Dec. 3 (Bloomberg) -- After nights of chaos, a restless calm reigns in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. Black-helmeted riot police face off against protesters behind barricades. The city hall is trashed, occupied by revolutionaries, and the country teeters on the edge of either revolution or martial law.

Regrettably, the only outside power that could guide this explosive situation to a positive and nonviolent conclusion is the disunited and distracted European Union.

The sudden refusal by President Viktor Yanukovych’s kleptocratic regime to sign a trade agreement with the EU triggered the popular unrest more than a week ago. Self-appointed representatives for the uprising have called on the crowds to storm Ukraine’s legislature, after the opposition parties failed today to topple the government with a no-confidence vote. Meanwhile, ominous rumors of a military crackdown are swirling.

Any Russian involvement in resolving the standoff would only inflame the street further, because Yanukovych made his U-turn on the EU trade deal under Russian pressure. The U.S. has sharply reduced its presence in the region since the heady days of the so-called colored revolutions that former President George W. Bush embraced as part of his global democracy drive.

By a twist of fate, however, the EU has an ideal opportunity this week to shape events in Ukraine. Starting Thursday, the annual ministerial meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the only international organization that brings together all North American, European and post-Soviet countries, will take place in Kiev because Ukraine holds the rotating chairmanship of the group.

Junior Ministers

Traditionally, it was the foreign ministers of member states who attended these meetings, but with the decline of the OSCE as a top-tier security organization junior ministers have increasingly taken their places. The offices of U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague and France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, confirmed in phone calls today that they aren’t planning to attend. Germany’s Guido Westerwelle has indicated he is uncertain to come, as did Sweden’s Carl Bildt, a proponent of a more muscular EU foreign policy, and Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister of Poland.

Europe’s 28 foreign ministers need to change their plans. Attending the Kiev meeting would allow them to demonstrate to Ukrainians, and to Russia, that on this issue the EU is united - - and cares.

Endorsing this plan, Estonian President Toomas Ilves told me last weekend that bringing the EU foreign ministers to Kiev would be “The mother of all CNN defenses.” In other words, the occasion to use the glare of the TV news networks to dissuade Yanukovych from resorting to further brutality.

But it won’t be enough to simply turn up. The EU’s foreign ministers need to spell out to Ukraine’s government that they will have no tolerance for further violence. They should warn officials contemplating a crackdown that they could face visa blacklists -– no idle threat for an elite fond of Austrian bank accounts and London property.

The EU ministers also should meet with the protesters, and be filmed doing so, demonstrating that the bloc still believes its own rhetoric on freedom and civil rights. After years of retrenchment and so-called enlargement fatigue, the EU needs to show it can still think strategically about its eastern neighbors and remains committed to the spread of democracy. Like it or not, the EU is now in a geopolitical struggle with Russia over Ukraine. It must demonstrate that it cares enough to take risks.

Warning Protesters

At the same time, the EU’s foreign ministers should tell the protest leaders that thuggish behavior by ultranationalists in the crowds undermines their cause, and that the EU won’t support calls for revolution or the unconstitutional removal of Yanukovych. Early elections must be the way forward.

The EU should offer to mediate between the two sides, and OSCE’s election monitors -- who played such a pivotal role in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution -- should be directed to ensure a fair count in any election.

The EU is used to waiting for leadership from the U.S., but this time it won’t come. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be in Israel and has already said he won’t attend the OSCE meeting. That leaves the EU no choice but to take the lead.

Many EU countries will be tempted to leave Ukraine to its fate -- they have consistently resisted offering the country the prospect of eventual membership in the bloc. There is more at risk than just the fate of Ukraine, though. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to reunite post-Soviet states into an economic and political union. With Ukraine’s large industrial base and 46 million people, this Eurasian Union could champion its own set of values, and political and economic model, against the EU’s. Or to paraphrase former U.S. Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski, Russia with Ukraine can become an empire again.

Without Ukraine, Putin’s union would be little more than a Russian-led support group for dependent client autocracies: Belarus and Kazakhstan -– with the possible additions of the small and impoverished states of Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Europe has yet to challenge Putin’s ambition. At stake is what kind of Europe will develop -– either one of sovereign states or one of spheres of influence. It isn’t for nothing that some protesters in Kiev have held up placards saying “No to Yalta,” a reference to the 1945 conference where Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt carved postwar Europe into Soviet and Western zones. The protesters understand that it isn’t just an EU trade agreement in the balance. They are protecting Ukraine’s independence, a cause well worth EU support.

(Ben Judah is the author of “Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin.”)

To contact the writer of this article: Ben Judah at bjudah@esiweb.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net.