In global affairs, as in domestic politics, symbolism can be as important as substance.
So when the world's major industrial democracies, known as the G-7, invited Russia to join their annual sessions on coordinating economic and political policies, it represented a significant success for Russia's efforts to shed its communist, authoritarian past and tie its future to the world's major democracies.
Similarly, this week's G-7 decision to disinvite Russia is a clear warning. President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea and his threats to destabilize Ukraine and Moldova could prompt the European Union, Russia's principal trading partner, to isolate Putin both politically and economically.
In the short term, it keeps him from displaying his showcase resort of Sochi for the world's top leaders, as he did for the sporting world.
Sochi was designed to symbolize post-Soviet Russia, but his actions make it appear more like the Potemkin villages used in Czarist Russia to fool the Empress Catherine into thinking economic progress was greater than it actually was. The G-7 moved this year's meeting to Brussels.
So far, European reluctance has, unfortunately, prevented that symbolic response to the Crimean takeover from being extended to more substantive moves -- like economic sanctions that could deal a significant blow to specific sectors of an already struggling Russian economy. But President Barack Obama and other Western leaders said any further Russia moves would precipitate stronger counter-moves.
Dealing with Putin's actions is complicated. While this week's meetings have focused primarily on the need to deter Putin from future action, it is equally important to bolster Ukraine economically, militarily and politically without becoming enmeshed in a military as well as an economic war.
Republican critics of the slowness with which Obama initially moved to apply sanctions conveniently ignored the fact that it is far easier for the United States to act than it is for our European allies. Russia is their main supplier of oil and natural gas.
However, it's fair to say that Obama and his predecessor deserve criticism for their slowness in recognizing the Russian leader's intentions. President George W. Bush looked in his eyes and found someone "very straightforward and trustworthy," while Obama saw in him "a common interest" in the rule of law, democracy and human rights.
Mitt Romney was more prescient. In a March 2012 CNN interview, Obama's 2012 Republican foe called Russia "without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe," a comment Obama derided during an October campaign debate. He rejected it again Tuesday, dismissing Russia as a "regional power" threatening its neighbors and adding he was more concerned about "the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan."
In that 2012 debate, Obama told Romney, "The Cold War's been over for 20 years." But there is in fact a parallel between the 20th-century military struggle between the West and East and their 21st-century economy rivalry, with the European Union playing the role of NATO and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Community that of the Soviet Union's disbanded Warsaw Pact.
Economic concerns may also be behind Putin's annexation of Crimea and military threats to Ukraine and Moldova. The coup in Ukraine that ousted its pro-Russian president raises the prospect that a country whose markets are vital for Russia might lean more toward democratic Europe than toward Putin's effort to build a rival economic structure.
And Putin's reliance on his military strength doesn't conceal the fact that he is playing a weak hand economically, saddled with an economy that is smaller than all but two of the G-7 nations and currently shows little or no growth.
Clearly, Obama and his European allies hope their implied threat to his need for markets that only the West can provide will deter Putin from steps that would add a highly dangerous new aspect to the current crisis and perhaps weaken his economic position still further.
(Carl Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.)