Europe and the US must build bridges with Russia over Ukraine’s future. The alternative is in none of our interests

Obama and his European allies are showing no desire for a showdown with Moscow

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The Independent Online

For all the tumult of recent days – the slaughter of dozens of demonstrators on Kiev’s streets, a former President stripped of power and on the run – the crisis in Ukraine is still at its beginning. Until tomorrow at the earliest, Europe’s seventh most populous country will be without a government. The mood is of score settling. There are stirrings of separatism in the east, especially in Crimea, which is overwhelmingly Russian by culture and history, and where Moscow maintains a major naval base.

Not least, Ukraine is broke. The currency, the hryvnia, has fallen by 12 per cent since the start of the year, and the public finances are on the brink of collapse. According to the acting Finance Minister, the country needs €25.5bn (£21bn) between now and the end of 2015 simply to pay its bills. It should be remembered, too, that the immediate origin of the crisis was economic: the decision of the ousted Viktor Yanukovych to accept Russian aid and membership of the Moscow-sponsored Eurasian Union, in preference to an agreement with the EU.

After Mr Yanukovych’s overthrow, the West will be tempted to assume that it has “won” the geopolitical tug-of-war for Ukraine’s future. The feeling must be resisted, however. If the stability of Ukraine is to be assured, Russia, the European Union and the US must all work together, rather than treat the country as the prize in a zero-sum game. The latest signals offer some hope that this might occur.

President Obama, cautious by nature, is showing no desire for a full-scale showdown with Moscow. His attitude seems to be shared by his European allies, as they work to put together an economic rescue package in which Russia would ideally be involved. The real uncertainty surrounds the attitude of Moscow to the fate of its southern neighbour, whose history and culture is so closely interwoven with Russia’s own.

The initial response of the Kremlin was ferocious. Dmitry Medvedev, the Prime Minister, declared that the opposition had seized power by an “armed mutiny”, and the foreign ministry accused Europe of turning a blind eye to the “dictatorial and sometimes terrorist” methods used by the new authorities to suppress dissent in Russian-sympathising eastern Ukraine. Such language has been heard before at previous flashpoints in European history; a request by the Crimeans for Russian “protection” could become a pretext for the worst possible outcome – direct military action by Moscow.

Yesterday, the tone was more restrained. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, indicated that the present policy of non-intervention would continue and that it was in Moscow’s interests for Ukraine to be part of what he called “the broad European family”. But – starting with its control of vital gas exports – the Kremlin has plenty of other ways of influencing events.

No one can predict how the crisis will end. One possibility is, indeed, some form of partition. But that can only proceed with the considered consent of every party, along the lines of the 1993 “velvet divorce” between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And first, every effort must be made to hold the country together. Even in so fraught a moment as this, Ukraine offers a rare opportunity to create a bridge between East and West.