The Russians are going, the Russians are going …  back into South Ossetia.  Georgian government sources confirm that Russian tanks have re-entered Gori today to facilitate the withdrawal of forces from Georgia, clearing unexploded ordnance and retreating in a disciplined manner.  Meanwhile, a new report casts the French peace proposal as a clumsy failure that gave Russia a context to march on Tbilisi:

Russian tanks have returned to the Georgian city of Gori, but only to help facilitate the pullout of their forces, Georgia’s Interior Ministry says.

Explosions heard in Gori Thursday were the result of Russian troops clearing unexploded ordnance, the Interior Ministry said.

Earlier, it said Georgian police had begun returning to Gori as Russian forces moved out.

The police would establish positions and checkpoints and try to keep law and order, the Interior Ministry said. Their return to the city was negotiated with Russia Wednesday.

Why did the Russians keep pushing towards the Georgian capital after the signing of the cease-fire with Mikheil Saakashvili?  The French cease-fire turned out to be a surrender of Georgian sovereignty, giving Russia the right to claim a peacekeeper role throughout the entire nation and not just in the two breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazai.  Nicolas Sarkozy played the role of Neville Chamberlain, according to the New York Times:

It was nearly 2 a.m. on Wednesday when President Nicolas Sarkozy of France announced he had accomplished what seemed virtually impossible: Persuading the leaders of Georgia and Russia to agree to a set of principles that would stop the war.

Handshakes and congratulations were offered all around. But by the time the sun was up, Russian tanks were advancing again, this time taking positions around the strategically important city of Gori, in central Georgia.

It soon became clear that the six-point deal not only failed to slow the Russian advance, but it also allowed Russia to claim that it could push deeper into Georgia as part of so-called additional security measures it was granted in the agreement. Mr. Sarkozy, according to a senior Georgian official who witnessed the negotiations, also failed to persuade the Russians to agree to any time limit on their military action.

Why would Sarkozy agree to surrender Georgian sovereignty?

“I think it was presented as, ‘You need to sign on to this,’ ” the official said of Mr. Sarkozy’s appeal to the Georgians. “My guess is it was presented as, ‘This is the best I can get.’ ”

For anyone who studied the Munich summit of 1938, that sounds depressingly familiar.  Rather than stand firm on behalf of an ally, France pushed them into a false peace agreement that essentially surrendered to an aggressor.  At Munich, the tanks had not yet rolled across the frontier, allowing the fantasy of peace to give it a patina of victory for France and England for the six months before Germany rolled over the rest of Czechoslovakia.

Obviously, the cease-fire agreement did not chase the Russians back into South Ossetia.  So what did?  The unexpectedly strong American response is most likely responsible for the Russian reconsideration.  George Bush went from oddly passive in the first hours of the crisis to angry within days.  His order to start military airlifts to provide, ahem, “humanitarian” aid to Georgia probably took Russia by surprise.  The EU move to kick Russia out of the G-8, where they don’t belong anyway, may also have gotten Putin’s attention.

It looks like the Caucasus will return to status quo ante, but only for a while.  Like it or not, South Ossetia and Abkhazia have had de facto independence for at least a decade, and they have a strong military partner in Russia.  Under similar circumstances, Kosovo got its independence recognized.  Serbia wasn’t strong enough to hold Kosovo, and Georgia won’t be strong enough to hold these two provinces, either.  I’d guess that an international negotiation will result in Tbilisi losing the two provinces within a year.