesting analysis of the Georgian army reforms under Mikheil Saakashvili. The Georgian president was fully committed to the stated purpose of making his army an effective fighting force. His consultants and allies had all the experience required to pull off such a venture. But despite all that, the Georgian army fled the battlefield after just three days of combat. The reason for that failure can be found not just in the army itself, but primarily in the broader Georgian society. The author of the essay concludes that modernization in one separate area, even such a distinct and autonomous one as the armed forces, is impossible without a radical reduction in the level of corruption in the country.

The timeline of the combat operations compiled by Anton Lavrov recounts in meticulous detail the growing contradictions between the sides to the conflict, with routine sporadic “provocations” – exchanges of fire and explosions – overgrowing into an all-out war. Based on this detailed information, Lavrov reconstructs quite convincingly the plans of the Georgian and Russian commandments. In separate pieces, he also offers a similarly comprehensive analysis of the losses to the Russian aviation during the Five Day War and the state of the Georgian army after the war. Readers will find especially interesting the table containing information about the main arms deliveries to Georgia from other countries.

But for all the detail about the military side of the conflict, the book leaves out the timeline of the political events that had led to the war. There is a clear need for a separate study focusing on Russian-Georgian relations practically since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with an emphasis on the period after the arrival of Mikheil Saakashvili to power. Such a study should provide answers to the remaining questions about Russian and Georgian policies, their goals, methods, calculations and miscalculations. It must be recognized that the war of 2008, that led to Georgia’s military defeat, was only made possible by the overall failure of Russian policy towards Georgia.

The fact that the danger of another conflict in the Caucasus is still present is amply demonstrated in Vyacheslav Tseluiko’s essay “The present and future of the Russian-Georgian conflict: the military aspects.” (italics added by DT). Of course, the leading role in the outbreak of various conflicts belongs to political factors, both domestic and international. These factors usually remain below the radar. But a professional analysis of the armed strength of the two sides, their territorial positions, the state of their military infrastructure, etc., is very important for an accurate assessment of the situation.

“The Tanks of August” is a very timely book. Let us hope that it will help to draw the right lessons from the events of the very recent past. That war did not have to happen. A new war between Russia and Georgia simply must not be allowed to happen.

This book review originally appeared in Moscow Defense Brief.