But if Putin's offer of $15 billion was a bribe, what else is this?
While he rules a divided nation, Yanukovych has hardly been a tyrant. As the crowds grew violent, he dismissed his government, offered the prime ministry to a leader of the opposition, repealed the laws lately passed to crack down on demonstrations, and took sick for four days.
But the street crowds, sensing he is breaking and smelling victory, are pressing ahead. There have now been several deaths among the protesters and police.
Putin is incensed, but inhibited by the need to keep a friendly face for the Sochi Olympics. Yet he makes a valid point.
How would Europeans have reacted if, in the bailout crisis, he, Putin, had flown to Athens and goaded rioters demanding that Greece default and pull out of the eurozone?
How would the EU react if Putin were to hail the United Kingdom Independence Party, which wants out of the EU, or the Scottish National Party, which wants to secede from Great Britain?
Ukraine was briefly independent at the end of World War I, and has been again since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Still the religious, ethnic, cultural and historic ties between Russia and Ukraine are centuries deep.
Eight million Ukrainians are ethnic Russians. In east Ukraine and the Crimea, the majority speak Russian and cherish these ties. Western Ukraine looks to Europe. Indeed, parts belonged to the Habsburg Empire.
Pushed too far and pressed too hard, Ukraine could disintegrate.
Security police who have questioned jailed rioters seem to believe we Americans are behind what is going on. And given the National Endowment for Democracy's clandestine role in the color-coded revolutions of a decade ago in Central and Eastern Europe, that suspicion is not unwarranted.
Nor is Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov entirely wrong when he says, "a choice is being imposed" on Ukraine, and European politicians are fomenting protests and riots "by people who seize and hold government buildings, attack the police and use racist and anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans."
If, as a result of street mobs paralyzing a capital, a democratically elected Ukrainian government falls, we could not only have an enraged and revanchist Russia on our hands, but a second Cold War.
And we will have set a precedent that could come to haunt Europe, as the rising and proliferating parties of the populist right, that wish to bring down the European Union, learn by our example.
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