The Intelligence War over South Ossetia

I’m interested by the continuing debate as to whether Russian intelligence proved effective or faulty over South Ossetia. My view is that Moscow undoubtedly won the intel war and what follows is based on an earlier article I wrote for Jane’s Intelligence Digest (

Even before the Georgian attack that triggered the Russian invasion of 7 August, there had been an upsurge in intelligence and counter-intelligence work by the various antagonists. Eduard Kokoity, president of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia, claimed on 4 August that Georgian intelligence officers were preparing ‘acts of terrorism.’ Possibly; certainly there have been several bomb attacks in the region, although if so, they really should have concentrated on trying to block the Roki tunnel linking North and South Ossetia. It seems that the Georgians launched an unsuccessful military attack on the tunnel in the early stages of the conflict, but were blocked by Russian and South Ossetian forces, but the tunnel could have been sabotaged in advance.

Conversely, the South Ossetian intelligence and security agency, still tellingly called the KGB – although it is largely an offshoot of Russian military intelligence (GRU: Glavnoe razvedyvatelnoe upravlenie) – was reportedly behind a series of attacks on Georgian officials and police.

However, it has become clear the extent to which Georgian and Russian policy alike was informed – sometimes misinformed – by their intelligence agencies. While Georgia had good tactical intelligence on South Ossetian forces and defences, much gathered by the defence ministry’s Military Intelligence Department, this proved to be quite static, and they did not appear aware that the Ossetians were dug in on the approaches to the Roki tunel. Perhaps more seriously, they seem completely to have underestimated Russia’s will and ability to involve itself in the conflict. This was not just a diplomatic but also an intelligence failure. The Georgian Foreign Intelligence Service seems to have contributed to this mistake, and so the Georgians were caught entirely unawares by the scale and readiness of the forces Russia had prepared in its North Caucasus Military District.

As for the Russians, some analysts in Moscow and the West have claimed that the war represented an intelligence failure, because Russian forces in South Ossetia were taken unawares by Georgia’s attack on the region’s capital, Tskhinvali, such that they were virtually surrounded for a day, with no easy opportunity to withdraw. However, this is only part of the truth. The Russians had been anticipating and preparing for a conflict since early summer, not least by using their Kavkaz-2008 exercises to test invasion plans and moving 5 battalions of troops to the border with South Ossetia. However, they always intended to wait for Georgia to move first to allow them to present themselves as the peacekeepers and defenders of the Ossetians. It does appear that Moscow was caught off guard by the exact date when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili moved against Tskhinvali while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev were at the Beijing Olympics. The Russians appear to have expected the Georgians to take another week to prepare for their offensive, possibly a miscalculation by the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR: Sluzhba vneshnogo razvedky). However, in the main Moscow was not only ready for the attack, they proved to have a good and detailed knowledge of Georgian deployments and capabilities.

Once hostilities had begun, tactical intelligence became increasingly important. As well as electronic intelligence, the Russians relied on data gathered by aircraft, unmanned aerial drones and scouts from the GRU’s Spetsnaz special forces, specifically the 45th Detached Reconnaissance Regiment. The latter proved especially effective, not least considering their ability also to act as elite light infantry. President Saakashvili claimed that his forces killed 60 Spetsnaz, but this has not been confirmed and seems very unlikely.

By contrast, the Georgians’ tactical intelligence-gathering capacities were limited. Russia’s rapid assertion of complete air superiority prevented manned reconnaissance flights and also constrained their use of drones. Furthermore, the Military Intelligence Department’s assets within South Ossetia were largely within Georgian enclaves and had little opportunity to monitor Russian movements in the rest of the region. More to the point, the Georgians proved unable effectively to fuse intelligence from a range of sources in the chaotic and sometimes panicked atmosphere which followed the Russian onslaught. The extent to which the government genuinely believed that the Russians planned to attack Tbilisi demonstrates this failure effectively to assess Russian moves, not least because to defend the capital forces were withdrawn from Gori and the Kodori Gorge – which were key Russian objectives.

Russia also used the conflict as an opportunity to settle scores at home. On 11 August, FSB director Alexander Bortnikov announced that a Georgian Foreign Intelligence Service network had been smashed, with ten agents arrested including a senior officer, identified only as ‘Kherkeladze’, who was tasked with spying on Russian forces in the North Caucasus and the activities of Eduard Kokoity, as well as a Russian lieutenant colonel of Georgian descent. In an increasingly extreme propaganda blitz, they also accused Tbilisi of trying to recruit other Russians of Georgian ancestry by threatening their relatives.

In short, the successful incursion has strengthened the hands of the military and security interests in Moscow. These ‘siloviki’ – literally, ‘men of force’ – played a key role under Putin and it was unclear how influential they would be under President Medvedev. In fact, they have proved just as influential, shaping the conduct of the campaign and claiming the credit for what, in Moscow’s eyes at least, has been a successful operation. Already, Putin has decorated more than 50 GRU, SVR and FSB officers for their work associated with the campaign, and their distinctively hawkish policies are once again becoming Kremlin orthodoxy.

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