The European Union this week offered support to Ukraine, a crucial "buffer state" with a large Russian minority, considered by Moscow to be a heartland of Russian identity. As concern in Europe developed that Moscow's real signal in Georgia was to Ukraine, the EU gave Kiev a first step toward membership, importantly telling Moscow that it defines Ukraine as part of Europe.
The deal came amid strong internal EU debate about how far and how quickly to extend its reach to the Russian border. While East European states are pushing to bring Ukraine into the prized eurozone, there is strong sentiment in the union to wait until Ukraine and Russia find a more settled accommodation. This poses a problem for a state whose "Orange Revolution" separated it from Moscow.
According to a statement issued in Paris, Ukraine is recognized "as a European country that shares a common history and common values with the countries of the European Union."
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French and current EU president, put an affirmative spin on the offer, saying it was "the first time the union pronounces itself so clearly on the European destiny [of Ukraine]." But Ukrainian officials expressed palpable dismay that the EU did not go further.
Pro-West reformers in Kiev are worried that membership will be slow coming or derailed by silent hands from Moscow that they say are creating the political instability that makes Ukraine problematic for European states. Last week, Kiev's ruling coalition collapsed when opposition parties loyal to Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko called for a law to weaken presidential powers while strengthening those of the prime minister. President Victor Yushchenko accused his rival of attempting a "constitutional coup."
"Under these circumstances, we must assume that Ukraine's president has got the maximum he possibly could amid these dark prospects. But this result is very disappointing," says Alexei Kolomiets, president of the independent Center for European and Transatlantic Studies in Kiev. "I have no doubt that Ukraine's political crisis is being organized from outside, and the team that's directing this turmoil is sitting in the Kremlin," he added.
Ukraine's location between Russia and Poland and its 45-million-strong population, 1 in 6 of whom are Russian, gives it terrific value to Moscow. Yet after Georgia, the EU is opting for an exchange with Ukraine and Georgia through economic aid and outreach. For example, a Polish-Swedish initiative to create an eastern European neighborhood policy has been revitalized, with an underlying assumption that the best way to confront Moscow is by helping Ukraine develop. Similar efforts are being worked on assiduously in Poland, the Baltics, and Sweden with the support of France and Britain.
Russia's venture into Georgia has solidified the European view that Moscow no longer wishes to be a "transitional" power aiming to integrate with Western systems and norms. But Ukraine does see itself as a transitional power, says Anne de Tinguy, a Russian-Ukrainian expert at Sciences Po in Paris.
"The most efficient leverage is not to aim at Russia," with hard power threats, argues Ms. Tinguy. "It is to develop relations with Ukraine and Georgia.… I'm convinced that Ukraine is a European country. I am convinced that Ukraine will move slowly and with difficulty towards the EU."
• Fred Weir contributed to this report from Moscow.