Russia and Georgia have apparently reached a ceasefire agreement mediated by French president Nicolas Sarkozy. According to CNN, the deal provides for:
Russian agreements to conclude all military operations, return Russian armed forces to the line preceding the beginning of operations and not use force again in Georgia.
In return, Georgia would return its armed forces to their normal and permanent locations.
Both sides would provide free access for humanitarian assistance; and international consideration of the issues of South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be undertaken.
If this agreement holds (a big if), it's a better outcome than I would have expected. Georgia's democratic government will remain in place, despite Russia's previous determination to overthrow it. The Russians will not have destroyed Georgia's oil pipeline to Europe (the most important pipeline in the region that doesn't pass through Russian or Iranian territory). And Russia will renounce future use of force against Georgia and reduce its forces in the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to their prewar levels. I am skeptical that the Russians will fully respect the last two commitments. Nonetheless, the outcome could have been far worse.
Why did Russia accept an arrangement that falls so far short of their maximum objectives? There is no way to know for sure. I suspect that part of the reason is the strong resistance put up by the Georgian armed forces, which although much smaller than Russia's are of fairly high quality thanks in part to US training. The quality of the Russian military remains iffy at best, and Vladimir Putin may have reasoned that complete subjugation of Georgia would be a long and costly process. After all, this is the same Russian army that took years to subdue Chechnya (a task still not quite complete), a much weaker and more isolated adversary than Georgia.
Putin may also have been influenced by the apparent unity of the West in opposing the Russian invasion. France and Germany - key European states that opposed the US over the Iraq War - were largely on the same page with us here. This newfound unity might help cub Russian aggression in the future.
Another potentially positive outcome of the war is the strong solidarity among the Eastern European states in opposing Russia. It is striking that the presidents of Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine took the unusual step of appearing together with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili at a rally in Tbilisi just after the ceasefire. Ukraine's support is particularly important, since it is the largest and most powerful of Russia's western neighbors. The Eastern European states are too small to oppose the Russians individually. But, with Western support, they can put up a stronger front by sticking together.
None of the above justifies Saakashvili's foolish gamble in providing a pretext for Russian intervention by trying to retake South Ossetia last week. Nor does it somehow make up for the tragic loss of life and destruction of property that has occurred. Nonetheless, if this ceasefire holds and its terms are even roughly obeyed by both sides, we will end up with a better result than might have been expected a few days ago.
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