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Page last updated at 19:47 GMT, Tuesday, 12 August 2008 20:47 UK

Georgia peace deal all in the timing

By Bridget Kendall
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (R) and French President Nicholas Sarkozy meet in the Kremlin, Moscow, 12 August 2008
Russia's President Medvedev was able to say everything was under control

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has declared that the military operation in Georgia is at an end.

The aim has been achieved, he said, peace has been restored, and the aggressor has been punished.

But is it over?

This is not yet about a Russian withdrawal. Nor is it even clear it is really yet about a ceasefire.

Russian troops, it seems, have been told to stay where they are, under instructions not to fire back unless fired upon.

But Mr Medvedev was quite explicit. He also gave his military a green light to continue military action if necessary, to eliminate what he called "hotbeds of resistance".

All in the timing

So why did Russia make this announcement now?

Timing is everything - and Mr Medvedev's declaration came just before his meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.

The French president had come to Moscow to back up the European Union/Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission that for the past two days has been trying to secure a ceasefire.

But the Russians made sure they got in first. Before Mr Sarkozy had delivered his pitch, the Russian president was able to say that - from his point of view - everything was under control.

Map
If Russia cared about its relations with the US and Europe, it might have been given pause for thought

That was a deliberate move to preempt his European guest, one guesses, so no-one could say that Russia had bowed to the West's demands - so there would be no mistake that this is about a Russian military victory, and an end to the conflict had not come about through Russian concessions but because it followed a timetable of Russia's design.

But this conflict is not just about Moscow's strained relations with Tbilisi and a tiny landlocked enclave where a territorial dispute exploded into a mini-war. It is also about East-West relations.

So perhaps Russia took note of the stern warning last night from US President George W Bush, more or less putting Russia on notice of a new East-West freeze if it did not back down.

Speaking from the Rose Garden at the White House, Mr Bush's language was unusually blunt.

"Russia has invaded a neighbouring sovereign state and threatened a democratic government elected by its people, and such an action is unacceptable in the 21st Century," he said.

The US president went on virtually to accuse Russia of seeking to topple Georgia's leader, President Mikhail Saakashvili.

It was extraordinary to hear the head of state of one major world power accusing another major power of such things.

Misreading the crisis?

If Russia cares about its relations with the US and Europe, perhaps those words gave it pause for thought.

Certainly, Moscow has been at pains to explain its position and deny it was ever in the business of toppling anybody, although Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said that Russia felt it could no longer work with the Georgian leader.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili delivers a speech from the steps of the parliament building in Tbilisi on 12 August 2008
Russia has said it will no longer deal with Georgia's Mikhail Saakashvili

"We start from the position that Mr Saakashivili can no longer be our partner, and it would be better if he went," he said.

Mr Lavrov also accused the West, and specifically the US, of not only misreading this crisis by blaming Russia and taking Georgia's side, but of being part of the cause for the conflict.

"What happened in South Ossetia is to a large extent on their conscience," he said.

"We warned about the danger of arming the Georgian leadership for many years, and drew the attention of our US partners, among others, to the fact that the programme they had started to arm and train the Georgian army could lead to a situation like this."

As more details emerged during the day, it did seem as though this conflict may have turned a corner, but international mediators warn there could still be problems yet.

Russia has stuck to its two conditions that all Georgian troops must pull out and the Georgian government must sign a pact to refrain from violence in its two disputed enclaves - South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Tensions ahead

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb told the BBC on Tuesday that the peace negotiations now had to proceed step by step, from agreement on a ceasefire, to a phased withdrawal, to international engagement and only then to a debate on what should happen to South Ossetia.

So what might happen now?

An Ossetian soldier runs for cover north of Tskhinvali, 11 August 2008
Mr Medvedev said the conflict in South Ossetia was on the West's "conscience"

On the phased withdrawal plan, President Medvedev has confirmed that Russia is prepared to pull its troops back to where they were a week ago, if Georgia does so too.

That is reassuring. Up till now Russia had not even mentioned pulling out any of its troops, now numbering several thousand in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and possibly elsewhere in Georgia.

Russia does seem willing to engage with the idea of an international presence in South Ossetia, as long as it does not include the Georgians. President Sarkozy even floated the idea of EU monitors taking part.

And after their talks, Mr Sarkozy and Mr Medvedev said they had agreed on the need for international negotiations on the future status of Georgia's two rebel provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Mr Medvedev went further - he made clear that what Russia would like to see is a referendum in both provinces, so the locals could decide for themselves whether to stay in Georgia or not. He clearly believes a majority will not.

That idea will dismay Georgia. But at least it is not outright annexation by Russia - a carve-up that would threaten Georgia's territorial integrity straight away - and an option which some observers had feared was on the cards.

Relations between Russia and the West have hardly been improved by this swift escalation of tension and violence

As for the longer term prospects of relations between Russia and Georgia, there will need to be time for hot heads to cool. At the moment Russia and Georgia are accusing each other of criminal behaviour, genocide and ethnic cleansing, and each claims it wants to press criminal charges against the other side.

Meanwhile, relations between Russia and the West have hardly been improved by this swift escalation of tension and violence.

The Kremlin insists this was a peace-enforcing mission, to protect the civilian population and its own peacekeepers in South Ossetia. But Mr Medvedev did say today it was also to "punish" the Georgians.

And if that meant Russia hoped the flexing of its military muscles would also forever dash Georgia's chances of joining Nato, quite the opposite seems to have happened.

The message from Nato headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday was that Georgia should not now be abandoned and the door to negotiating entry one day should be left firmly ajar. Trust on both sides has been sorely tested. Some Nato member states even raised the question of reassessing relations with Russia altogether.

Expect more tensions ahead.


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