Vladimir Putin (aka Vlad the Chess Player) has played a good game in Ukraine − so far. With the West playing on the other side he started off in an intrinsically weak position, which worsened considerably when the sudden neocon-engineered coup in Kiev swept his main piece off the board. However, he reacted and regrouped quickly, and prevented his opponents from achieving a surprise victory. By massing troops on Ukraine's border he made the other side pause, and this gave his supporters time to mobilise. In this confused situation he saw a valuable piece temporarily unguarded, and in a smooth and swift operation took over Crimea. The contest over Ukraine continues, but he has already won two significant prizes: Crimea and clarity − clarity on where Russia stands vis-a-vis the West
He is now manoeuvring to achieve his goal in Ukraine, and has again displayed his skill by adjusting his tactics as the situation has changed. Western propaganda has sought to depict his aim to be to seize Ukraine or, at least, annex the Russian-speaking East of the country. This is quite wrong. For the simple reason that Ukraine is a basket case economically and financially, and if he took over the country (or even a portion of it) Russia would be saddled with the burden of keeping it afloat, as well as having to deal with the many in the population who don't fancy being annexed, plus the likely backlash from the West.
His main goal has always been to stop the neocon-led War Party's move to bring Ukraine into the West's political camp and, ultimately, NATO. He wants Ukraine to remain a politically and militarily neutral buffer state between Russia and NATO, while letting the West pay for the privilege of establishing other ties with it (by supporting it financially).
In pursuit of this goal Putin has changed his tactics as the situation has evolved. He maintained the capability and threat of moving troops into East Ukraine to provide time and opportunity for pro-Russian sentiment to mobilise there, resulting in local activists seizing control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. With these 'facts' established on the ground, he sought an agreement with the West for a decentralised Ukraine, and appeared to succeed in Geneva in mid-April. However, the War Party and their Ukrainian clients balked at this and torpedoed the plan. Putin then again ratchetted up pressure by holding new military manoeuvres near the border. In early May, in concert with Angela Merkel, he made another effort for an OSCE sponsored political dialogue between the Kiev authorities and the Eastern separatists, but the former would not talk to the latter.
Putin was now left with just one unpalatable option: back the separatists who had seized control in the Donbas region, and then use this as a bargaining chip to achieve his goal. This would saddle him with the responsibility of sustaining and defending them, while exposing Russia to much more severe Western sanctions. It could also lead to an escalating confrontation with the West that could spiral out of control, with potentially devastating consequences.
However, events soon presented him with another, and better, alternative, namely, that the oligarch Petro Poroshenko appeared set to win the Ukrainian presidential election. He had dealt with Ukrainian oligarchs often before, and knew how they could be bought and manipulated. It is also quite possible that he was given suitable assurances by some of the oligarchs supporting Poroshenko (such as Rinat Akhmetov and Dmitri Firtash), and perhaps Poroshenko himself, who had already publicly committed to Ukraine not joining NATO.
The question he had to consider was whether he would have sufficient leverage to make the oligarchs toe the line (or fulfil any assurances they had given him). He appears to have calculated that, based on their business interests, he had. Russia and the former Soviet republics (still under Russian influence) are the main markets for Chocolate King Poroshenko's products; he even has a factory in Russia. Steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man, has his business empire in the Donbas region and is dependent on Russian goodwill for his business to survive, much less prosper. Quite apart from their personal stakes, the oligarchs cannot ignore the many economic and industrial ties that bind the Ukraine to Russia, in addition to its critical dependence on Russian gas supplies.
He also decided to maintain the leverage given him by the breakaway of the Donbass from Kiev. While removing the support provided to them by his threat of military action, he appears to have reinforced them by the transfer of advanced weaponry as well as allowing Russian volunteers to join them (some of whom were killed in the recent fighting).
Another big plus in this new option was that the West would have to bail out Ukraine and support it financially (which would also enable it to pay off loans to Russia for gas already supplied and also pay for future gas supplies). It would also remove the threat of further sanctions by the West. The signal that Putin had adopted this method of achieving his goal was his announcement on May 19 that he was ordering the Russian troops deployed on the border back to their bases. (On the same day Rinat Akhmetov, who had maintained a studious silence while the separatists took over the region in which his industrial empire is based, came out strongly against them).
Poroshenko has to reassure the West and the political parties supporting the present Kiev regime (especially the far-right ones) of his resolve; that is why he has come out so strongly against the Eastern separatists in his recent statements. But the current increased military action against the separatists is being launched by the present regime, in which the security and defence posts are almost all held by the far-right Pravy Sektor and Svoboda parties. Poroshenko assumes the office of president on June 7; if he does desire to resolve the separatist issue through negotiation rather than force (a pre-requisite to coming to some understanding with Russia) the first signs will be the removal of these far-right appointees and the stopping of military action soon after he becomes president.
The takeover of Crimea by Russia has been portrayed in the West as just an opportunistic land grab. It is much more than that. Crimea has always been considered by Russians as a part of Russia that was lost to the Ukraine in the catastrophic dissolution of the USSR. Recovery of this part of Mother Russia, whose soil is dyed with Russian blood, has deep symbolism for all Russians. There is also the strategic aspect of control of the Black Sea, which exposes Russia's 'underbelly'; the Russian fleet based in Sevastopol was critical to this. Having to rely on treaties and Ukrainian goodwill for this was a major strategic concern for Russia, especially when the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO became a serious possibility. The takeover solved this problem as well.
The Ukraine crisis has also provided Vladimir Putin with clarity on Russia's standing with the West, and what he could expect in the future. Ever since coming to power in 2000 Putin has tried to restore Russia to the status of a respected member of the international community, and particularly as a part of the West. In this behalf he has sought to have Russia treated as an equal by the US and other major Western powers. In spite of setbacks, he has persisted in this endeavour. For example, he did not make a fuss when, in spite of the assurances given at the time of German reunification, NATO began moving eastwards. In 2011 he joined the West in voting in the Security Council for the 'no fly' zone over Libya, only to feel tricked when the West expanded this mandate into military intervention. His most recent attempt was the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi when he spent lavishly in order to showcase the new Russia, only for the games to be shunned by most Western leaders, with the Western media indulging in much negative coverage.
This new clarity on how Russia was regarded by the West has caused Putin to make a major readjustment in his strategic thinking and calculations. It was this that led to his recent wide-ranging economic agreements with China. He is also reaching out to other countries that seek to free themselves from being overly dependent on the USA, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and India. He will likely foster closer relations with countries that are at odds with the West, such as Iran, Venezuela and Syria. He is trying to set up an alternative financial system with China and others that is not dependent on the US dollar. (In spite of this, Putin and Lavrov still continue to use the old formulation: "our Western partners"; perhaps they relish the irony).
The Ukraine game continues, but Vladimir Putin has already gained two valuable prizes − Crimea, and clarity on where Russia stands with respect to the West.
The War Party has also achieved something: it now has in Russia, if not yet an enemy, at least an opponent.