The policy of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych since he came to power a year ago has been to steer a middle course between Russia and the European Union.
His predecessors, who came to power in the Orange Revolution of 2004, attempted to distance the Ukraine from Russia and integrate with Western Europe via membership in NATO and the European Union.
That policy foundered because the Ukraine was internally divided on the issue. Western Ukraine displayed the strongest anti-Russian sentiments while the Eastern Ukraine cherished ties with Russia.
The European Union and NATO also did not exactly lay out the welcome mat. Heavily dependent on energy imports from Russia, many European leaders did not want to rock the boat with Vladimir Putin. They informed Kiev that the acceptance process would be protracted and would depend on progress in transparency, anticorruption and more.
The Ukrainian government wanted to keep the European integration option open and was negotiating an association agreement with Brussels. This policy is being endangered by the trial of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is accused of exceeding her authority by signing a gas agreement with Russia.
The Europeans view the trial as a means of settling scores with Tymoshenko. An EU delegation told the Ukrainian president that "the rule of law is of critical importance" and if the former Prime Minister is to be convicted, the Ukraine could forget about closer relations with Brussels.
Having defended the impartiality of the Ukrainian justice system, it is hard for Yanukovych to beat a retreat.
One face-saving suggestion is to reclassify the presumed offense as an administrative offense rather than a felony, thus removing the prison sentence outcome. The Europeans also seek to distinguish between the regime in Kiev and the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. Those on trial in the Ukraine would then not be political prisoners as was the case in Belarus.
In his negotiations with the Europeans, Yanukovych received unexpected support from his former rival ex-president Viktor Yuschenko. Yuschenko warned that the Russians are trying to lure the Ukraine into their orbit by offering cut-rate gas prices. The price for such benevolence is the Ukraine's adhesion to a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Yuschenko wryly noted that entry into the EU was a process that took years, but with the Russian dominated customs union the story was totally different: "There is a different kind of politics. If you want to be in the customs union, you will be in the customs union in a couple of weeks."
If Russia succeeds, the Ukraine will soon find itself behind a new version of Iron Curtain authoritarianism. To prevent that, the EU should go easy on the Ukraine, argued Yuschenko.