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'Evil empire' era returns in Ukraine leaving U.S. with few real alternatives

By SUSAN ESTRICH Creators Syndicate

It didn't take very long for the smiling sports fan cheering in the Olympic stands to revert to his true nature. I'm referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the former KGB leader whose idea of diplomacy is sending in the troops.

The Olympics ended, and the war began. It resembles nothing so much as the old Russia: might over right, threats over diplomacy. Ronald Reagan used to call it "the evil empire." Has it changed?

It seems far easier to understand what is happening in Kiev than what has not happened in Russia. In Ukraine, the new technology that has so shrunk the world, that has turned us into a much smaller community, was a critical element in energizing a new generation to demand real democracy. In Russia, there is also new technology, albeit with more restrictions. But does it matter? Do educated and informed Russians watching their nation literally invade a foreign country react with even a smidgen of the horror that those of us in the West feel? Do Russians over the age of 40 understand how much this looks and feels like the "old" Russia or Khrushchev and Brezhnev? Or are they, as I fear, still not free enough to say anything about it?

And what can we say?

Not much more. President Obama says Russia is on "the wrong side of history," warns of diplomatic and economic steps, and predicts that "over time, this will be a costly proposition for Russia."

Somehow I don't get the sense that this has Putin quaking in his boots. What the president did NOT say is that we, or anyone else, would actually use force to stop the Russians. We won't. I understand. We are not the world's policeman.

But when Russia is acting like an outlaw, who is left to enforce anything approaching the rule of law? Who will protect the rights of innocent people? Who will protect the sovereignty of weaker nations?

I don't want to see young Americans fighting and dying for freedom thousands of miles away from home, particularly (as it appears in Crimea) when there are so many who welcome this invasion and view the reformers and their Western allies as the enemy.

The right answer, of course, is that the people of Ukraine should choose their leaders in free and fair elections. Of course, Putin would readily agree with that and point out that the man who won the last election was Viktor Yanukovich, just as it was Mohammed Morsi who was the duly elected leader of Egypt. Are we claiming that we know better? That democracy only matters when our guy wins?

In the bad old days, the United States earned a terrible reputation for secretly intruding on the politics of other countries and supporting military leaders whose only appealing feature was their support for the West. Time and again, such efforts failed. We told one another we had learned, and we have. Sort of.

Certainly no one is suggesting (other than the Russian rabble-rousers) that the revolutionaries in Ukraine are mere puppets of the West. We didn't engineer this revolution. The question is how much responsibility we have for its success.

Will threats of diplomatic and economic "steps" be enough to force Putin to back off? I'm not taking bets. A billion dollars in aid, as Secretary of State John Kerry promised, is a lot of money, unless - like Ukraine - you are facing fiscal disaster.

And if such measures don't work, what will we do if Ukraine splits in half or devolves into Civil War?

This is not a Republican vs. Democratic question I'm asking. This is not about whether you do or don't like Barack Obama and John Kerry. It's not as if there is a "good" Republican answer and a "good" Democratic answer, and we just need to choose.

As best as I can tell, there are no good answers, except for someone like Putin, who doesn't get caught up in the niceties of sovereignty and comity and respect for the rule of law. It's easy for him. He'll do everything he can get away with - the more the better - to send the message to the "friends" of Russia that breaking up is not just hard to do; it's impossible.

As for us, we are faced once again with the horrible challenge of trying to find common ground with those who reject our most basic principles.

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