To its credit, the Obama administration has condemned the crackdown on demonstrators in Ukraine and is suggesting that further repression might lead to economic sanctions. There are signs that international support for the protesters, who are calling for a closer relationship with Western Europe, may induce President Viktor Yanukovich to recommit to an association agreement with the European Union that he backed away from under pressure from Russia. Promising efforts also are underway to provide Ukraine with financial aid to enable it to close a deal with the EU.
At the same time, U.S. officials are rightly emphasizing that Ukraine can honor its people's European aspirations without rejecting a harmonious relationship with Russia. Victoria Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, who visited Ukraine this week, repeatedly has said that the future of Ukraine is not a "zero-sum game."
Contrast that approach with the view of former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who wrote in a Times Op-Ed article this week that the crisis in Ukraine demonstrated that the West should have brought that country into its "orbit," including by offering it membership in NATO, a military alliance still seen by Russia as directed against it. Such arguments play into President Vladimir Putin's fears about an encirclement of Russia by its erstwhile enemies and, at the same time, encourage the notion that Russia itself is not part of Europe.
Putin is an authoritarian and a bully, and he clearly is unreconciled to the loss of Russian influence -- in Eastern Europe and elsewhere -- that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it isn't surprising that he would regard Ukraine, a country of 46 million with linguistic and religious connections to Russia, as a special case. Even after independence, many Ukrainians, particularly those in the eastern part of the country, identify with Russia.
That doesn't justify Russian interference in Ukraine's internal affairs or attempts to muscle it into joining a Russian-dominated trading bloc instead of associating with the EU. But it does call for the sort of sophisticated response U.S. and European officials have shown in recent days, one that supports Ukraine's sovereignty, democratization and self-determination but doesn't ask that country to take sides in a new Cold War.