Powerful images have been spilling out of Ukraine lately: Kiev’s Maidan protesters bravely enduring months of bitter cold, weathering police attacks and sniper bullets; the gilded bathroom fixtures of deposed president Viktor Yanukovych’s opulent personal residence; and a wheelchair-bound Yuliya Tymoshenko emerging from prison to address her countrymen in a broken voice. At a time when Europe’s self-confidence is at a low ebb, Ukrainians’ courageous struggle to topple an unjust political system is a powerful reminder of Europe’s core values. The question now is what Europeans will do about it.

One could be tempted to view Yanukovych’s ouster as a signal that Ukraine is entering a new era, moving inexorably away from Russia and into the European democratic fold. But this is not a Hollywood movie — and a happy ending is far from certain. Instead of getting swept up by the perceived triumph of European values, Europe’s leaders must recognise that Ukraine is subject to deep internal cleavages and conflicting geopolitical forces, which will undoubtedly make for a messy transition. For starters, Ukraine is riven by deep-seated cultural tensions, stemming from its history of occupation by competing foreign powers.

In the 17th century, the struggle among the Cossacks, Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for control of Ukraine resulted in a split along the Dnieper River. While the division was formally eliminated after the Second Partition of Poland in 1793, its legacy has remained.

Ukraine’s geography has also contributed to its disunity. Following the devastating famine of 1932-1933, two-three million Russians repopulated deserted farming areas in southern and eastern Ukraine, contributing to ethno-linguistic divisions that endure to this day. Add to that endemic corruption, unscrupulous and powerful oligarchs and fractious political parties and it is easy to see why Ukraine’s efforts to consolidate a more democratic system will be exceedingly difficult.

However, the challenges do not end at Ukraine’s borders. On the contrary, the country’s internal discords operate within the context of a broader, ever-mutable East-West split. When the recent protests began, Russia seemed to be gaining the upper hand, citing examples — above all, the crisis in Syria — intended to highlight America’s lack of strategic vision and declining global influence. Russian leaders certainly had a point: The US, preoccupied with domestic challenges, was no longer setting the international agenda. In this sense, not much has changed, even with Yanukovych gone. Former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s recent recommendations for preventing Russian intervention in Ukraine — namely, threatening financial sanctions or a review of Russia’s World Trade Organisation status — attest to the limits of American power. Further complicating matters is the shifting nature of transatlantic security arrangements.

The good news is that the European Union (EU) finally seems to have recognised the need to assume greater strategic responsibility, exemplified in the recent French-led missions in Mali and the Central African Republic. But the process of building a common and relevant EU security strategy has only just begun — and progress will undoubtedly be slow. As it stands, the EU lacks the experience and savvy that the US accumulated over decades as an international hegemon. This deficiency was on full display last November, when the EU offered Ukraine an Association Agreement that failed to account for the country’s financial vulnerabilities. That enabled Russian President Vladimir Putin to swoop in and compel Yanukovych to scuttle the deal in exchange for a promise of $15 billion (Dh55.17 billion) in loans and energy subsidies.

Making matters worse, EU foreign policy lacks unity of purpose, with Germany, acting in support of its own economic and energy interests, maintaining a strong bilateral relationship with Russia. While Germany has increasingly emphasised values — from the rule of law to human rights — in its dealings with Russia over the last year, it remains unclear whether it will go so far as to lead a EU-wide diplomatic initiative. In the aftermath of German President Joachim Gauck’s recent announcement that his country is prepared to embrace a larger role in global affairs, it is far from certain whether Germany is willing to align its foreign policy more closely with that of the EU. But the fact that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was joined by his French and Polish counterparts in brokering last week’s agreement to end the crisis in Ukraine implies that Germany is not planning to go it alone, either.

The West’s uncertainty over Ukraine contrasts sharply with Russia’s clear vision. Putin knows that a pro-western, pro-Nato Ukraine will present a major obstacle to Russian dominance in Eurasia, potentially cutting off Russia’s access to the Black Sea and, most important, providing a model to his opponents at home. To avoid such an outcome, he seems prepared to leverage the discontent of Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population, particularly in Crimea, the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Against this background, the international community must make every effort to ensure that Ukraine does not become the subject of an East-West proxy battle, which would raise the risk of spillover into Russia and far more human suffering. Ukraine’s deep societal divisions will make any resolution imposed by one side inherently unstable.

In this delicate context, the West — under Europe’s leadership — must adopt a pragmatic approach and negotiate a workable agreement with Russia that advances democratic values while mitigating Russian security concerns. Ukraine’s nascent transition may well catalyse a critical realisation: The EU and Russia need each other. If the two powers persist in old conflicts and rivalries, however, the next set of images that emerges from Ukraine will send a far less encouraging message.

— Project Syndicate, 2014

Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former senior vice-president of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State and a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University.