Analyzing the Russian Way of War: Evidence from the 2008 Conflict with Georgia

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Modern War Institute

In the dog days of August 2008, a column of Russian tanks and troops rolled across the Republic of Georgia’s northern border and into South Ossetia, sparking a war that was over almost before it began. The war, while not insignificant, lasted all of five days. The number of casualties did not exceed one thousand, the threshold most political scientists use to classify a war, although thousands of Georgians were displaced. By historical comparison, when Soviet tanks entered Hungary in 1956 and Afghanistan in 1979–89, the fatalities totaled 2,500 and roughly 14,000 respectively.1 The Russia-Georgia conflict was a limited war with limited objectives, yet it was arguably a watershed in the annals of modern war. It marked the first invasion by Russian ground forces into a sovereign nation since the Cold War. It also marked a breakthrough in the integration of cyberwarfare and other nonkinetic tools into a conventional strategy— what some observers in the West have termed “hybrid warfare.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it provided a stark preview of what was to come in Ukraine in 2014. Russian “peacekeepers,” including unmarked Russian special forces—or Spetsnaz—stationed in the region carried out an armed incursion. That is, Russia used separatist violence as a convenient pretext to launch a full-scale multidomain invasion to annex territory, a type of aggression that many analysts in the West thought was a relic of the twentieth century. The 2008 Russia-Georgia War highlights not a new form of conflict but rather the incorporation of a new dimension to that conflict: cyberspace. Where states once tried to control the radio waves, broadcast television channels, newspapers, or other forms of communications, they now add to these sources of information control cyberspace and its component aspects, websites, and social media.2 This allows Russia to influence audiences around the world. Propaganda, disinformation, and the manipulation of the informational aspects of both conflict and nonconflict settings has been a persistent attribute of state behavior.3 The new dimension added to the conduct of hostilities created by cyberspace is both a challenge to conventional hybrid information manipulation tactics and a benefit. Even though the tactical gains achieved through cyberspace in Georgia by Russian non-state actors had limited impact, the strategic and psychological effects were robust. The plausibly deniable nature of the cyber side of conflict should not be understated and adds a new dimension to hybrid warfare that once required state resources to accomplish. Now, managed through forums and social media, decentralized noncombatants can join the fight. Arguably, the inclusion of cyber means into a kinetic battle, not as a standalone effect but rather as a force multiplier, constitutes a logical progression to the natural evolution of conflict and demonstrates the value of information operations (IO) during conflict.