EU priorities on Ukraine

Early last week Viktor Yanukovich fatally overplayed his hand. The onslaught by police on Kiev protesters led to carnage in which over 80 died. It was the final straw for the few props that helped keep Ukraine's president in power. His billionaire oligarch backers , businessmen who, like his family, had profited from a culture of corruption, deserted him as support from the interior ministry, security services and police slipped away.

Holding no cards, though his opponents did not know it yet, he embarked on a desperate negotiation for a managed transition. On the streets they were having none of it. The game was up, and he’s now on the run. As parliament met at the weekend to approve constitutional changes and give its new speaker Oleksander Turchinov temporary presidential powers, even Yanukovich’s party condemned him.

The whirlwind speed of Ukraine's revolution – if not its ultimate result – has taken everyone by surprise, nowhere more so than in an embarrassed, indignant Moscow, which has lost an important strategic ally in a matter of days. Ominously it is now using the language that in the past justified military intervention, whether in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Georgia as recently as 2008. Yesterday, prime minister Dmitry Medvedev criticised the West for recognising new leaders who came to power in an "armed mutiny".

But President Vladimir Putin would be well advised to appreciate that any invasion would cost Russia dear. Resistance by a population already in revolt would be fierce, and diplomatic fallout far-reaching. At the very least the West would not be able to avoid drastic economic sanctions. And Moscow retaliation, either through abandoning its debt relief programme or fomenting secessionism in the east or Crimea, would be deeply counterproductive, almost guaranteeing a new government in Kiev would turn its back on any links with Russia.

EU diplomats have been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to argue that this need not be a zero-sum game – that the EU and Russia can both be partners to a new, democratic Ukraine, with the latter providing an important economic bridge between the EU and the huge markets of a Russian-led Eurasian Union. That is entirely possible if, mindful of Russian sensitivities and recalling Finland's non-aligned precedent, there is no eastward push to integrate Ukraine into Nato.

The immediate EU priority is to convene a donors' conference to raise short-term cash for Ukraine's basket-case economy. It says it needs $35 billion to survive 2014 and 2015, and economic and monetary affairs commissioner Olli Rehn has promised "substantial" aid. Crucial will also be renewal of International Monetary Fund support. It suspended a $15.5 billion loan agreement with Ukraine in 2010, after it failed to implement the required reforms.