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The crisis in Ukraine has pushed Stephen Harper into full Cold Warrior mode. This week, he jets off to Kiev to tour Independence Square and meet with the new anti-Russian government. No Western leader has talked tougher. "What the Putin regime has done cannot be tolerated and can never be accepted," he said this week.

Mr. Harper is speaking from the heart. He is also scoring points with many of Canada's 1.2 million citizens of Ukrainian descent, most of whom are deeply anti-Russian, with good reason – you're not about to hear a peep of dissent over Mr. Harper's hard line from the opposition parties.

These convictions also play well among liberal-minded folks who are perennially hopeful that democracy and freedom can flower even in the stoniest soil. To them, as to the Cold Warriors, this is a relatively simple tale of black hats versus white hats, repression versus liberty. These are the same people who celebrated the Arab Spring, naively imagining that a handful of Westernized students with cellphones might be able to revolutionize a deeply corrupt, backward, impoverished and autocratic state. This time, they imagine that if only we send in more international advisers, demand free and fair elections, talk turkey with the oligarchs and flood the zone with money, we can save Ukraine from the forces of authoritarian darkness.

Good luck with that.

I'm no fan of Vladimir Putin, who is a cold, vile thug. But there are reasons he's upset. The West has been poking the bear with a sharp stick since the end of the Cold War. It expanded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization right up to Russia's borderlands. Russia feels it needs Ukraine as a buffer to the West. The United States has poured billions into Ukraine to promote liberal democracy – or, from Mr. Putin's point of view, to destabilize a Russian ally. As many analysts argue, the Russians can't allow this to stand. "Not only does it create a new geopolitical reality," writes Stratfor's George Friedman, "but in the longer term it also gives the appearance inside Russia that Putin is weaker than he seems and opens the door to instability and even fragmentation."

As for Crimea, it's gone now. Many people – not just Mr. Putin – argue that Crimea has always belonged to Russia, despite the fact that Nikita Khrushchev handed it over to Ukraine in 1954. Russia has had a military presence there since the Soviet Union broke up, and last weekend's vote, however rigged, simply reflected historical reality. Even Mikhail Gorbachev has publicly supported the takeover of Crimea, saying it fixes a historical mistake.

Despite the tough rhetoric by Mr. Harper and other Western leaders, Crimea's fate will be tolerated and has already been accepted. It's what comes next that matters, and whether the West is willing to do anything about it militarily. So far, the answer has been a resounding no. So the West is reduced to furiously debating sanctions that won't make a difference anyway. We can stop a few Russian bigwigs from travelling; we can even freeze their bank accounts. Beyond that, everyone has their own interests to protect. Germany and Italy need Russia's gas. France needs to sell the Russians warships. Maybe they'll kick Russia out of the Group of Eight. Or maybe they'll start to issue threats with frowny faces.

The biggest loser in this drama is, of course, U.S. President Barack Obama. His "reset" strategy toward Russia is in tatters. Mr. Putin has been running rings around him, first in Syria – where Bashar al-Assad is now more entrenched than ever – and now in Ukraine, where Washington was caught flat-footed. The Russian President is a past master at saying one thing and doing another, while leaving people guessing at what he'll do next. Mr. Putin is looking like the stronger horse (even though that's not really true), and Mr. Obama (not for the first time) is looking out of his depth. U.S. public opinion is strongly opposed to forceful intervention, and so, one suspects, is he.

Meantime, Mr. Harper will visit the heart of Ukraine as an outspoken champion of freedom. There is no posturing in this. And it's probably worth doing, because who among us doesn't believe that Ukrainians have the right to peace and self-determination? Symbolic gestures have merit. Fortunately, they will never involve real gestures on our part, since we have few commercial interests with Russia and there is no danger of military action.

I hope the white hats win over there, but frankly, I don't think there are any. As in other troubled places where Western influence is sharply limited, all we can strive for is the least-bad outcome – whatever that is.