During the Winter Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin labored to present an image of a global leader who was many things — calm, decisive and even a little playful.
A week after the closing of the Sochi games, however, the world got a picture of the real Putin — cold, authoritarian and imperial.
In a move reminiscent of the former Soviet Union, Russian troops on Saturday swarmed the major byways of the Crimean peninsula, seized control of government buildings and the main airport and commandeered all major communication centers. By Sunday, according to the White House, Russian troops had complete operational control of the peninsula. In addition, more Russian troops were being sent to the region.
Adding to the tensions are reports that Russian troops have issued an ultimatum to Ukraine to hand over two of its warships in the region. Although Moscow denies the claim, Ukraine's acting president has accused Russia of "piracy."
The result is a tense situation that has brought relations between the West and the Kremlin to perhaps their lowest point since the Cold War.
Cooler heads must prevail before this explosive confrontation escalates, possibly resulting in further attempts by Moscow to seize pro-Russian Ukrainian territory and triggering a potential conflict between Russian and Ukrainian forces.
Secretary of State John Kerry planned to be in Kiev today in hopes of defusing the situation. The Obama administration was putting together a package of economic relief resources for Ukraine. But as yet Western efforts to pressure Russia to reverse course have floundered. If anything, Russia appears to have maintained the upper hand, both militarily and diplomatically.
Russia's bonds to Crimea are no secret. The area is very much pro-Russian and serves as a vital base for the Russian Navy. During the Ukrainian presidential election four years ago, the opposition lost in most of these areas, while winning in all of the nation's western provinces, the same areas that are now appealing for more economic and political ties with Europe. The areas to the south and southeast have pressed to maintain connections with Russia.
Russia, the source of 40 percent of Europe's imported fuel, also has strategic interests in the area. According to the New York Times, roughly 80 percent of Russian gas exports to Europe end up passing through Ukraine.
But Russia's interests and connections fail to justify an unprovoked incursion into Ukraine and a violation of international law and the sovereignty of an independent country. Russia's actions demand swift and global condemnation and, unless reversed, economic sanctions.
European Union foreign ministers met in emergency session in Brussels on Monday to discuss possible punitive steps against Russia, but at the moment none involve direct sanctions.
President Barack Obama was right when he said Monday that Russia is "on the wrong side of history." But the burden is on him and European leaders to persuade Putin of that by coming to agreement on a serious of punitive steps, including possibly boycotting the Group of Eight summit planned in Russia in June, freezing Russian assets, severing key economic deals with Moscow and, if need be, expelling Russia from the G8. The response to this act of aggression against a nation struggling to rebuild itself must be swift, severe and unified.