Chaos over Ukraine: The major powers need to turn down the heat

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What is most extraordinary about the face-off between the United States and Russia over a peninsula in Ukraine is that America and the Soviet Union competed with each other for 45 years, both nations armed with nuclear weapons, without ever coming to blows.

Now both are in a tense standoff, with the Russians massing thousands of troops and holding maneuvers along Ukraine’s borders and the United States flying warplanes over nearby Poland and Romania.

President Barack Obama capped it on Wednesday by making a fuss at the White House over Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, a leader of the interim regime installed by demonstrators who overthrew Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor F. Yanukovych. Mr. Obama promised Mr. Yatsenyuk $1 billion in loan guarantees, an offer the president may not be able to get Congress to honor.

In the meantime, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and other senators flew this weekend to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, no doubt to pledge U.S. military support to the new government, which they are unable to deliver.

Pro-Russian Ukrainians in Crimea, the bone of contention, have scheduled a referendum for Sunday to weigh in on what their future should be. It is a fair question, but at the same time it is hard to imagine how they can vote freely under the guns of the Russians, the interim Kiev government and NATO, including the United States.

The questions for the United States are how did it get into this mess and is it worth it? Ukraine is not a member of NATO or the European Union. It has a centuries-old, intimate relationship with Russia. America is working itself into a lather over Russian troops that were active in Crimea and are now on the border of eastern Ukraine. How would the Russians react if the United States built up its military forces on the Mexican or Canadian border?

America should consider its real priorities. The gas explosion Wednesday in New York City, which caused two buildings to collapse and the deaths of at least eight people, revealed a citywide network of old pipes that would cost $47 billion to fix. Addressing the nation’s outdated water and sewer infrastructure could cost up to $5 trillion.

Why is Mr. Obama focused overseas? Has he conferred with Congress? Has he sought the opinions of the public? Or is he just listening to the Pentagon and America’s natural gas industry, which would like to push the Russians out of the European market?

The Russians are putting undue pressure on Ukraine, but the White House response is irresponsible.

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