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Strikingly, even after President Obama humiliated himself and the United States by doing nothing after declaring that Syrian President Bashar Assad “must go” and that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line,” senior American officials seemed to think that Russian President Vladimir Putin — who has much more leverage at his disposal than Mr. Assad — would pay attention to warnings of “grave” consequences from Cabinet officials on U.S. talk shows.

The president and his top advisers keep complaining that Mr. Putin is living in the 19th century rather than the 21st century, but they are the ones who increasingly appear to occupy a fantasy world. Mr. Putin has created realities in Crimea that cannot be undone through stern statements or canceled summits.

Worse than that, Ukraine’s new realities likely cannot be reversed without the United States choosing between a costly, escalating confrontation with Russia, whether military or otherwise, or a negotiated settlement conceding far more to Moscow than would have been necessary if Mr. Obama had showed real leadership from the beginning.

Attempting to eject Russia from Crimea with economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure is likely to expose significant rifts between the United States and Germany, as well as within the EU.

Before using its energy leverage in Europe, Moscow may respond to this by sending S-300 missiles and other military hardware to Iran, pursuing mischief in Afghanistan, or helping Mr. Assad to win in Syria rather than simply avoiding defeat.

Negotiating with Mr. Putin won’t be simple either, especially for someone with Mr. Obama’s fanciful worldview. Talks may also carry high political costs for a president already carrying significant domestic- and foreign-policy baggage.

This leads to a final question: Just how much is Crimea worth? It may prove to be the price of incompetence.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Center for the National Interest. He was a State Department senior adviser during the George W. Bush administration.