Today Ukraine’s future hangs in the balance. At least 77 people died last week, and hundreds more were injured amid turmoil and terror on the streets of Kiev. In a vibrant and historic European capital, makeshift morgues lined the pavements and government snipers fired at protesters trying to bring the injured to safety. It was a black day for Ukraine and a dark moment for Europe.
If a week is a long time in British politics, 24 hours has proven to be a long time in this Ukrainian political crisis. The priority must be to prevent further killing, and all sides must play their part in achieving this. The Ukrainian government has in recent months routinely ignored the democratic aspirations of the Ukrainian people. So it will take time for trust to be rebuilt across Ukrainian society and it will be hard for that progress to be made even after this crisis ends.
That is why it is so important that the EU should continue to support Ukraine as the turmoil in Kiev continues. We must remember that this crisis began in November, when President Yanukovych walked away from an agreement with Europe that would have granted Ukraine access to the EU’s single market. Given the desire of the Ukrainian people to seek closer ties with Europe, it would be wrong for the EU to close the door on that possibility. Despite the current uncertainty, the high-level EU team of mediators, including the French, German, and Polish foreign ministers, should stay engaged, and should try to work with all sides to prevent a further flare-up of violence as events develop on the ground.
The UK government has had a noticeably low profile as the crisis unfolded. But we must recognise that the number of people killed in Ukraine last week is a tragic expression of the gravity of the crisis. The streets of Kiev have revealed a geopolitical fault line between Russia and the West.
President Obama was right to say that Ukraine can no longer be seen as part of a “Cold War chess board”. More than 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell we should not see a new era of 20th-century satellite states take hold on the 21st-century European continent. President Putin is known for his zero-sum approach to foreign affairs – but what happens in Ukraine cannot just be about judging what makes sense for Russia. It must be about what works for the people of Ukraine.
Ukraine is facing a generational choice – whether in the decades ahead it can face both East and West. It remains uncertain whether Ukraine will allow the strain of that balancing act to tear its society apart. The struggle for Ukraine’s democratic future is a vital one. Europe must be prepared to maintain pressure where needed, while also keeping open the possibility of improved ties between the EU and Ukraine in the longer term.
Neither the EU nor Ukraine can afford to abandon that relationship. It will require diplomacy in the weeks ahead that is both deft and determined.
Douglas Alexander MP is Labour's foreign affairs spokesman