Ukraine’s choice: The former Soviet state can go east or west

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Ukraine, on the political and geographic fault line between the European Union and the Russian Federation, is tearing itself apart, including with riots in Kiev, over a difficult decision on its future.

The matter has economic, ethnic and personal political elements. The question is whether Ukraine applies for associate membership at the EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit later this week in Vilnius, Lithuania, probably joining Georgia and Moldova in seeking that status. Russia opposes its former partner’s seeking the new marriage and has proffered a combination of economic and political promises and threats to try to get Ukraine and the other two not to jump ship.

One Russian lever is the three countries’ dependence on it for natural gas for winter heating. Ukraine always has trouble with the bills, so a deal would be especially attractive.

A second problem for Ukraine is that its population is split into Ukrainian and Russian speakers, roughly 68 percent to 30 percent. That division tends to carry over to the ballot box and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich won the most recent elections with substantial Russian-speaker support, a fact he is not likely to forget.

There is also a personal political aspect to this. EU countries have taken up the cause of Mr. Yanukovich’s rival, former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, whom he has jailed. She is apparently not well and has added to the sympathy for her by going on a hunger strike. The EU wants Mr. Yanukovich to let her go, to seek medical treatment in Germany. He doesn’t really want her to die in prison, but sees the EU position as interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs.

Despite the intrigue, the United States must stay out of this battle. At the same time, it would be hard to argue that the economic future of Ukraine would be better yoked to Russia than as a future member of the EU. For the Ukrainians, it’s a tough call.

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