Compound Warfare ― Abkhazia 1992-1993

DOI:  10.55804/jtsuSPEKALI-16-2


One of the oldest human activities is war, the nature of which has not altered over time and the techniques have advanced and diversified. As a result, there are numerous theories about war today, including the following: “conventional and non-conventional war”, “hybrid war”, “asymmetric war”, “guerrilla war”, “compound warfare”, etc.

In 1997, American historian Thomas Huber published the article “Napoleon in Spain and Naples: Fortified Compound Warfare”, which attracted considerable attention. In this article, the author proposed a new method of conducting war, namely the “compound war”, based on the re-search of Napoleon's Spanish and Neapolitan campaigns. In 2002, T. Huber, together with his co-authors, published the book “Compound Warfare - Fatal Knot,” in which he comprehensively reviewed the manifestations of the mentioned war in the historical past and described them in detail.

For T. Huber, “Compound Warfare” is the simultaneous and combined use of regular or main military forces and irregular or guerrilla units against the enemy [Huber, 2002:1]. “Compound War-fare” most frequently happens when an enemy with a stronger military force totally or partially oc-cupies a region, where there is a weaker military presence. Many instances of this kind of war, being waged by a weak country to subdue a larger military power, are recorded in history. The secret to the success of “Compound Warfare” lies in the fact that it forces the enemy to simultaneously concentrate forces in one place and attack the adversary in different locations. If the enemy concen-trates their forces in one particular area of the theatre to defeat the enemy's regular forces, then the irregular units will attack them from behind, strike their lines of communication, and cause them great trouble. In order to neutralize this threat, if the stronger side decides to expand its armed forces and act against the irregular units, then the weak side will easily defeat the scattered units of the enemy employing the main forces. A strong opponent is faced with the dilemma of what to do to achieve victory. Accordingly, the creator of “Compound Warfare” has a powerful lever with which he can influence the enemy. This way, the strong side confronting a dual threat becomes hesitant, the power dynamic is disturbed, and the war is extended, which results in unanticipated costs, exhaustion of the troops, a decline in morale, mental and psychological health, and a loss of motivation, etc. [Huber, 2002:1-2].

Along with this, it should also be noted that regular and irregular units operating within the framework of “Compound Warfare” are organic parts and complement each other. As an illustration, irregular or guerrilla forces supply main forces with tactical and operational intelligence and disrupt opposing intelligence groups. They help to supply the main forces with food and supplies and make it difficult for the enemy forces to accomplish the same task. Also, if necessary, irregular units can engage in combat operations and support regular units, both directly in combat tasks and the performance of labor activities. Irregular forces with their actions harass enemy soldiers, affect their moral-psychological condition and reduce the enemy's fighting ability. In turn, the main forces can put the guerrillas at a significant advantage. The pressure exerted by main forces may force the adversary to withdraw from areas in which guerrillas are operating, thereby allowing them to operate more freely.

Major forces can finance insurgents, provide them with special training, and give them weapons and equipment, strategic information and advice on where and how to direct their efforts. If irregular forces feel pressured by the enemy and are politically passive, friendly regular forces can deploy collaborationists in the location and encourage guerrilla activities to become more active from the political and military points of view [Huber, 2002:1-2].

According to T. Huber, a side using “Compound Warfare” is almost invincible, but the technique may have a weakness too. The remaining guerrillas will be easily beaten if the adversary can decimate the major regular forces at the start of hostilities. To put it another way, both components are required for “Compound Warfare” to succeed. Therefore, to avoid this, in many cases, the weak side applies “Fortified Compound Warfare” tactics. This entails setting up camp and conducting operations from a position where the enemy will find it difficult to defeat the main force. “Fortified” refers to all methods that guarantee the bolstering of the forces and safety, including alliances, diplomacy, economy, technology, geographical environment, etc. Therefore, if the weaker side has a place where its main forces are safe and also, has a strong ally, then the performer of “Fortified Compound Warfare” cannot be defeated. T. Huber identifies four essential elements necessary for successful “Fortified Compound Warfare”, namely: regular or main forces; irregular or guerrilla units; “safe haven” for the main forces and a powerful ally [Huber, 2002:4].

After examining historical military conflicts (such as Napoleon in Spain, the American frontline of the Seven Years’ War, the American Liberation War, and the Vietnam and Afghanistan conflicts), Huber and other like-minded scholars concluded that these were examples of “Compound Warfare”, during which a small force managed to defeat a superior force. This article aims to discuss the war in Abkhazia, which started on August 14, 1992, with the entry of Georgian units [Papaskiri, 2021:293] and the opening of fire from the Abkhazian side. This war was won by Abkhazian rebels with a small force [1]. How did this happen? Which elements of “Compound Warfare” do we see  in this conflict?

In the summer of 1992, there was a tense situation in Western Georgia, namely in Megrelia. Attacks on railway transport on the Tbilisi-Sukhumi railway line became more frequent, and as a result, the Georgian state suffered a loss of 9 billion rubles. Accordingly, on August 10 1992, following the resolution of the Presidium of the State Council of the Republic of Georgia, the emergency rules were announced concerning railway transport. The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia, the Ministry of Defense of Georgia and the Railway Division were ordered to enter the regions of Gali and Ochamchiri to regain control over the railway line, prevent attacks on railway transport and other crimes in the district [Issue of Abkhazia, 2000:78–80]. To fulfil the tasks set by the resolution, Georgian units entered the territory of the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia, where the military formations of Abkhazian separatist groups near the village of Okhurei in the Ochamchiri district opened fire. The war started.

As mentioned previously, “Compound Warfare” is a necessity for a side with smaller forces to defeat a superior adversary. For the strong side’s actions to be successful, it must prevent the enemy from conducting successful “Compound Warfare”. Therefore, if the Georgian side wished to prevail, its armed forces had to seize control of Abkhazia’s entire territory and eliminate the informal armed Abkhazian separatist groups. By August 15, 1992, the Georgian armed forces arrived in Sukhumi, landed in the extreme northwest of Abkhazia and occupied the cities of Gagra, Gantiadi and Leselidze, establishing control over the Georgian-Russian border section [Papaskiri, 2021:295]. Instead of furthering the successful position they had achieved, which meant attacking the enemy (fleeing in panic from  Gudauta), from Sukhumi and Gagra simultaneously and destroying their main forces, the Georgian government decided to negotiate with the separatists.  This was believed to be a fatal mistake because it allowed the enemy to take their time and regroup. The separatists moved their main forces to Gudauta where they were safe, and the guerrilla groups were launched in the Tkvarcheli district. They also managed to find a strong ally in the form of the Russian Federation. Accordingly, since September 1992, we dealt with the “Fortified Compound Warfare” carried out by the Abkhazian side.


Russia as a Strong Ally

As previously indicated, after the conflict started, the Russian Federation, which maintained a military base on Abkhazian soil, appeared to be a powerful ally on the Abkhazian side. The Russian military started publicly supplying the Abkhazian rebels with weapons and ammunition from the very beginning of the conflict. For instance, at the start of the fight, the Abkhazians received “267 pistols, 18 machine guns, more than 500 hand grenades, 984 machine guns, up to half a million bullets of different weapons, trucks, food, and others” from the Russian 643rd anti-aircraft missile regiment [Kolbaia... 1999:208 ]. The chief of supplies of Gudauta airfield, lieutenant Dolgopolov supplied - “six infantry fighting vehicles with a complete set, up to 400 hand grenades, up to 50,000 cartridges and 6 machine guns [Nadareishvili, 2000:56]”. With the Russian help, the Abkhazian side already had at least eight tanks and 30 armoured vehicles. Until the end of the conflict, they received so many resources from the Russian side that they had laid up to 100,000 mines in the entire territory at the end of the war [Zverev, 1996:2]. Russian newspapers also actively published information about the supply of weapons to the Abkhazians. “As reported by “Izvestia”, the weapons transferred by Russia to the separatists consisted of 72 units of tanks, 20 armoured vehicles, 12 artillery units, including “Huragan” and “Grad” type missile systems [Jojua, 2009:187]”. Along with this, during the one-year war, Russian military helicopters were intensively supplying the Tkvarcheli group with weapons and ammunition. Also, in the summer of 1993, before the decisive attack on Sukhumi, under the guise of humanitarian aid, the Russian state provided military aid to Tkvarcheli with 30 KamAZ vehicles [Kolbaia... 1999:149-150]. In addition to weapons, the separatists received considerable financial support from Russia; for example, Moscow banks transferred about 20 billion rubles to the Abkhazians [Nadareishvili, 2000:65]. The Russian supply of the Abkhazians was reported by Human Rights Watch, which claimed that “the sudden appearance of guns, tanks and heavy artillery on the side of the previously lightly armed Abkhazians, which were used in October[2] and December 1992, leaves little doubt that Russian forces supplied them. Armaments had to be obtained from a certain source, and in the event that the Georgians would not supply them, Russia remains the only source” [Human Rights Watch, 1995:30].

The Russian military apparatus extensively retrained Abkhaz volunteers and established training facilities on Abkhazian territory. In the village of Chlou, in the Ochamchiri district, one such facility was established [Kolbaia... 1999:170].

During the conflict, the Russians provided active combat support to the Abkhazians, both from the air and from the sea. Russian planes based in Gudauta constantly attacked Georgian positions and bombed them, as well as collecting intelligence information [Kolbaia... 1999:143].

During the attack on Gagra in early October 1992 by the Abkhazians and their allies, Russian ships blocked the sea area and they were instructed not to allow the Georgian rescue landing to be carried out in the direction of Gagra-Gantiadi [Kolbaia... 1999:208]. The 345th landing battalion, the pilots of the 529th aviation squadron and the 643rd anti-aircraft missile regiments also participated in the operation to occupy Gagra [Kolbaia... 1999:131-132]. The mentioned operation was personally led by the First Deputy Minister of Defense of Russia, Colonel-General M. Kolesnikov. In this operation, the Abkhazian forces were supplied with ammunition by the Russian military base in Gudauti, and tankers from the Black Sea supplied 420 tons of diesel fuel and gasoline to the separatists [Jojua, 2009:173-174].

Additionally, it should be mentioned that during particular periods of the conflict, Russian regular army units fought on the Abkhazian side, as happened, for instance, in July 1993, during the Tamish operation. The landing party in Tamish did not formally represent Russia, but according to Lieutenant-General GuramNikolaishvili, a soldier in the Abkhazian war, “everyone had documents by which it was easy to find out their origin”. Among the fighters there were many Russians, Cossacks, there were especially many soldiers from Crimea and Moldova... Only we handed over 150 dead to the Russian side. The documents were created in such a way that ... they were on vacation [Topuria, 2021]”. Human Rights Watch notes the same in its report; “There were a large number of ethnic Russian fighters in Abkhazia who had not previously lived in Abkhazia or Georgia... A certain part of them were professional military personnel who were paid and who were sent by the Russian government branches in Abkhazia [Human Rights Watch, 1995:49]”.

The Russian Headquarters assisted the Abkhazians in planning in addition to aiding in military operations and supplying material and technological resources. In the spring of 1993, it was in the Russian Headquarters that the plan to occupy Sukhumi was developed, which involved: 1. Tkvarcheli's group to seize the track in the Ochamchiri region and at the same time sending a naval troops there. 2. Simultaneously with the attack on the Gumisti front, taking the strategically important heights around Sukhumi to create a favorable springboard [Kolbaia, 1999:150].

Military personnel of the Russian regular army spied for the Abkhazians and actively participated in the planning of subversive acts. On March 31, during an agency diversion in Sukhumi, “Lieutenant A. N. Sitnikov of the N48427 military unit stationed in Moscow was arrested. Soon - on April 1 - the same happened to radio operator-sergeant A. O. Lunin of the Russian N2011 military unit, who was also caught red handed in Sukhumi [Kolbaia... 1999:208].”

It is undoubtedly noteworthy how the Russian Federation assisted the Abkhazian side politically. The Russian government’s pressure and mediation led to the signing of a ceasefire agreement while the Abkhazian separatists were on the verge of collapse. This allowed Russia to send more volunteers, weapons, and equipment into Abkhazia, and with restocked forces, the Abkhazians were able to break the terms of the agreement and seize the strategically significant city of Abkhazia by occupying Gagra and the northern part of the country.

On July 27, 1993, at the request of the Russians and with a guarantee of carrying it out, the Sochi agreement was signed [Papaskiri, 2021:306], within the framework of which the Georgian side withdrew heavy equipment and units from Sukhumi, after which the Abkhaz separatists began to attack the almost defenseless Sukhumi and finally occupied it. Of course, the violation of this agreement did not lead to adequate reactions from Russia to punish the Abkhazian side.

As can be seen from the above facts, we have absolutely all forms of “fortified compound warfare” as described by T. Huber, carried out by powerful allies.


Abkhazian Separatists as the Major Forces

At the beginning of the war in Abkhazia, the main force of the Abkhazian side was only one battalion of the Guardsmen and several hundreds of mercenary North Caucasian fighters. They had no heavy equipment, no anti-aircraft systems, no naval equipment and no air machines. Accordingly, in the first days of the war, the Georgian side was able to gain an advantage and defeated the Abkhazians and their allies. The latter took refuge in Gudauta, where most of them survived. After retraining, arming and replenishing,  Abkhazians managed to defeat the Georgian units in the northwestern part of Abkhazia and cross the Russian-Abkhazian border section, stabilising the fron-tline on the river Gumista near Sukhumi and mobilising the remaining Abkhazian forces there. The Abkhazians created fortified defensive positions to prevent the Georgians from gaining a decisive advantage and destroying their regular units. They also deployed artillery systems, with which they bombarded not only the defensive positions of the Georgian Armed Forces but also residential buildings in Sukhumi.

In this confrontation, in January and March,  the Abkhazian regular units made repeated attempts to break through the Gumista frontline with frontal attacks, but without success. The Georgian forces, thanks to heavy equipment and well-fortified positions, managed to repulse the Abkhazian attacks. In the mentioned operations, representatives of the Russian “Spetsnaz” (Special forces) and Chechen volunteers fought alongside the Abkhazians.


Confederation of Mountain Peoples and Abkhazians as Irregular Forces

Shortly after the entry of Georgian formations into the territory of Abkhazia, on August 21, the Confederation of Mountain Peoples published an appeal confirming its readiness to be involved in the conflict on the side of Abkhazia and to send volunteers. They declared Tbilisi a disaster zone and called on their people to fight against the Georgians by all means, including terrorist acts [Gasviani, 2005:172-173].

Immediately after the beginning of the conflict, hundreds of North Caucasian militants moved to Abkhazia, some of them were transported by Russian helicopters to the territory of Abkhazia, while others crossed the Caucasus mountain passes. The hired mountaineers primarily took part in guerilla attacks in the Ochamchire district, although they occasionally pretended to be conventional military units and engaged in combat with Georgians. It should be mentioned that a limited number of volunteers from Transnistria joined the North Caucasian volunteers in Abkhazia [Shamugia, 2018].

The North Caucasian and Abkhaz guerrillas operating in the Tkvarcheli and Ochamchire districts throughout the conflict were entrusted with planning acts of sabotage in their areas of operation, persistently attacking Georgian communication networks, acting against Georgian armed formations, and wearing them out.

In this conflict, due to stretched communication lines and insufficient human resources, the Georgian side had difficulty creating a united front in the Ochamchire region, which made it easier for subversive groups to operate. One such group even managed to blow up a power line.

Due to the actions of the guerrilla groups from the rear, the Georgians had to mobilize additional units to protect the communication lines and deploy them on the entire front line. This was problematic because the newly created Georgian state had neither material nor financial resources to carry out these operations for a lengthy period. The impossibility of operations on the Gumista frontline nearby Sukhumi and the Abkhazian threat from there did not allow active counter-guerrilla operations to be conducted in the rear.


“Safe Haven” for the Main Forces

In this respect, two positions should be considered: a) the city of Gudauta and b) the military research lab in Eshera situated close to the front lines. The city of Gudauta, home to the Russian air-military base and the Bombora airfield served to support the separatist government of Abkhazia. Through this military outpost, the Russians maintained control over the airspace over Abkhazia, and the soldiers stationed there were under orders to attack Georgian aircraft if noticed within 70 kilometres of the base [Nadareishvili, 2000:117]. With this step, the Russian military units secured Gudauta’s security. At the very beginning of the war, the Russian armed forces created two operational defence districts in the Gumista region. Buktype air defence complexes located in the first district protected the places of concentration of separatist formations. The second district, concentrated in the direction of the Gumista frontline, was staffed with mobile anti-aircraft missile complexes of the OCA type, which, on the one hand, protected the positions of the Abkhazians and their allies located on the Gumista front. On the other hand, they blocked the Georgian armed forces [Jojua, 2017:147]. Accordingly, during the entire conflict, Georgia was able to drop a bomb on Gudauta only once [Kolbaia... 1999:145]. On August 29, 1992, the Georgian units with 600 military personnel, 3 tanks and 6 infantry fighting vehicles attacked the Gumista front, broke through the enemy's defence line, crossed the Gumista river, occupied several strategic heights and began to attack in the direction of Gudauta to further the achieved success. The Russian military stationed in Gudauta, based on the synchronized strikes of the airborne group and the Russian infantry battalion stationed at the Eshera military research laboratory managed to block the Georgians. Losses on the Georgian side were high, 40 soldiers were killed, and all three tanks and 4 armoured personnel carriers were destroyed [Jojua 2017:151].

As for the so-called Eshera military laboratory, at the very beginning of the conflict, the Abkhazians deployed their artillery units near the Russian base, which created problems for the Georgian fighters. Accordingly, the separatists organized a massive bombardment of Sukhumi from these positions, both through heavy and light artillery. The attempt of the Georgian side to suppress the opponent’s activity with return fire often caused protests from the Russian side, because there were cases when the artillery shells fired by the Georgian side towards the Abkhazian positions fell in the vicinity of the Eshera laboratory. Because of this, the Russian military-air units started bombing the Georgian positions. “Despite the repeated requests of the Georgian government, to evacuate the “laboratory” in Eshera, to avoid clashing with Russian military units, the Kremlin stubbornly refused. It was quite clear that the “laboratory factor” gradually became the winning card in the hands of the Russian military. This allowed them to assist the separatists almost openly” [Papaskiri, 2007:375]. It should be noted that on October 26, the Russian military-political elite adopted the official decision that in the case of the Georgian side opening artillery fire in the direction of “Eshera military laboratory”, the Russian military would retaliate” [Human Rights Watch, 1995:28].

As we can see, the strong ally created a “Safe Haven’’ for Abkhaz separatists, where the Abkhazian forces were located in a place inaccessible to the Georgians and - since they were not in danger - operated freely, went through exercises, rested, planned further operations, etc. The existence of a fortified haven created a considerable problem for the Georgian armed forces, which could not attack and destroy the enemy’s forces and were thus forced to fight defensive battles. The presence of guerrilla groups in the rear and organized sabotage operations created a problem concerning supplies. Accordingly, the Georgian state faced a dilemma typical of “Fortified Compound Warfare”. They could neither threaten the regular units of the separatists nor conduct full-scale operations against the guerillas.

On September 16, 1993, Abkhazian separatists and their allies began a decisive operation. Their goal was to attack the Georgian positions from two directions in Ochamchire and Sukhumi. Their goal was first to occupy the Kodori River bridge so that the defenders of Sukhumi would be cut off from the rest of Georgia and then to take Sukhumi. Combat operations resumed with the storming of the mentioned bridge of the Eastern Frontline, and on September 17, combat operations began on the Gumista front. The tactics were already tried out. The first echelon contained Russian special servicemen, followed by separatists and allies with their Russian equipment. Russian artillery and aviation intensively bombarded both the city of Sukhumi and the villages controlled by Georgians located around it. On the same day, the Confederation of Mountain Peoples issued an order and called on all military formations at its disposal to return to Abkhazia [Kolbaia... 1999:156].

The Georgian defenders of the city repelled the attacks of the outnumbered and better-armed enemy for 12 days. During this period, the Georgian units stationed at the approaches of the Kodori River tried in vain to cross the river to help the besieged city. Meanwhile, on the Gumista front, no longer protected by Georgian heavy artillery and other equipment, and the mined part of which was demined during the peace process, the Abkhazian side broke through on September 23 [Papaskiri, 2007:418], and began the operation to conquer the city. “During the storming of the city, the striking force was the special forces of the Russian army... They were followed by Abkhazians, Chechens, Ossetians, and Adyghe - a total of 10 battalions [Kolbaia... 1999:210,222].” On September 27, the Abkhazians captured Sukhumi [Papaskiri, 2021:309], which caused the greatest moral and psychological damage to the Georgian armed forces. The military units, already lacking central leadership, became demoralized and began to retreat in panic. No one opposed the Abkhazian advance; no one was there to stop them. Accordingly, the separatists entered Gulripshi on September 29, Ochamchire and Gali on September 30. By 8 pm, they reached the river Enguri [Kolbaia... 1999:164].

As we can see, the superstate was a strong supporter of the Abkhazians, not only providing them with heavy weapons but also supporting them from the military and political points of view throughout the war. They were given  Safe Haven by the same strong state, saving their major forces from being destroyed. Regular units were taught and assisted in their actions by a powerful state. The fourth component of the mentioned type of war was also presented - guerrillas, who ideally acted in the back of the Georgians and thoroughly performed the tasks assigned to them within the framework of the “Compound Warfare”.

Accordingly, we can conclude that the 14-month war in Abkhazia is a classic example of “Compound Warfare.” A strong side was defeated by a weak one due to a smaller military force being able to gather all the components necessary for a “Fortified Compound Warfare”, which led to an inevitable victory.


[1]By 1989, 89% (3,787,393) of the population in Georgia were ethnic Georgians, and Abkhazians - 0.1% (95,853) [Jones, 2012:59].

[2]Abkhazians and their allies attacked Gagra with T-72 and T-80 tanks [Уригашвили 1992].




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