The Armed Forces of South Ossetia (AFSO), often simply referred to as the South Osstian Army, is the military of the partially-recognized state of South Ossetia. Nestled in the Greater Caucasus Mountains, their headquarters is in the capital of Tskhinvali, with their commander-in-chief being the head of state Alan Gagloyev. With the assistance of the Russian military stationed at the 4th Guards Military Base, the South Ossetian military exists to resist any attempt by Georgia to retake the territory.
History & Foundations
Under Soviet rule, the region of South Ossetia was given the status of Autonomous Oblast within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. When the Soviet Union collapsed, both governments in Tbilisi and Tskhinvali sought national identity, with the Georgian leadership labeling the South Ossetian efforts as illegal. After bouts of civil strife, both sides began to send armed units into the area to secure each other's interests.
The South Ossitian military came out of this by having the first armed groups formed to create a South Ossetian Republican Guard. This Republican Guard, however, was more than a conglomeration of local militias and popular armed groups; assistance from North Ossetia came in the form of irregular troops. In the resulting South Ossetia War, the AFSO would be formed with organized Military Intelligence, Artillery, and command staff first.
Following the Georgian Civil War, the AFSO began to rebuild their military. Their model mirrored that of the Russian Armed Forces, both in equipment and in doctrine. Years later in 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin would confirm this. "It isn't a secret [...] there was a plan in place and we were guided by it. It was developed by the General Staff in late 2006 - early 2007, and it was negotiated with me. We trained South Ossetian militia under this plan [...]", Putin told reporters at the time.
Ideology & Objectives
The overall objective of the AFSO is the defense of South Ossetian territory against Georgian forces. Despite cohabitation during the Soviet era, they believe that Tbilisi is intent on eradicating their autonomy and acting against their regional interests, as well as their cultural identity. This divide has been exacerbated by the actions of Georgian military and pro-Georgian militants in the post-Soviet conflicts, including eviction, shelling of Ossetian villages, and alleged war crimes. The AFSO enjoys popularity at home, being seen as a protective force against the predations of Tbilisi.
Approach to Resistance
In the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the AFSO were the primary force resisting Georgian military advances until the arrival of Russian troops for the 58th Army. Once the Georgian military had left Tskhinvali, the AFSO followed Russian troops into Georgia proper, where Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other international human rights organizations have blamed them for a multitude of human rights violations. For instance, HRW noted in a 2009 report that “Ossetian forces rounded up at least 159 ethnic Georgians [...] killing at least one and subjecting nearly all of them to inhuman and degrading treatment and conditions of detention. They also tortured at least four Georgian prisoners of war and executed at least three.” These violations suggest that the AFSO’s approach to resistance is relatively violent and has involved HR violations.
At the time of writing, the AFSO are purely defensive in nature and aside from the occasional cross-border incident, do not overtly seek out conflict with Georgian security forces. The AFSO response to any incursion into their territory is likely to involve the formation of defensive positions and an immediate formal request for Russian military assistance. As a result, the country’s sovereignty is tethered to Russian military response.
Military & Political Abilities
The AFSO has, since the closing of the 2008 war, been tasked with repulsing any cross-border operation by Georgian military units. The President of South Ossetia in 2017, Leonid Tibilov, said that "South Ossetia plays a huge role in strengthening Russia's geopolitical presence in the Transcaucasus.”
They, along with other internal security forces and Russian reconnaissance elements, continuously and visibly patrol the border, also known as the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL). On occasion, they have been seen by drone and by civilians crossing this line into Tbilisi-controlled territory.
The tactical and strategic capabilities of the AFSO reflect the heavy influences of the Russian Armed Forces. While their size is commonly counted as 16,000 members, this is said to include both active duty and reserve personnel. Active duty numbers are difficult to come by, but are typically assessed to be around 2,500, with the remainder being reservists and part-time specialists.
There have been several attempts to integrate either the entirety or a portion of the AFSO into the Russian Armed Forces. However, each time it has been presented before the legislature it has never passed. Regardless, both militaries do train together and host joining exercises. Lieutenant-General Ibragim Gasseev, South Ossetian Defense Ministry in 2016, described the issue by saying “it is impossible to imagine that an Ossetian warrior is no longer entrusted with the fulfillment of the sacred duty of defending the Fatherland and is destined to be an outside observer of the defense of the state, to the recognition of whose independence a difficult and bloody path has been traveled.”
The AFSO regular force consists of 4 Rifle Battalions, a Tank Brigade, and a Logistics Brigade. In its headquarters is the army general staff, communications, special operations, administrative, and engineering elements. Each element is reportedly a company in size (around 120 soldiers), but exact numbers may not fill an entire company’s personnel numbers. The reserve component, largely filled by conscripts on an annual basis, consists of 9 Rifle battalions, typically light infantry in nature.
International Relations & Alliances
At an international level, South Ossetia is largely seen by the international community as a part of Georgia, as and such the AFSO as an illegal armed organization. South Ossetia only maintains formal relations with Russia, Nauru, Nicaragua, Syria, and Venezuela. Tskhinvali also has shared relations with 4 other partially-recognized states. These partially-recognized entities are Abkhazia (also claimed by Georgia), Artsakh (claimed by Azerbaijan), the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (self-declared state in the non-self-governing territory of Western Sahara), and Transnistria (claimed by Moldova).
It has attempted to have relations with the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, but have deferred to Moscow since their annexation in September, 2022. The future of the AFSO, and South Ossetia as a whole, is dependent on the willingness of Russia to participate in its national defense efforts. The Georgian government, currently headed by the “Georgian Dream” party, has repeatedly expressed its interest in resolving their existing differences through diplomacy rather than force.
Works Cited (Hyperlinks)
Al Jazeera. (2017, March 14). Putin approves Army deal with Georgia's South Ossetia. South Ossetia News | Al Jazeera. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/3/14/putin-approves-army-deal-with-georgias-south-ossetia
Conflicting claims as Tskhinvali drone goes down near Tsnelisi. Civil Georgia. (2019, September 2). Retrieved from https://civil.ge/archives/318512
Countries that recognized South Ossetia's and Abkhazia's independence. TASS. (2018, May 29). Retrieved from https://tass.com/world/1007058
Georgia Today. (2022, November 24). Russian occupying forces unlawfully detain Georgian citizen. Georgia Today. Retrieved from https://georgiatoday.ge/russian-occupying-forces-unlawfully-detain-georgian-citizen/
Georgia, C. (2017, January 15). De facto South Ossetian leader on new defense agreement with Russia. Civil.Ge. Retrieved from https://old.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=29774&search=tibilov
Independent International Fact-finding mission on the conflict in Georgia. volume I. : Council of the European Union : Free Download, borrow, and streaming. Internet Archive. (2009, September 1). Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/IIFFMCG_Volume_I_2009
Menabde, G. (2017, March 21). Russian military absorbs 'Army of South Ossetia'. Jamestown. Retrieved from https://jamestown.org/program/russian-military-absorbs-army-south-ossetia/
Russia had plan to rebuff Georgian aggression - putin. Voice of Russia. (2012, August 8). Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20120811064250/http://english.ruvr.ru/2012_08_08/Russia-had-plan-to-rebuff-Georgian-aggression-Putin/
Russian military forces: Interactive map - GFSIS. Rondeli Foundation . (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.gfsis.org.ge/maps/russian-military-forces
В цхинвале подведены итоги деятельности Министерства обороны РЮО за 2016 год. Министерство обороны Республики Южная Осетия. (2017, December 1). Retrieved from http://alaniamil.org/56-v-chinvale-podvedeny-itogi-deyatelnosti-ministerstva-oborony-ryuo-za-2016-god.html
Республиканская гвардия осетии: Zilaxar - Nacion talæn. Zilaxar. (2017, February 26). Retrieved from http://zilaxar.com/istoriya/respublikanskaya-gvardiya-osetii/