Anti-government protesters clash with riot police in Kiev's Independence Square,...

Anti-government protesters clash with riot police in Kiev's Independence Square, the epicenter of the country's current unrest, Kiev, Ukraine on Feb. 18, 2014. Credit: AP / Efrem Lukatsky

As Russian-Ukrainian tensions over Crimea escalate, the question of America's role in the world looms large once again -- particularly as a fault line on the right. While many Republicans criticize President Barack Obama for not standing tough against Russia's Vladimir Putin, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who represents the party's more libertarian wing, warned last week that the United States shouldn't needlessly "tweak Russia," and has urged Putin to back off from intervention in Ukraine.

Is Russia's aggression against Ukraine any of America's business? And if it is, what can we and other Western powers do?

After the Iraq fiasco, American interventionism -- and the idea of using U.S. power to promote democracy abroad -- understandably got a bad name. Few would dispute that reckless military adventures in areas where we face uncertain alliances are a bad idea. But neo-isolationism would be just as dangerous an extreme. Even apart from the defense of freedom as a moral principle, which remains valid no matter how imperfect our own liberty may be, the fact is that a planet dominated by authoritarian or totalitarian regimes of various stripes would not be a hospitable place for America. In an interconnected world, the decline of freedom abroad affects Americans' interests in many ways -- from commerce to travel to exchange of ideas and information.

In Ukraine, the former Soviet republic where corrupt pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted last month, the lines between pro-freedom and anti-freedom forces are very clear. Ukraine's leadership, brought to power by protests against Yanukovych's tilt toward Moscow (which violated campaign promises of closer ties to the West), wants to set the country on the road to liberal democracy and a market economy. Putin, who presides over a neo-authoritarian, crony-capitalist regime with neo-imperial ambitions, wants to keep Ukraine under Russia's boot. The Kremlin is taking advantage of a large Russian population in the Crimea to push the region toward secession and justify the use of military force.

Putin's Russia is not the same as our Communist Cold War foe. Still, it has increasingly positioned itself as America's geopolitical and ideological rival -- now armed with a different brand of anti-freedom ideology: statism cloaked in social and religious traditionalism.

Unfortunately, some critics of U.S. interventionism, left and right, have recycled Kremlin talking points about Western subversion and/or homegrown neo-Nazis as the driving forces of Ukraine's revolution. Meanwhile, conservative hawks have been deriding Obama as a weakling whom Putin holds in well-deserved contempt.

Neither position is helpful. Ukraine's genuine aspirations for freedom and European integration deserve our support, and the containment of Putinism should be high on our list of foreign policy priorities. But, as a practical matter, these goals are fraught with challenges that no U.S. president could navigate easily. (Putin's consolidation of power, including his de facto annexation of two Georgian provinces, took place on George W. Bush's watch.)

No one is prepared to see the United States use military force against Russia. But there are other options, and the Obama administration is pursuing some of them -- including not attending the Russia-hosted G-8 summit in Sochi in June. Secretary of State John Kerry has listed sanctions that include the freezing of Russian assets in the West.

The Russian elites' economic interests today are tied to the West in a way that had no precedent in the Soviet era, argues Bloomberg View editor David Shipley. That gives us leverage. Political and economic isolation can be a powerful weapon -- if we have the will to wield it.

Newsday columnist Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.