Ceasefire in Georgia Putin Outmaneuvers the West

Russia's strongman Vladimir Putin has achieved his goal in Georgia -- the country has been destabilized. And the West will have to look on powerless when its ally, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, is eventually driven from office.

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A Russian officer walks through the damaged South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.
AP

A Russian officer walks through the damaged South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.

The march on Tbilisi has been called off, if such plans ever existed. Russian President Dimitry Medvedev has announced the end of military operations in the Caucasus for the time being. According to sources in Moscow, some in the Russian military found it very painful to have to halt the advance just 90 kilometers from the office of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. The hardliners would have loved nothing more than to do a bit of clearing up in the headquarters of this Georgian hothead.

But hasn't Russia already achieved everything it had set out to achieve? Moscow will now argue that it has fulfilled its "peacekeeping mission" as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin puts it, and that it has stuck to international agreements regarding the Caucasus by protecting one side and restraining the other. Now only one task remains -- Saakashvili needs to go, say the Russians.

And that poses the next quandary for the West. Russia will now stress its readiness to enter negotiations, but only on one condition -- that Saakashvili quits. The Russians will demand that the West (and especially the Americans) let their their darling go.

Russia had already indicated its position on Monday when Putin drew parallels between Saakashvili and Saddam Hussein. One could understand that the Americans had hanged the criminal Saddam, said Putin. But he added that it was a scandal that the US had a totally different stance in the case of Saakashvilli and had even provided eight aircraft to transport the Georgian soldiers stationed in Iraq to join the fighting in Georgia.

So Moscow is calling for Saakashvili's head as a precondition for resolving the conflict -- and the West dearly wants a resolution. But the West accedes to Moscow's demand, it will publicly embarrass itself. On the other hand such an outcome would be logical. As columnist Bruce Anderson wrote in Britain's Independent newspaper: "In diplomacy, strategy and geopolitics, our political leaders have been guilty of multiple failures over many years." All the talk about a possible Georgian membership of NATO only encouraged Tbilisi to embark on its military adventure. Saakashvili already felt like a full NATO partner and thought he could provoke Russia without punishment. And the Russians thought it was time to teach him a lesson.

No one in NATO is likely to have even considered hurling themselves into the breach for tiny Georgia. The Americans need Russia to help them keep Iran in line. With its show of military might Moscow has reminded the West where part of its oil and gas come from. And it has shown the countries in the gray zone between East and West -- Georgia, Ukraine and the former Soviet Central Asian states -- that it makes no sense to seek protection from a West that only gives empty promises. It's true, security guarantees and pledges of solidarity aren't worth much if they run counter to the West's own strategic interests. The Poles know that all too well -- they hoped in vain for help from their friends in 1939, the British and the French, when Hitler and Stalin invaded their country.

But amid all the tragedy, Saakashvili's behavior does have a beneficial element. The Caucasus conflict may now trigger a deeper debate in the West about how to deal with the states of the former Soviet Union. It would probably have been better if Europe had been quicker to bind Georgia and the Ukraine to the European Union. But Brussels thought that was "premature" while both countries were busy talking about NATO membership.

The Russians are on the home stretch. Georgia is destabilized and Tbilisi may well soon have a pro-Russian government. The Germans won't be playing much of a role in the diplomatic wrangling over the next few weeks even if Chancellor Angela Merkel's summit meeting with Medvedev in Sochi on Friday does focus solely on the Georgian question. German foreign ministry state secretary Gernot Erler defended the meeting by saying Medvedev was the man to talk to on foreign policy affairs. "Medvedev takes the decisions," said Erler, even though he knows that is not the case. Merkel may be travelling to Sochi but the man who pulls the strings -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- will be sitting 1,800 kilometers north of there, in Moscow.

That is evident not only in Putin's crisis management regarding Georgia but in all his moves to intervene in foreign policy since Medvedev took power. At the end of May, it was Putin who made the important trip to France, the current holder of the rotating EU presidency, not Medvedev, as previously announced. It was Putin who talked to US President George W. Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Beijing.

Many in Moscow refer to Medvedev as "mini-Putin" -- and are hanging their portrait of Putin back up next to that if Medvedev in their government offices.

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