Kevin Drum does a pretty good job summing it up:
Russia… got what it wanted: control of the two disputed provinces, a military humiliation for Georgia, and a successfully executed shot across the bow that proves they can still play in the big leagues. It wasn’t cost free â€” Europe has been pretty consistent in its condemnation of the invasion, and all the former Soviet satellites are now even more united in their loathing of Russia than before â€” but it was close. From Russia’s point of view, it was a nice, surgical operation that pretty much accomplished everything it was supposed to.
I’d nitpick that not “all the former Soviet satellites” loathe Russia; Armenia is pro-Russian (and the Armenians have been absolutely delighted with this war and its outcome), while Belarus and most of the Central Asian republics have lined up behind Moscow. But yeah, the Poles and the Baltic States are having kittens.
That said, let me comment briefly on some other consequences here.
— If the war really has stopped, then it show a pretty high degree of thoughtfulness and self-control on the part of Russia’s current leadership. They pushed it right up to the point where there’d be major international repurcussions… and then they stopped.
— This was a serious humiliation for Georgia’s military. The Georgian army seems to have accomplished very little except to kill some civilians, and in a couple of cases apparently retreated without a fight.
— The Russians didn’t hit the BTC pipeline! Isn’t that interesting? All sorts of implications there.
— The internal Russian politics remain somewhat murky. Various commenters are saying that this shows Putin is firmly in charge, and that it’s a humiliation for Medvedev. I agree with the first point, but am less sure of the second. Medvedev seems to have taken over the peace negotiations; this suggests a deliberate division of labor and image, with Putin as the man of action and Medvedev as the diplomat and peacemaker. I’m no kind of Russia expert, though, so more informed comments are welcome.
— Saakashvili looks likely to survive just fine. Georgians have rallied around him, and getting rid of him now will be seen as surrender.
— That said, it’s still a big win for Russia. They’ve shown force, resolve, and a startling degree of preparation, efficiency, and self-discipline — not virtues most of us associate with “Russia”. So, Russia FTW.
— That said, Russia’s long-term fundamentals are still not great; it remains a corrupt, authoritarian petro-state with a declining population and a per capita GDP lower than Portugal’s. Russia is much stronger than it was five or ten years ago, but there’s a clear limit to how far that goes.
— One thing that hasn’t been discussed much is the impact on other conflicts around the region. Azerbaijan — which shares borders with both Russia and Georgia — has been arming for a rematch with Armenia over the lost province of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azeris have been using pipeline revenues to build up their military, and they’ve made it clear that the status quo (Armenia occupying the province, plus a large buffer zone clawed off around it) is unacceptable. This may make them a bit more thoughtful. It’s unlikely the Russians would intervene directly in a second war over Karabakh, but who knows? And seeing his next door neighbor throw the dice and get clobbered has to make President Aliyev thoughtful.
— Meanwhile, the North Caucasus remains a mess. It’s a bubbling stew of bickersome ethnic groups, currently ruled by pro-Moscow warlords, but poor, unstable, and riven by mutual hatreds. It’s relatively peaceful at the moment, but long-term this region has the potential to be a major strategic headache for Moscow. So Russia’s show of force may have a salutary effect here, at least in terms of deterring the various groups from doing anything stupid. It’s worth noting that the various North Caucasus leaders all rushed to pledge support and offer “volunteers” for the fighting.
— Finally, let’s not forget that the Russians are still occupying chunks of Georgia, including the key port of Poti. The temptation to stay — and humiliate Georgia further — may be strong. But if they continue to play this as smart as they have, they’ll be leaving soon.