Russian President Vladimir Putin has apparently backed off for the time being -- at least rhetorically -- in his so-far successful effort to stir up unrest in southeastern Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Mr. Putin said he had pulled Russian troops back from the border with Ukraine and called for a delay of Sunday’s referendum on autonomy for Ukraine’s eastern segment. Western officials and observers had rightly called this planned vote a sham.

The history of Ukraine -- located in sort of a geographic crossroads between Western Europe on the one hand and Russia and the Asian continent on the other -- is long and complicated and intertwined with that of Russia.

It suffices here to note that for most of the 20th century Ukraine was firmly behind what Winston Churchill aptly dubbed after World War II an "Iron Curtain" of Soviet domination. Unlike such "Warsaw Pact" nations as Poland and East Germany -- which were ruled by communist puppet governments under the thumb of the Soviets but kept their national identity, Ukraine and the Baltic States were actually incorporated into the USSR.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the former Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, Eastern Europe, the Baltic states and Ukraine gained their independence.

Former KGB agent that he is, Mr. Putin clearly regrets this move toward independence and freedom at the end of the Cold War.


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So, while at home he cracks down on gays and bloggers and dissident rock bands like Pussy Riot, to his west he is seeking to expand Russian domination back toward areas that have been free of it for a generation.

Mr. Putin apparently fears a united Ukraine that is more allied to the West than to Russia. The liberal uprising earlier this year that forced out a pro-Russian leader who nixed a pro-western deal and installed a pro-westerner seemed to push Putin over the edge.

His first step was the illegal annexation of Crimea, with Russian military types first infiltrating this province in disguise. His next step, using similar tactics, has been to foment an uprising among ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. In the past several days these clashes between pro-Russian guerillas and the Ukrainian military have become increasingly violent.

Though we strongly doubt that Mr. Putin is done in his attempts to destabilize and dominate Ukraine, some observers note that he may not want a civil war there raging on the Russian border. It may also be that the increasingly ratcheted-up economic sanctions led by the United States are having an effect.

On Tuesday, the New York Times and Associated Press reported that the Obama administration has been encouraging top executives of U.S.companies not to attend an international economic forum in Russia later this month that will be hosted by Mr. Putin. Being an egotist (see bare-chested horseback riding and rigged big-game hunting) the Russian president can no doubt be hurt not only in the wallet but also in his self-image as the great leader of a restored Russian empire and economic powerhouse.

This is good, because military options are off the table. The U.S. public is war weary. Also, military operations there are just not feasible. This is as true now as it was in 1956 when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and in 1968 when it invaded Czechoslovakia, both times to supress movements that sought to liberate the people from Soviet domination.

A long period of struggle no doubt lies ahead for Ukraine -- and for the West in finding a way to resist and stop Russian expansionism. Western nations need to be willing to impose ever-tougher economic sanctions to discourage a Russian invasion of the eastern half of Ukraine, to prevent a civil war from breaking out, and ultimately to prevent Mr. Putin from using a subservient Ukraine as a base from which to dominate other nations. It won’t be easy and will require strong leadership from the United States.

~ Mark E. Rondeau