First, the Russians have not repeated the mistake the Israelis made in their abortive attempts to expel Hezbollah, the Shiite Party of God, from southern Lebanon in July 2006. They did not rely on air power alone to rout their enemies, even though the Georgian army was not dug in with anything like the preparation that Hezbollah had invested in its underground positions to withstand the Israeli air force.
And where the Israelis sent just a few thousand ground troops into southern Lebanon, the Russians boldly sent in a far larger ground force into Georgia: the 58th Russian Army of the North Caucasus Military District backed by the formidable 76th Airborne "Pskov" Division. Unlike hapless Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2006, the Russians applied the classic Carl von Clausewitz principle of concentration of force against their enemy.
The Russians, like the Israelis in southern Lebanon in 2006, did not hesitate to bomb and shell inhabited areas when they felt the tactical conditions required it, but they proved far more aggressive and successful in their incursions by tank columns.
Second, although the Georgian army had quite a formidable force on paper, it could not stand up against major military formations of one of the world's leading armies.
Third, this reinforces a broader lesson that has been taught repeatedly in the conflicts of the past 17 years since the 1991 First Gulf War: Postage-stamp-size countries like Georgia or even small but supposedly more formidable ones like Iraq are usually no match for a superpower or a major regional nation. The U.S. armed forces blasted the Iraqi army to smithereens in about a week of combat when it was numerically the fourth- or fifth-largest manned force in the world in 1991 and rolled all the way to Baghdad with only around 150,000 troops in 2003.
Fourth, any major power like the United States, India, China or Russia will always be far more formidable militarily when its political leaders and tactical commanders are not afraid to sustain significant levels of casualties to achieve their tactical objectives.
The Indian army taught this lesson to Pakistan after initially being taken by surprise in the 1998 Kargil conflict. Indian fatalities in that short, bitter war in the Himalayas are believed to have been well over 2,000. The Indians showed little tactical sophistication and no brilliance. Their operations were very straightforward. But they achieved all their tactical goals.
Fourth, the remarkably widespread anti-Russian prejudice by many American pundits and supposed military experts proved to be simplistic ignorance: In any war, no army performs with 100 percent efficiency and brilliance. Most armies and commanders are pleased to get the job done at all, however messily. What matters is being at least marginally better trained, motivated and rapidly moving than the enemy.
The Russian forces in the current conflict have been a lot better than that. They have been up against a weak opponent, but like the U.S. army in both Gulf wars, they are proving themselves vastly superior to their opposition.
Fifth, the Russian army is far better than the forces that bungled their initial drive into Chechnya in 1994, or even that started the Second Chechen War in 1999. The vast investments that current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin poured into the Russian armed forces during his two four-year terms as president did not vanish down a black hole. In terms of training, tactical coordination, boosting morale and overall efficiency, they clearly made a significant impact.
None of these factors, however, explains why the Georgian armed forces, which have enjoyed significant U.S. investment over the past year and more, have performed so badly.
(Next: Getting Georgia wrong)