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Canada's rush to support democracy in Ukraine has echoes of an earlier time. In 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Canada was the first country to recognize Ukraine, following a national referendum in which more than 90 per cent of the country voted for independence. With 1.2-million Canadians of Ukrainian descent, many of whom vote or lean to the Conservatives, it would be easy to be cynical about the Canadian government's solicitous concern for what happens in the homeland.

But there is much more to this discussion than domestic Canadian politics, however compelling that is to headline writers.

Ukraine is of enormous strategic significance. It was then, and it is now. In 1991, it was the epicentre of the Soviet Union's nuclear capacity: By declaring independence, it was a potential nuclear power. On its soil were more than 1,800 nuclear warheads, more than those of Britain, France and China combined. As a condition of recognition by virtually every Western country, the newly independent Ukraine agreed to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Further, the U.S., Russia and Ukraine worked out a deal to destroy all the aging, rusting nukes in the country. It's hard to emphasize the importance of this, given it was just five years after the nuclear power disaster at Chernobyl – just 132 kilometres from Kiev.

Then, as now, Ukraine was the breadbasket of Russia and its satellites. No wonder Ukrainian-Canadians settled into the Prairies: No matter how unwillingly they were sent there after arriving in Canada, it must have reminded them of home. And for the Soviet Union then and for Russia now, Ukraine's rich agricultural output is irreplaceable.

Add access to the Black Sea, a natural gas pipeline and a well-educated and cultured population; for Russia, what's not to like?

In addition, Ukraine's location, lying across the divide between Europe and Asia, or almost Asia, is the perfect defence shield. For Russia, in other words, Ukraine is the crown jewel in its sphere of satellites.

Despite all this, however, no matter how real and important all these elements are, the real gut of the matter is Russian prestige. For President Vladimir Putin, the fact that Ukraine sought closer ties with Europe, when in his view Ukraine's future lay with Russia, was an outrage, an insult to Russian pride and history.

That is what makes the situation in Ukraine potentially the most dangerous standoff since the end of the Cold War. Mr. Putin is not one to stand down. Europe would welcome Ukraine into membership, or into the conditionality leading to membership, but there are no precedents for it to get into a tug of war in order to do so. It now finds itself trying to play peacemaker, but while it has the trust of the Ukrainian "rebels" it has yet to be seen what influence it will have over the Russians.

Ukraine must fight to maintain its independence, but it has no money to do so, and its well-wishers are unlikely to write large cheques. In 1991, Canada could provide only minimal financial support (remember those deficits?) but was actively engaged helping to shape the constitution of the newly independent state, and to set up national institutions. The Canadian Bar Association worked on the structure of the court system; Canadian business worked with Ukrainian business on securities regulation and corporate structure.

Today it is hard to see what role Canada is playing, or can play, besides being visibly supportive. The needs now in Ukraine are different. The institutions are there, but the Ukrainian leadership, as in so many emerging democracies, has let the people down. The public is cynical about politics and its own leadership. It is divided about whether to turn toward Europe or tuck itself in again under the comfort of Mother Russia, depending upon regional and ethnic loyalties. The country is on the verge of running out of money, and it is yet to be seen whether the interim government in the process of being appointed will be able to stabilize the financial situation or even command the loyalty of the public.

For Ukraine to return to stability and independence, Western nations including Canada will have to work quickly to ensure appropriate action by the IMF, at whatever cost, and will have to work seamlessly together on a confidence-building strategy to ensure the shaky interim government can hold on until presidential elections in the spring. Transparency will be key; Ukrainians rightly have run out of tolerance for the obscene corruption that has come to dominate public life. Most important, and most difficult, will the West stand firm in staring down Mr. Putin? The coming weeks will not be easy. Nor is the outcome predictable.

Barbara McDougall was Secretary of State for External Affairs from 1991 to 1993.