Georgia takes on impossible odds

Georgia’s army of less than 25 000 men is confronting a Russian force which can count on more than one million troops—and experts say their conflict cannot last.

Since he came to power, President Mikheil Saakashvili has made defence a priority—partly with the aim of regaining control over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia—boosting spending and numbers.

The march on South Ossetia’s capital in the early hours of Friday was relatively easy until Russia decided to send in reinforcements to help the separatist administration in the region.

Even the extra cash allotted by Saakashvili and training help received from the United States and other Western nations cannot turn the conflict over South Ossetia into an equal fight, experts said.

The Georgian Parliament voted a new 25% rise in military spending in July that will take the annual budget to almost $1-billion.

Russia’s military spending has also mushroomed in recent years as the government seeks to rejuvenate the antiquated services, and a 16% increase this year took the defence budget to 956-billion rubles, or $40-billion.

There are about 19 000 troops in Georgia’s army, 2 000 in the air force—with only Soviet-era jets—and 1 350 in the navy with its small fleet of second hand vessels.

Russia’s military is giant by comparison with more than one million permanent troops with a pool of about 20-million men aged between 16 and 49 who could be called up, according to United States estimates.

Russia has 395 000 men in its ground army, including 190 000 conscripts, with 22 000 armoured vehicles. Its air force has 170 000 men and an estimated 1 700 fighter planes.

Experts said Georgia was taking on impossible odds against Russia.

Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War, said in a commentary for the Times newspaper of London: “Thanks to American military aid, Georgia’s 18 000-strong armed forces are the best-trained and equipped fighting force in the Caucasus.

“But it is one thing for them to defeat the raggle-taggle militia of a tinpot place like South Ossetia [population 70 000]. It is another for a country of less than five million people to take on Russia [population 142-million].

“Now the Kremlin is reacting strongly,” he added.

“Reinforcements are pouring in.
And the Kremlin’s mighty propaganda machine is lumbering into action while a cyber-attack appears to have crippled Georgia’s websites.”

Matthew Clements, Eurasia editor for Jane’s defence information, also highlighted in the Times how Georgia has increased its spending on the armed forces in recent years.

“Together with military aid and training from the US, Britain and Turkey and the experience of its forces in Iraq, this has helped to modernise and improve the professionalism of certain units. However many units including the large reserve forces remain poorly equipped and trained.

Clements added that “Russia’s forces are overwhelmingly superior and their equipment more modern and more serviceable than Georgia’s”. - AFP

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