As Russian President Vladimir Putin signed Russia’s historic $400 billion gas-supply agreement with China, he must have felt the satisfaction of a chess grandmaster revealing the inexorable outcome of a complicated endgame.
In theory, the next phase of the chess match between Russia and the West in Ukraine will only begin with the Ukrainian presidential election on Sunday. But Putin’s positioning of the pieces means the outcome is pre-ordained, no matter who emerges as the next president in Kiev.
Having secured the territorial windfall of Crimea in March, Putin went on to achieve his main tactical objective in April. This was to destabilize Ukraine to the point where nobody could seriously contemplate the country joining the European Union, much less the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Just as important, from Putin’s standpoint, the combination of internal chaos and improvised plebiscites and Russian military exercises being conducted on the Ukrainian border, distracted Western attention from the Crimean issue. He deflected the threat of additional sanctions from the legality of Russia’s annexation to the feasibility of Ukraine’s presidential election.