Suddenly, Ukraine might have found a way to focus Russian President Vladimir Putin's attention on the reality that an invasion of eastern Ukraine might not be a Crimean cakewalk.
Remember the late 1970s and early 1980s, when thousands of strapping Russian lads came back from Afghanistan in body bags after U.S.-armed Afghan fighters took to the hills?
Now there are the steelworkers of eastern Ukraine.
When they finally organized and took to the streets earlier this month, they promptly put to flight the previously unstoppable pro-Russian thugs who had held Ukrainian cities hostage in the weeks after the Russian military snatched Crimea.
Putin has to consider whether those workers would hesitate to harass and bloody any Russian military units that crossed the border.
On Sunday, Ukraine goes to the polls to elect a new president and new government whose first priority will be finding a way to give more autonomy to its provinces, especially the divided eastern regions.
Finding a plan that works, without splitting Ukraine asunder, will be the trick.
Success is critical both for Ukraine and Russia.
The alternative, splitting off eastern Ukraine into an independent nation closely allied to or even absorbed into Russia, could be as much of a nightmare for Putin as for Ukraine.
Russia would control the poorest part of the country.
When West Germany absorbed East Germany after The Wall came down, there was a vast discrepancy in wealth.
It took years and an enormous financial commitment to begin to change that.
The costs of absorbing a largely impoverished eastern Ukraine (while keeping the steelmakers happy so that they don't turn into sniper squads with NATO-supplied weapons) could be horrific for a nation with an economy as fragile as Russia's.
Estimates range from $12 billion to $80 billion a year, up to a sixth of Russia's annual oil and gas export earnings.
And splitting Ukraine in two could well push western Ukraine into the arms of the European Union and even NATO — which could be both Putin's and President Obama's worst nightmare.
The American people, who are barely aware that we are committed to protecting from invasion such former Soviet possessions as Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are unlikely to react well to adding Ukraine.
NATO is trying its darnest to concentrate Putin's mind on all this by showing him that U.S. and European forces are ready, if not willing, to react.
So NATO warplanes are shadowing their Russian counterparts over the Gulf of Finland and off the Baltic coast, while NATO forces have been bolstered in Poland, Romania and the Baltic republics.
The best role the United States and the European community can play is to help Putin understand the real costs of any further intervention into Ukraine and the need to let Ukraine's democracy work out its internal issues.
Source: USA Today