The atrocities in Ukraine, in which dozens of people have been killed and hundreds injured, are a grim reminder that the Cold War was not entirely left behind in the 20th century, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Despite a truce earlier this week between the government and protesters, violence continued unabated on Thursday, and hospitals reported being filled with gunshot victims.

In its simplest form, the protests are a struggle among opposing factions concerned with the nation’s collapsing economy and government corruption. That is volatile enough, but the conflict has been complicated by Russia’s insistence that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych reject a trade agreement with the European Union and accept a Russian bailout of $15 billion and closer ties to Moscow.

This Russia-vs.-the-West complication has led to uncertainty as to who ultimately is directing the violent attacks on protesters. Moscow’s meddling has put an air of foreboding over the situation, and the violence has led to a nation in confusion and disarray.

The Washington Post reports that leaders in areas near the Russian border are demanding an all-out crackdown on protesters, while leaders in other areas are aligning with protesters and seeking to separate themselves from the government in Kiev.

Unfortunately, the United States appears limited in ways it can influence the rapidly evolving situation, given its lack of proximity relative to Russia. The European Union decided Thursday to impose sanctions on Ukraine’s leaders. President Obama is likely to join that effort. He also has reacted with strong diplomatic language, warning Yanukovych the United States would “hold those responsible for violence accountable.”

Unfortunately, such warnings may have lost their effectiveness since the president drew a “red line” on government atrocities against rebels in Syria but then failed to act when the warnings went unheeded.

This is a situation that calls for strong and decisive European Union leadership, backed by strong support from Washington. This could be a pivotal moment for the EU as Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently asserts himself in an effort to restore Russia’s prominence on the world stage. Ukraine has been a partner with NATO in its military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and has had close ties with Poland’s military.

This also is a pivotal moment for Ukrainians, who obviously long for stronger democratic, economic and religious freedoms. Their cries, and their suffering, should not go unheeded.