Russia is to begin withdrawing its troops from neighboring Georgia on Monday, two days after it signed a revised framework for a deal to halt the fighting there, which has stirred some of the deepest divisions between world powers since the cold war.Well, we'll see. I guess this all depends on whether the Russians have blown up enough Georgian infrastructure by then to satisfy their promise of leaving only after implementing those mysterious "extra security measures" they insisted on inserting into the ceasefire text.
The Kremlin announced on Sunday that the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, had spoken with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who negotiated the cease-fire, and pledged that Russian forces would be pulled back on Monday.
But assuming the Russians really do withdraw on Monday, what's the upshot of the Russo-Georgian war? My take, roughly, is that Putin screwed up. The West was never going to actively approve of the Russian invasion, but if Putin had limited himself to a short, sharp clash in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it would have been an almost unalloyed victory. The murky status of the provinces combined with the fact that Saakashvili sent in troops first would have kept Western reaction to a minimum, and Russia's message would still have been sent loud and clear: don't mess with us in our sphere of influence.
But then Putin got greedy — or just made a mistake — and sent Russian troops into Georgia proper. This was almost certainly militarily unnecessary, and it succeeded mainly in uniting virtually everyone in outrage against Russian aggression. Putin can pretend all he wants that he doesn't care about Western opinion, but he obviously does — and what's more, Western unity makes a difference in concrete terms too. Poland's quick turnaround on missile defense is probably just the first example of this. The U.S. has gotten lots of bad reviews for its handling of the situation, but in the end, the countries on Russia's border are more firmly in our camp now than they were even before the war.
Even militarily, Putin's overreach might have been a mistake. Sure, the Russian Army is in better condition than it was ten years ago, but it's clear now that its performance in Georgia was still only so-so, despite the fact that Georgia is a minuscule country and the Russians have had this operation planned and ready to go at a moments notice for weeks (maybe months). In the end, Russia is still basically Mexico with nukes, and their ability to project power even along their own borders is limited. After Georgia, it's going to be even harder. Putin has a reputation for shrewdness, but he should have quit while he was ahead.