Grand Theft Auto: Russian Army
By Robert Bateman
A few months ago the European Command conducted a training event called "Immediate Response 2008," involving roughly one thousand Soldiers and Marines. The news was barely noticed, and I suspect even the European Command forgot about the whole thing. Ho-hum, just one more exercise. After all, we do these "training exercises" all the time.
But one thing made "Immediate Response 2008" worthy of note, and even then, only in hindsight:
Immediate Response was a training event we conducted with Georgia, in Georgia. This year it took place in early July. Such things usually last just a few weeks, as did this one.
When we go on such training events we usually travel pretty light. In this case, they had basic gear -- some tents, a few Humvees, a couple of generators, and not much more. That sort of stuff still takes up a fair amount of space, though, so it's most efficient if you can send it in (and take it out) by ship. That is what happened this time as well. Well, the "send it in" part, anyway.
When the training was complete the Americans prepped their vehicles for shipment (stripping them of any sensitive gear), packed what they could not carry into a few steel shipping containers, and sent the lot of it over to the port at Poti, Georgia where it could be picked up by a cargo ship. Then they flew home.
Of course, you know what happened next. In August, Georgia and Russia fought over South Ossetia, and Russia subsequently pushed deep into Georgian territory along multiple routes. Still, as you can see from this map, our stuff should have been safe in Poti, which is well away from either conflict zone within Georgia.
But that wasn't the case. Not only did the Russians move well beyond the borders of the two breakaway provinces, they made it as far as the port of Poti.
From western media sources we have heard reports of South Ossetian militias and Russian troops burning and looting among ethnic Georgians inside South Ossetia and in the Georgian territory which the Russians invaded and captured. Russian media, on the other hand, apparently representing their government, have claimed almost the opposite. But a few indicators out there seem to suggest that the former is more to be relied upon than the latter. For starters, there is the fact that when the Russians got to Poti (where there were Western reporters), they not only sank the Georgian navy at the piers, but they broke into the shipping containers packed up a few weeks earlier by the US troops, and reportedly stole whatever they could carry. Then they found a few Marine Corps Humvees, and they stole them, too.
But if you live in Russia, that isn't how you heard the story.
Here's how a Pravda reporter put things:
"An elite group of Georgian special forces drove into the "Russian-occupied" Poti on 5 U.S. military Hummers this week. The vehicles were carrying explosives, firearms and top-secret satellite technology -- the pride of NATO generals.
The Russian military learned the special forces were approaching the city long before their arrival. Their movement was detected by satellite and reports had been received from local Georgians angered by Saakashvili's recent military actions.
It's likely NATO will have to re-encode their entire military and space system after the operation, which will be costly. This will certainly give them something to think about: Are closer military relations with Georgia and Ukraine really worth the hassle?"
Say what? "Elite" Georgian troops? Top Secret satellite technology? Huh?
Take a look at the picture (taken by the author of the Pravda article). If you know anything about US military gear, does this look to you like a vehicle which serves as a satellite relay or missile control system? "Pride of NATO generals," indeed.
Russian television and news services also carried news conferences with Russian generals about the seizures. Indeed the Deputy Head of the Russian General Staff, A.V. Nogovitsyn, sat down for an interview and apparently claimed much the same as what Pravda wrote. In essence, he tried to claim that these Humvees had some sort of super-secret gear, and that they are being "examined" after they were "captured." One line repeated pretty heavily in the Russian media is that according to "trustworthy but unnamed military sources" (has Seymour Hersh started working in Russia?), the high-tech hardware was used in the conflict and operated by what they call "American specialists" on behalf of the Georgians. In this story line the fictional gear's main purpose was to alert the Georgian army on possible "air" threats using incoming data from satellites which could pump to them warnings from our sophisticated ballistic missile warning system.
Yea, um, riiiight.
Here's my take. After pouring over the news, the videos, the various accounts from news sources around the world, I've come to the conclusion that the Russian Army is a lot more messed up than even I thought they were before all of this happened. Breaking into containers and looting the contents, let alone grand theft auto, is not what a professional or disciplined force does in a conflict. Therefore, it seems to me that what actually happened, particularly in the case of the US gear that was prepped for commercial shipping, is that the Russians totally lost control over their own troops. Their soldiers were going wild and stealing everything they thought they could use or sell. We cannot tell if this loss of control was at the junior officer level, or the mid-grade officer level (probable), or perhaps even at the general officer level, but apparently their forces are so ill-disciplined, broke, and perhaps starving, that they will and did resort to looting under the least pretext.
Even the director of security for Poti's commercial port seems to confirm this:
"The port's director of security, Vakhtang Chichradze, said there was little that Russian troops didn't steal, saying they hauled away chairs, light switches, radiators and even five U.S.-made military Humvees. "From the military port, they took armchairs, toilets - everything," he said."
They took freakin' toilets? Whoa. You are pretty far down on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs when you resort to stealing toilets.
Now, while all of this would tend to confirm the Georgian accounts of misdeeds committed elsewhere, we should remain skeptical. As I said, we do not know at what level it was that the Russians lost control of their forces, and that matters. The alternative -- that the Russian leaders were just so stupid or naïve as to think that they could openly loot and reporters wouldn't say anything -- is a bad assumption. Therefore it seems that the Russian generals, when confronted with the international news and video footage seen around the world almost immediately, of Russian troops stealing and driving away in US military Humvees the Russian high-command started a cover story to explain exactly why Russian troops were driving away in old soft-skinned US Humvees. (Note in the pictures and video -- these things don't even have antennas. As I said, they had been stripped down to prepare them for shipping, and one of the first things you do in that process is take off the antenna and take out the radios.)
All in all, I would say that the whole picture suggests that the Russian military is not only just a shell of its former self, but that despite the nation's economic gains in the past couple of years, they have not made any progress towards rebuilding their forces. Amateur hour seems to have replaced professional competence in their ranks.
ADDENDUM: In case you missed some of the background, here is a pretty good roll-up of the history and the situation as seen from the State Department.
These opinions are those of the author and do not reflect those of the DoD, the Army, or any element thereof.
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