Ukraine at a Crossroads

The former Soviet Republic has to decide between the EU and Russia.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.

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The EU Eastern Partnership Summit that will take place at the end of November in Vilnius, Lithuania, is gearing up to be a geopolitical pressure cooker, pitting Ukraine against Russia and East against West.

The stakes could not be higher for the very viability and future of the European project. Indeed, the partnership's stated objective is to build "safe, economically strong and pro-European Eastern neighbors." At the summit, Ukraine will decide whether to have closer ties with Russia to its East or with the European Union to its West.

The EU hopes to agree on deals with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. The free trade agreement with Ukraine would be an important step towards eventual EU membership. Agreements would be initialed on a preliminary basis with Georgia and Moldova.

A partnership agreement would mark a historic shift for Ukraine – a former Soviet Republic – away from its former Soviet master, Russia. A failure to sign in Vilnius would be an embarrassing setback for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's policy of Euro-integration. For the EU, Ukraine – with a population of 45 million – would be a big prize. The Ukrainian people have also been broadly supportive of their country's westward tilt.

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But Moscow is putting heavy pressure on Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to join its own customs union instead. Kazakhstan and Belarus have already joined Russia's Eurasian Union and Armenia will likely join as well.

Moscow has banned certain imports from the EU partnership aspirant nations, such as Moldovan wine and Ukrainian candies, and applied extra border inspections. It has also reminded these countries of their heavy reliance on Russian gas, especially as the cold season sets in.

There is division within the EU as well. Some countries such as Poland argue for the need to pull Ukraine away from Russia's influence, but countries like Sweden and the Netherlands argue that the EU should not compromise on human rights principles. In particular, the EU is pressuring Yanukovych to release and pardon jailed former premier Yulia Tymoshenko. This is a key condition for signing the EU agreement, along with various reforms to Ukraine's electoral and legal systems.

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Yanukovych, while expressing a strong desire to enter into partnership with the EU, has been unwilling to pardon his rival, suggesting instead that she be allowed to travel temporarily to Germany for medical treatment. He apparently hopes to keep Tymoshenko out of contention as a political force as he prepares for elections in February 2015.

Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years in 2011 for abuse of office after what Western governments say was a political trial. Her party this week rejected the terms for her release and European envoys warned that time was running out to solve the problem.

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While these negotiations have roiled Europe, the United States has been strangely silent. On the defensive after revelations of eavesdropping on European allies, Washington has not used its influence to encourage Ukraine to join the EU or warn Russia to back off.

In Europe this week, Secretary of State John Kerry drew attention to the United States' own upcoming trade negotiations with Europe saying, "This is a trade partnership. It has the ability to lift all of our countries." A U.S.-EU trade deal would create the world's largest free trade zone. Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia should be a part of it.

Anya Schmemann is an assistant dean at American University's School of International Service.