Conventional wisdom has rapidly hardened around the proposition that there is no practical military response to the Russian invasion of Georgia. In fact, if the Georgians were inclined to fight, there is quite a lot they could do militarily, and in a way that would not directly involve U.S. or NATO forces. To understand how this military option would work, some background is required.
Most people have been grossly exaggerating Russian military strength and prowess in this exercise, obviously one long in the planning, and actually involving relatively small forces. By all accounts, the Russian "58th Army" has invaded Georgian territory with about 500 tanks and an equal number of infantry fighting vehicles--the equivalent of roughly two armored divisions. That's pretty small beer, really, but adequate to handle a smaller Georgian army largely dispersed to deal with counter-guerrilla operations.
A close examination of video and photos of the Russian force also reveals top of the line equipment--late model T-80 and T-90 main battle tanks, and BMP-2 IFVs. Now, the Caucasus Military District is something of a backwater, home of Category II and Category III divisions, most of which are kept below strength and equipped with older systems, such as the T-72 MBT. On the other hand, the Category I divisions are kept close to Moscow and the western military districts, because that is where the main threat is perceived, and also because that's much better terrain for tank warfare. Obviously, the Russian army carefully transferred the forces for this operation from central Russia all the way to the Caucasus--in secret--and also accompanied the move with a comprehensive maskirovka intended to put us at our ease (e.g., Putin did go to the Olympic opening ceremonies, after all).
From this we can infer what most experts already know--that the Russian army, though still numerically large, has relatively few competent, deployable formations--there are the airborne divisions and the air assault brigades, and a few tank and motor-rifle divisions, but not much else. Similarly, the Russian air force doesn't have very many fully operational aircraft or deep reserves of fuel, spare parts and munitions. This invasion has probably eaten deeply into Russian operations and maintenance funding, to say nothing of its war reserve stockpiles of ordnance and equipment. Russia must have bet on a short and fairly bloodless war, because it cannot afford--militarily or politically--a protracted slog. Not only doesn't it have the equipment to do so, but it doesn't have enough highly trained troops to sustain heavy casualties. The Russian military consists of a small, diamond-hard point on the end of a wooden stick. If the point shatters or wears down, you are left fighting the stick. (It should be noted that Ralph Peters, writing in the New York Post, has been scathing in his assessment of the Russian army's performance in Georgia, so by Western standards even the best of the Russian army would be considered rather mediocre).
The question is how to wear it down. Georgia is a mountainous country, with few good roads and many choke points. A dismounted guerrilla or light infantry force can hold up a road-bound armored force and inflict disproportionate casualties, if properly equipped and led. Unfortunately, the Georgian Army was neither, in this particular instance. Rather, it was trained and equipped the fight the war it had--an insurgency by separatist guerrillas, requiring mostly infantry and small arms. Confronted by tanks and close support aircraft and helicopters, the Georgian forces had little choice but to run.
Having pulled back from Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Georgians can now regroup and re-equip. They are in desperate need of two things: weapons to kill tanks, and weapons to kill or deter aircraft and helicopters. We can supply both. The Stinger missile, the bane of Russian Frontal Aviation in Afghanistan, is still the most potent shoulder-fired weapon around. It will cause Russian close support aircraft to keep their distance, or to attack from higher altitude. Providing Georgia with medium-range surface-to-air missiles which can be deployed from Georgian territory proper will further push back their high-altitude aircraft (e.g., Tu-22M Backfires).
Freed from aerial observation and the threat of air attack, Georgian forces could move dismounted over the mountains more readily than Russian mechanized forces can move along the roads. Which means that the Georgians would be free to set up ambushes to block further Russian advances and to interdict their lines of communication. We can provide the wherewithal for them to do this. First, we need to give the Georgians anti-tank mines, and not just any kind, but our latest "smart" off-route mines like the XM93 Wide Area Mine (WAM). These don't have to be placed directly on the roads, but can be put off to the side, where built-in sensors can detect armored vehicles and launch explosive formed penetrator (RFP) warheads at them.
Second, we need to give them our best anti-tank guided missile, the FGM-148 Javelin. This is a "fire and forget" weapon: once the operator lines up the target in his sights and locks on, he can fire the missile and get away, while the missile will fly autonomously to the target. With a range of about two kilometers, the Javelin also uses a "top attack" profile, diving down onto the roof of the tank where the armor is thinnest. In action in Operation Iraqi Freedom, javelins were devastating against Russian-designed tanks. Knocking out a few tanks or other armored vehicles on a narrow mountain road creates a barrier to movement behind which all traffic piles up, immobile and vulnerable to attack.
Most of that traffic will consist of trucks and other "soft" vehicles. It's a waste to go after them with expensive missiles, but cheap mortars work pretty well. Even better would be long-range, highly accurate heavy sniper rifles, such as the 12.7mm (.50-caliber) Barrett, much favored by U.S. special forces. Georgian special forces are reputed to be well trained and highly motivated. They would probably be even more motivated fighting Russians on their own soil than they were fighting al Qaeda back in Iraq.
Pretty soon, Russian forces will be taking serious casualties. They will have to inject more troops to protect their lines of communication. They will have to get out of their troop carriers and climb up into the mountains, where they will take more casualties from an agile and elusive enemy. They can't even resort to the time honored tactic of butchering the local population of Ossetia and Abkhazia, since these are now "Russian citizens," having been granted passports by the Russian government (thereby doing Hitler one better: there actually were Germans in the Sudetenland, but Putin had to invent his downtrodden "Russian" minority in Georgia).
As Russian forces start to bleed, it will be impossible, even in the controlled media of Putin's Russia, to hide the casualties from the Russian people. They will probably respond to this as they did to the bloodletting in both Afghanistan and Chechnya. Worse, for the Russian government, a prolonged and bloody war will require a massive increase in the Russian military budget, which has been run on a shoestring for most of the Putin era. That would mean making painful choices between the military and other priorities, precisely at the same time that oil prices have begun to come down, cutting into Russian revenues. In addition, the Russian military will begin to worry about the derailing of its abortive transformation plan: as the U.S. military recently discovered, you can fight a war, or you can transform yourself, but it's almost impossible to do both at once. Warfighting will eat into the already thin training, procurement, and research & development budgets, and soon the Russian staff will be howling, too.
So what will Russia do, in such a circumstance? They could escalate, but they might find more palatable a face-saving withdrawal, turning over Ossetia and Abkhazia to an international peacekeeping force, and leaving Georgian territory free of Russian troops. Georgia would then have to make its own peace with the separatists, but with a buffer between itself and the Russian army, the Georgians may have more leverage over its intransigent minorities.
Two things are needed to make this happen: political will on the part of the U.S. to provide the Georgian army with the necessary equipment and training (our Special Forces already have a close relationship with the Georgian army), and more important, political will on the part of the Georgian government to continue fighting until the Russians are off their soil. Whether the Georgians would want to fight what would certainly prove a long and difficult war is hard to say; it would surely depend in large measure on whether they believe we would stand with them to the end. Guerrilla wars are always messy, and without a sponsor, the guerrillas usually lose. But it is premature and more than a little defeatist to write off the Georgians' chances of bloodying the nose of the resurgent Russian bear.
Stuart Koehl is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.