Russia vs. the West in Ukraine?

A protester holds a Ukrainian flag during an opposition rally on December 3, 2013.
Image caption Massive street protests are putting the international spotlight on Ukraine

The Ukrainian government's decision to back away from an association agreement with the EU has all the components of a Big Story: mass street protests and violent police crackdowns under the shadow of a geopolitical showdown between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the West.

This could be "the story of the year in Europe," writes Bloomberg View's Leonid Bershidsky. The protests are no longer about the EU, he contends, but "regime change" - if only a leader will step forward to harness the protest's energy.

"Ukrainians know that the major modernization required for EU integration may be beyond their country's means," Mr Bershidsky writes. "What they really want is freedom and a government they can trust. If they don't get their wish now, the yearning will still be there, ready to burst forth at the slightest provocation."

Revolution is also on the mind of RealClearWorld's Alex Berezow:

The future of Ukraine is with the EU, not Russia. Demographically and economically, Russia's future is bleak. Mr. Putin remains in control largely through bribing enough Russians (using oil and natural gas money) to support his regime. This is not the sort of country upon which Ukraine should be staking its future. If it takes a popular uprising to bring about this realization, so be it.

David J Kramer, president of Freedom House, writes in the Washington Post that Mr Yanukovych is holding onto power so he can benefit from corruption and punish his political enemies. (Freedom House, it is worth noting, has drawn Russian criticism in the past for backing democracy movements in former Soviet states, including Ukraine during its 2004 "Orange revolution".)

"Yanukovych placed his personal interests above those of his country, and many Ukrainians have decided, as in 2004, that they have had enough of his corrupt and increasingly authoritarian rule," Mr Kramer writes. He calls for targeted economic sanctions to punish the Ukrainian government if it continues to order police crackdowns on protesters.

The recurring theme in recent commentary is that the Ukrainian people have a choice between Western democracy and Russian corruption. The Telegraph's Alex Spillius puts it starkly:

No matter how dull the language of the trade deal, and how limited its scope, it offered a vision that a majority of Ukrainians support, but which Yanukovych has now frustratingly put out of reach. What he has offered instead is a vision of Ukraine's substandard present extended into the future: suspect elections, selective justice and corruption so rampant that the country is commonly ranked as the worst on the European continent. In other words, a vision of Ukraine as the post-Soviet satellite it is today.

But is it this black and white? And was this confrontation inevitable, or did the EU needlessly antagonise Russia?

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Media captionKennan Institute president Matt Rojansky says Ukraine's Yanukovych miscalculated when he backed away from the association deal with the EU

Kennan Institute President Matthew Rojansky told BBC America's Katty Kay on Monday that the Russia-versus-the-West drama can be overemphasised, however.

"This is a very easy and convenient trope, I think, for people who have long experience in the region to fall into, rather than taking responsibility for the hardest questions," he said. "How do you reform a bureaucracy which is a kleptocracy, in which people simply enrich themselves by stealing from the state and by essentially extorting ordinary people trying to make money in business?"

Nicolai N Petro writes in the New York Times that the EU made a strategic error when it forced Ukraine to choose between the EU and Russia.

"Instead of adopting a strategy that would have allowed Ukraine to capitalize on its close cultural, religious and economic ties with Russia, and which could have also served to build deeper ties between Western Europe and Russia, from the outset European negotiators went out of their way to turn Union association into a loyalty test," he writes.

"This isn't necessarily a zero-sum equation, and I think the important thing to remember is most Ukrainians are not seeing this as an anti-Russia protest," Mr Rojansky said. "They're not pouring out into the streets because they dislike Russia. They're pouring out into the streets because although they're very close to Russia... they're fundamentally a European country, and they're frustrated and sick of Soviet-style government, of corruption, of this personalisation of power. And that's the message they're trying to send to Yanukovych."