Russia violating the cease-fire?

Hours after publicly agreeing to a cease-fire with Georgia and supposedly pulling their troops back to their peacekeeping stations, Russian tanks continued to advance and fire on Gori, which has already taken the brunt of the fighting.  Western journalists confirmed fresh smoke rising from an abandoned military base, and dozens of Russian tanks going in the wrong direction for a retreat:

Russian tanks have moved into the central Georgian city of Gori in apparent violation of a new ceasefire agreement, according to Georgian officials and eyewitnesses who reported black smoke rising over the town.

Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili charged that as many as 50 tanks had rolled into town and were “attacking Gori.” Russian military officials denied any fresh incursion.

Eyewitnesses, including western journalists, said they saw at least 10 Russian tanks in the city. It was not clear what they were targeting, but smoke was rising from the general vicinity of a recently built military base.

Constructed to NATO standards, the base had been abandoned by Georgian troops on Monday when they pulled back to Tbilisi to bolster defenses around the capital.

The cease-fire keeps Georgia from maneuvering its military within its own territory.  In return, the Russians agreed to withdraw back to their peacekeeping positions with South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  It appears that the Russians want to destroy any facilities Georgia in tactically advantageous positions for their own defense before honoring the cease-fire.

The terms of the agreement aren’t all bad for either nation.  Georgia didn’t get the unqualified recognition it wanted for its sovereignty in the two disputed provinces, but Russia agreed to international peacekeeping forces rather than remaining in place.  That is a rather large concession, considering the military stranglehold Moscow had on Tbilisi, and apparently still has.

Why did the Russians back off?  Peter Finn’s excellent analysis in the Washington Post gets it right.  The Russian action threatened its economic interests, and as the rhetoric ramped up from the US and especially from Eastern Europe, Moscow began to have second thoughts.  They have gone much farther than the US could ever have in demonstrating why Poland, the Czech Republic, and other states along Russia’s western frontier would need a strong missile defense.  Five presidents of Eastern European nations traveled to Tbilisi this week in a very public rebuke to Vladimir Putin and support for Mikheil Saakashvili.

Russia failed in another, entirely predictable manner as well.  If they wanted to depose Saakashvili, their efforts failed utterly.  The Georgian president now enjoys massive popularity for defending his nation and refusing to knuckle under to Moscow.  Politically, he is stronger than ever, and Putin just demonstrated to an entire new generation of Georgians why they need the West and why they can’t trust the Russians.

Later, though, Saakashvili will have to answer for his stumble into Russia’s hands with his attack on the South Ossetia capital of Tskhinvali.  Putin and Medvedev clearly wanted a reason to attack Georgia, and their support for the separatists in these regions are well known.  Why give them the cassus belli they sought with an attack on a city, rather than just strikes on separatist positions as they had conducted before?

Nevertheless, the Russians are once again trying to provoke Georgia into open warfare with their violation of the cease-fire in Gori.  The world needs to keep holding Moscow accountable, and Western journalists need to keep reporting the truth in Georgia.