Russia's actions in Syria have been utterly shameless. Two weeks ago it offered a ceasefire to start on March 1, when it would stop bombing the city of Aleppo and the various forces known as the opposition or the rebels.
Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov said a week ago, at the annual Munich Security Conference that Russia was "ready to discuss the modalities of a ceasefire." It sounded like stalling. And then the Russians claimed that the Americans were the ones dropping bombs on Aleppo.
This was transparently a calculation that the army of President Bashar al-Assad, with the much-valued assistance of air strikes by Russia, would be able to take back as much of the Syria as the Assad family could hope to rule once again. A few more weeks' of war and mayhem and aerial bombing would do the trick, or so they estimated.
The U.S. government responded by saying that the fighting between Mr. Assad's forces and the shaky coalition of arguably moderate parties represented by the so-called High Negotiations Committee – which does not include Islamic State – could indeed stop fighting then and there, and start talking.
And as of Tuesday, a deal for a cessation of hostitlies had been reached. It doesn't come into effect until the weekend, and it's unclear whether it can hold. Under its terms, the parties agree to end sieges, allow aid delivers and stop bombing. It is to be seen whether the Assad regime and Russia can abide by those terms. The war against IS and related groups is allowed to continue, and Russia has long been creative in describing many of its actions in Syria as targetting "terrorists," regardless of the true targets.
Even if Syria somehow turns this week's agreement into a longer term cease-fire, it will be a disfigured country, its cities in ruins and half its population refugees, having been torn apart by ethnic, religious and political warfare. The pieces will not be easy to put back together again. There is talk of partitioning the country.
And removing the Assad regime, once a Western priority, is further than ever out of reach. Russian intervention has been a game changer. If a ceasefire can hold, Syrians will be thankful. But so far, the big winners are Mr. Putin and Mr. Assad.