In 2008, while the Beijing Olympics were under way, a pro-Western regime in the former Soviet republic of Georgia engaged in an ill-advised military clash with Russia that resulted in Moscow occupying a chunk of its territory and setting up the "independent" nations of Abzakhia and South Ossetia.
The separatist states are recognized by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and the Pacific island nation of Nauru, but dismissed as less than legitimate by the rest of the world. Nevertheless, Russia and its client states remain in control of territory that was internationally recognized as part of the Republic of Georgia.
It appears that history may be repeating itself in Ukraine, on a larger and potentially more alarming scale. The overthrow of a pro-Russian, elected government there -- coincidentally as the Putin-hosted Sochi Olympics were concluding -- has led Moscow to flex its military muscle, ostensibly to protect Russian-speaking elements of Ukraine, while making a grab for the Crimean peninsula, which was part of the Russian Republic until 1954.
The provisional regime in Kiev, which took power two weeks ago following the ouster of the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, is appealing for support in its bid to retain sovereignty while attempting to avert a civil war that would split Ukraine. Secretary of State John Kerry is en route to Kiev to show solidarity with authorities there, the European Union is threatening punitive measures and Moscow is holding fast to its argument that is actions are purely defensive.
How this crisis will play out is far from certain. An outright invasion of Ukraine by Moscow would rank with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which prompted worldwide condemnation but underscored the powerlessness of the West to challenge Russia in its own backyard. Prague remained a Soviet satellite for 20 more years until the Kremlin crumbled.
Kerry has proposed economic-oriented sanctions against Moscow, including a freezing of assets and "isolation" in terms of trade and investment as well as a U.S. boycott of a meeting of industrialized nations set to take place later this spring in Sochi. All are largely symbolic actions that may pinch Russian pride and pocketbooks but are unlikely to end what appears to be a de facto occupation of significant parts of Ukraine.
Russia, for its part, appears to be signaling a partial out: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a U.N. Human Rights Council session in Geneva that Ukraine should return to an agreement signed last month by Yanukovych to hold early elections and surrender some powers. "Instead of a promised national unity government," Lavrov said, "a government of the victors has been created."
A possible solution might well be for the Kiev regime to honor the pact and proceed with early elections, the quid pro quo being that Moscow respect the outcome of the balloting and pull back from Ukrainian territory.
The West, for its part, would acknowledge Moscow's historic and strategic ties with Ukraine and its legitimate concerns about being surrounded. A "Finlandization" of Kiev may be the ultimate result.
Vladimir Putin might also be reminded of these words: "Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the (U.N.) Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable ... and would constitute an act of aggression." He wrote them last summer in a New York Times editorial opposing U.S. intevention against Syria.