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The real question, though, is do either the United States or Russia want to risk a major war over the Crimean Peninsula?

Moscow notes that Crimea is part of Ukraine today only because Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev “gave” it to Ukraine in the 1950s when both Ukraine and Crimea were part of the Soviet Union.

It is argued that it should now be returned, and the snap referendum is meant to show that Mr. Putin is standing up for the right of democratic self determination.

Not so long ago, Mr. Obama hailed the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as an example of “the power of human dignity.”

“There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege of witnessing history taking place,” Mr. Obama said. “This is one of those moments. The people of Egypt have spoken, and their voices have been heard.”

Well, say the Russians, don’t the people of Crimea deserve the same right to determine their own future as enjoyed by the people of Egypt?

The confrontation in Ukraine may be viewed in the United States as rather small and inconsequential, and in Moscow as something the West will ultimately do nothing about, but history tells us that it is just the sort of conflict that can escalate — and escalate into something neither side bargained for when it began.

It is time for the two presidents with the most to lose to convene a meeting that will allow the parties to step back, reach something approaching a reasonable solution and finally put the United States and Russia in a position to achieve the “reset” that Mr. Obama promised as a candidate, but didn’t pursue as president.

If he isn’t wise enough or courageous enough to do that now, the world will have to hope that this crisis can drag on without forcing a dangerous confrontation until the United States and the West gets a new leader after the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow and professor of world politics at Moscow State University.