In the early 1990s, Yugoslavia was the Ukraine of its day, and more than 20 years later the ethnic and religious differences that ripped that Balkan confederation apart remain a threat to peace in Europe.
Marshal Josip Tito had managed to hold Yugoslavia's various competing factions together from 1953 until his death in 1980. He was a dictator and a Communist (although not a Soviet puppet) and not particularly admired in the West, but he was a reasonably popular figure at home and he kept the peace.
But the federation Tito had helped cobble together following World War II began to unravel after the Soviet Union collapsed, and there was nobody of his stature or influence to prevent the bloody civil war that ensued.
Former Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovych, who was ousted this past weekend, is no Tito. On Monday, the new government in Kiev issued a warrant for his arrest, but of course he was nowhere to be found.
The ouster of the despised president and his political cronies presents an opportunity for the West to strengthen its ties to Ukraine, but we must recognize there are still deep and dangerous divisions among the people of that troubled land.
In the east and southeast, most of the people speak Russian and feel a historical and cultural connection to Moscow, while others speak Ukrainian and long to become part of Europe.
And the protesters who drove Yanukovych from office included radicals from both the nation's far right and from the far left. Their immediate goal has been achieved, but presumably their conflicting post-protest priorities remain in place.
So, will Ukraine find a road to lasting peace and prosperity, or will it be ripped apart the way Yugoslavia was? And what role does the United States play? Remember, Washington was drawn into the Balkans war and was instrumental in the peace negotiations in Dayton, Ohio.
Ukraine's political differences must somehow be resolved, but perhaps even more important are the challenges presented by the economic issues that were at the forefront of the protests.
And that's where the United States and the European Union will argue for closer links to the West rather than increasing dependence on Moscow, which Yanukovych favored.
"Nobody wants to end up owning all the problems that Ukraine faces," Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The New York Times the other day. "The country is bankrupt; it has a terrible broken system of government and insane levels of corruption."
Though the Western powers may not want to "own" Ukraine's problems, Vladimir Putin has made it clear that Moscow is eager to bring Ukraine back into its economic, military and cultural sphere of influence.
Putin's concern is power, not promoting freedom or eliminating corruption.
So, as in the past, an international tug of war has begun, and again it is the East against the West.
"The United States' view - and I believe this view is shared by our European allies and partners - is that the only viable route back to sustainable economic health for Ukraine goes through the International Monetary Fund," an unidentified senior state department official told reporters in Washington on Friday.
The Ukrainian opposition already is discovering how Putin-fan Yanukovych plundered the nation. They should see that Russia's promises are illusionary and pursue a course that will lead to economic and political freedom.
The United States should team with the European Union to provide whatever assistance is necessary to prevent the Ukraine from deteriorating into a civil war or becoming a Russian satellite.