Moscow Agrees To Georgia Truce

A Georgian works to extinguish a fire in a destroyed building in the village of Ruisi, near the breakaway region of South Ossetia. There continued to be reports of violence in the area yesterday.
A Georgian works to extinguish a fire in a destroyed building in the village of Ruisi, near the breakaway region of South Ossetia. There continued to be reports of violence in the area yesterday. (By Sergei Grits -- Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia, Aug. 12 -- Russia said Tuesday that it had ended its five-day tank and bomber assault against Georgia and agreed to a French peace plan by which most Russian forces would return home and international mediators would work to settle the long and explosive conflict between Georgia and Russian-backed South Ossetian separatists.

"The aggressor has been punished and suffered very significant losses; its military has been scattered," said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking to his defense minister in a meeting aired on state television. He added: "If there are any emerging hotbeds of resistance or any aggressive actions, you should take steps to destroy them."

Whether a cease-fire had taken hold was unclear. Georgian authorities and foreign journalists reported that Russian forces continued to attack after Medvedev's words were broadcast, bombing the frontline city of Gori inside undisputed Georgian territory. There were reports of South Ossetian paramilitary fighters killing Georgian civilians, unrestrained by Russian troops.

Yet with his statement Medvedev appeared to be taking a significant step toward accommodating Western demands that Russia not translate its military superiority on the ground into annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another Georgian breakaway region, or the overthrow of the government of Georgia, which is a close U.S. ally. The injection of an international element into resolving the conflict, which carries the possibility of international peacekeepers in the two disputed regions, is a significant departure from previous Russian policy.

The plan would require Georgia's military to remain at its bases at distances that don't threaten South Ossetia, restricting the movement of the country's troops within its own recognized borders. And it did not include a reference to Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which the government in Tbilisi regards as sacrosanct.

But in Georgia's capital, which Monday night was rife with fears that Russian tanks would advance into the city, citizens celebrated what they took to be a major Russian step-down. Tens of thousands of people came together in the mood of a victory rally to hear President Mikheil Saakashvili, who spoke proudly of a David-against-Goliath confrontation.

"We don't yet have peace," French President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters in Moscow, where he had gone to present the plan to the Russians. "But we have a provisional cessation of hostilities. And everyone should be aware that this is considerable progress. There is still much work to be done." Sarkozy secured Medvedev's signature to the plan and then flew to Tbilisi, where Saakashvili said he agreed to the document's "general principles."

Text of the agreement was not released. But its apparent lack of specificity on next steps carries the significant risk of a renewal of full hostilities in a region where cease-fires are agreed to and broken with head-spinning velocity.

Russia's move suggested that tough talk from Western leaders in recent days had succeeded in making Moscow fear a rupture of political and economic relations with their countries. Russia's relations with the West, already buffeted by a series of issues including a murder case in London and U.S. plans for missile defense in Eastern Europe, seemed on the verge of collapse because of Russia's offensive in Georgia.

The presidents of five East European countries, four of them members of the European Union and the NATO alliance, flew to Georgia on Tuesday to demonstrate support for Saakashvili. "The Russian state has once again shown its face, its true face," said Poland's Lech Kaczynski, who was joined by the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine.

Ossetians are a separate ethnic group from Georgians. They broke away from national control in the early 1990s, and tensions have remained high since then. The chronology of events leading to full-scale war remains in dispute, with the Georgians and Russians each claiming that the other was the first to take major aggressive action.

Despite Western governments' public statements of support for Saakashvili, some Western diplomats now privately say that the Georgian leadership or military made a serious and possibly criminal mistake last week by launching a massive barrage against the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, which inevitably led to major civilian deaths and casualties.

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