Donald Lambro

The protesters were well-scripted to make crystal clear what Putin and his co-conspirators want. Soon after they seized a regional administration building, they declared a "People's Republic of Donetsk," announcing plans for a referendum -- as was conducted in Crimea -- on secession from Ukraine by early May.

Ominously, as planned, they called on Russia's military to help defend them if they are attacked.

Ukrainian police and other forces were dispatched to the region to suppress the protests and take control of the seized government buildings.

But that could be the trigger Putin wants them to pull. Russia has condemned Ukraine's temporary government as illegitimate, since Yanukovych was overthrown, and this could be the pretense to order troops into eastern Ukraine to protect its Russian-speaking people.

If you are looking a strong, full-throated response from the White House to this well-choreographed provocation from the Putin regime, forget it.

"If Russia moves into eastern Ukraine, either overtly or covertly, this would be a very serious escalation," said Jay Carney, Obama's press secretary. No kidding?

Putin is betting that Obama or his secretary of State will respond with a statement filled with bluff and bluster and other assorted fulminations, but with little more than that.

The Russian strongman believes he holds all the cards in the Ukraine and knows full well that he can get away with pretty much anything he wants in a country that is still trying to put a new government together and has little or no military clout.

Putin believes Obama is weak, untested and that he's no longer seen, if he ever was, as a world leader. Under a feckless, U.S. foreign policy, Western Europe is divided if unsure about what to do, and looks to us for direction.

The view from Eastern Europe, which still fears Russian ambitions, is far more muscular, though it is no match for Russia's military might.

Czech President Milos Zeman said over the weekend that the West must take strong action in the face of Putin's threats, possibly sending NATO forces into Ukraine.

"The moment Russia decides to widen its territorial expansion to the eastern part of Ukraine, that is where the fun ends," Zeman said in a radio broadcast Sunday.

Neither the Obama administration nor our NATO allies are contemplating that step, at least not at the moment. But if Putin does go into eastern Ukraine, what should we do then?

He needs a land path to the Crimea peninsula he now controls, but that can only be through eastern Ukraine which he clearly wants to make part of Russia.

We have sent painfully meager, muted warnings up until now, but economic sanctions are dismissed by Putin who only understands military might. It should be clear by now that economic penalties have only encouraged him to take still greater risks in the belief that the West, in the end, will let him have his way.

What is needed, sooner rather than later, is a muscular response on many levels with the full backing of NATO to defend the territorial integrity and freedom of Ukraine.

Right now, Kiev is in the line of fire from Moscow and is under attack by Putin's defacto forces. His co-conspirators are seizing Ukraine's government buildings, openly calling for troops from Russia and talking up secession.

This is a time for bold leadership from the West. But as of now, that is in short supply, most especially in the White House.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.