It would have been preposterous to tell Ukrainian demonstrators facing government storm troopers to just grin and bear it without any external solidarity or support. It is just as preposterous to tell Venezuelan demonstrators the same thing. In these circumstances, the principle of self-determination, so beloved of foreign ministries everywhere, becomes an empty slogan.
Ukraine's constitution gives the president the power to appoint and dismiss all local governors -- a presidential power over local officials that is extremely unusual among parliamentary democracies. This centralized control of local government has exacerbated regional tensions and hindered the development of trusted democratic leadership in Ukraine.
Russia has produced innumerable chess grandmasters, and its president for life, Vladimir Putin, is no exception. Picture him brooding silently over the geopolitical chessboard as he planned his latest move -- the weekend's swift, stunning, and unprovoked invasion of Crimea. His boldness took America and Europe by surprise and gave Putin a decided advantage at the match's start.
"The West's uncertainty over Ukraine contrasts sharply with Russia's clear vision," Former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio wrote in Project Syndicate. "Putin knows that a pro-Western, pro-NATO Ukraine would present a major obstacle to Russian dominance in Eurasia, potentially cutting off Russia's access to the Black Sea and, most important, providing a model to his opponents at home. His acts over the last days confirm that he is willing to play hardball, leveraging the discontent (real or provoked) of Ukraine's ethnic Russian population, particularly in Crimea, the home of Russia's Black Sea Fleet."
Obama's hand is strengthened in the chess match with Putin by the prescience of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, whose expansion of NATO to take in 10 Central European countries was criticized by some as excessively provocative to Moscow. But NATO's push eastward has protected those countries from Putin's aggressive muscle flexing in Russia's so-called "near abroad."