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The great pity of the Ukraine crisis, which appears to be coming to a head, is that the solution seems so obvious, yet so hard to attain because Vladimir Putin's turn toward militarism has added so many new obstacles.

Just months ago, the Russian president was content to use peaceful — if aggressive — means to reassert Russia's historic dominance over Ukraine. A democratically elected, pro-Russian government was in power and headed toward alignment with an economic bloc Putin sees as key to rebuilding Russia's stature.

OTHER VIEWS: U.S. gives Putin a green light

Then things went haywire. Pro-Western demonstrators in the sharply divided country demanded unity with the European Union instead. Ukraine's president cracked down violently on protests, bringing about a revolution and his own downfall.

With Putin's strategy crumbling, he rolled out his tanks, annexed Crimea — with little complaint from Crimeans — and massed 40,000 troops on Ukraine's border. Conflict appears imminent. On Wednesday, pro-Russian Ukrainians commandeered Ukrainian tanks, and reports indicated tens of thousands of others were impeding the Ukrainian Army, exposing the domestic nature of the conflict.

If the clock could be turned back, a solution would look like this. The pro-Western revolutionaries would have waited for elections — just months off — to gain power, and with them legitimacy they have yet to earn. A new constitution, decentralizing significant power to satisfy Ukraine's Russian-oriented eastern and southern provinces, would be passed (though not to the extreme that Russian now demands). Ukraine would stay militarily non-aligned. Russia inevitably would have significant influence for reasons of ethnicity, language and history — but without military intervention and at no great cost to the West.

That is still the right solution and one that the Kiev government has belatedly moved toward, but as diplomats from Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. and the European Union meet in Geneva today, it seems almost out of reach. Putin has whipped up fervor for conquest at home that he may feel compelled to feed, and his new militarism — destabilizing the post-Cold War order of Europe — has gravely raised the stakes for the West, which is groping for response.

Sanctions, which could cripple Russia's economy, are the tool of choice, but they'll work only if Putin believes they'll cripple his economy. That seems doubtful. Despite an aggressive U.S. push and bold pronouncements Wednesday from key EU leaders and diplomats, heavy sanctions are a tough sell, particularly in Germany, which would suffer grievously from a cutoff or Russian energy supplies and trade. Putin may well think he can exploit the situation.

Other options include beefing up NATO, which shifted defensive forces toward its eastern front Wednesday, and arming pro-Western Ukrainians for protracted resistance. Longer term, a push for EU energy independence would be a game changer.

In the end, Putin poses no more a match for the West than his Soviet predecessors did. The question is whether the U.S. and its allies can still muster their Cold War resolve.

USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.


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