Russia and Georgia agreed to give international monitors freedom to rome throughout Georgia, including the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

   Alexander Higgins for AP:

The monitors — from the European Union, the U.N. and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — would work with local security officials. Russia and Georgia would also establish a hotline and meet at least weekly to diffuse tensions, according to European Union representative Pierre Morel.

The decisions came after two days of meetings this week between Georgia, Russia and the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia recognized the two regions as independent nations after the war and has thousands of troops in them.

“This is not a breakthrough, but it is a step in the right direction,” said Giorgi Bokeria, Georgia’s deputy foreign minister. “We really need to start a serious discussion about new security arrangements.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said the agreement will prevent incidents in “a very sensitive area” but added it will take some time before monitors have truly free movement. It shouldn’t be automatic, because the South Ossetians are six months away from aggression against their own country, so they are sensitive,” Karasin said.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, who also joined the talks, said the agreement still had to be implemented and lamented that Russia and Georgia failed to open up South Ossetia to humanitarian aid shipments.   The United States maintains that Russian troops should withdraw to prewar positions, Fried said, but added the Russians have said their forces won’t be leaving South Ossetia and Abkhazia. “So we and the Russians have fundamental disagreement, (but) that disagreement need not prevent our working together in other areas,” he said.

Fried called the situation along the border between South Ossetia and Georgia proper “dire,” citing numerous attacks and the killing of some Georgian policemen by snipers. “The situation there cannot be left on autopilot,” Fried said. “(But) considering that six months ago we were dealing with a war, I’ll take the good news where I can.”

The reason we are no longer “dealing with a war” is because the Russians won.  This is “good news” only to the extent that one wishes to recognize Russian occupation of these territories as a fait accompli.

Alexandros Petersen, Dinu Patriciu Fellow for Transatlantic Energy Security at the Atlantic Council, says we should view this development in a positive light “if it is implemented to the letter,” which he acknowledges is “a tall order in the Russian-controlled territory of Georgia.”  He is not optimistic, noting that the agreement “is already being interpreted in Russian media as a step towards international legitimization of Moscow’s declaration of independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  It is imperative that this not become the reality outside of Russia’s tightly controlled public debate.”   

Unfortunately, it’s very much the reality.  To be sure, only Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela has joined Russia and recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  But Tblisi is powerless to push Russia out and the international community has demonstrated time and again since August that it will not fight for Georgia’s territorial integrity.  

Petersen warns of the implications: “Even with the myriad foreign policy distractions in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, the Obama administration cannot lose sight of the strategic importance of Georgia as the needle’s eye through which Caspian energy can reach Europe and world markets.  Without the Georgian corridor, much of the rich hydrocarbon deposits of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan will have to go north to Russia – further crippling transatlantic energy security and compromising the independence of key U.S. partners in Central Asia.”

That’s a dire situation indeed.  I’m at a loss, however, to see how it’s reversed. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.