The EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) is facing a serious test. By the time the leaders of the union and the six partner countries—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—meet in Vilnius for their summit in November, they will have made important decisions on the future of what can be called the “new Eastern Europe.”

For the EU, the main issue is about its willingness and ability, in principle, to welcome its Eastern neighbors as potential future members. For the partners, the key question is what they want to be, and which direction they want to take.

Since the EaP was initiated five years ago, there has been only a moderate amount of progress in some partner countries on the core issues of human rights and the rule of law, and no progress at all in other states.

The partnership, however, has not only been about human rights. The deep and comprehensive free trade agreement now being negotiated would result in the partners agreeing to about 80 percent of the acquis communautaire, the accumulated body of EU law. Also in the pipeline are association agreements between the EU and Eastern European states.

Some in the EU, including Sweden, which initiated the project, together with Poland, would deny that the EaP is about geopolitics. However, it is difficult to ignore the geopolitical aspect of the exercise. At the very time that the EaP was formally inaugurated in 2009, Moscow launched its own Eurasian integration project, which already includes one EaP participant, Belarus. It may soon include another, Armenia, and is being offered to a third, Ukraine. Even if officials in Brussels and Moscow would deny it, there seems to be a growing competition between Europe and Russia over the new Eastern Europe.

This competition centers on Ukraine, Europe’s largest country by area outside Russia, with a population of 46 million. Many in Europe see this contest in traditional terms as a tug-of-war over spheres of influence. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukraine is indispensable for the creation of a Moscow-led power center in Eurasia, which has become the main thrust of his foreign policy. Such a power center, if it were built, would put Russia in a much stronger position vis-à-vis its principal neighbors and rivals in Eurasia—the EU to the west, and China to the east.

Yet, the image of a competition for spheres of influence plays down the key issue: the domestic processes in Ukraine and the other countries involved. Within the new Eastern Europe itself, “Europe” and “Russia” stand not so much for external geopolitical constructs, but rather for certain patterns of economic, social, and political organization, as well as competing sets of societal values.

For Ukraine’s ruling elite, for instance, the ideal situation would be to perpetuate their hold on power at home (a sort of a “Russia” with Ukrainian characteristics) while insisting on their independence vis-à-vis Russia as a state (which necessitates a reasonably close relationship with the EU). In less idealistic and more practical terms, Ukraine’s foreign policy often comes down to getting the best of both worlds as much as possible.

Neither the Armenians nor even the Belarusians are strangers to the game of playing off the EU and Russia against each other, but the Ukrainians are the grand masters of it. In fact, the present leadership in Kiev feels rather comfortable in what others see as a gray zone or a no-man’s-land. As long as Ukraine’s leaders can manage both suitors, they do not need to accept any obligations.

This game, however, can only be played for so long. Much as Putin wants Ukraine in his Eurasian Union, he is not prepared to pay just any price to have Kiev in, and Russia has neither the power nor the intention to reintegrate Ukraine against its will. Similarly, even if some Europeans wanted to save Ukraine from reabsorption by Russia, they would not be able to close their eyes to the way Ukraine is managed—or mismanaged—by its own elites.

In the run-up to the Vilnius EaP summit, relations between the EU and Russia have entered a new phase. Ideas of a broad EU-Russia association, born out of the fall of Soviet Communism and sustained for over two decades, have been de facto laid to rest by both parties.

This change in the EU-Russian geopolitical environment has important consequences for the Eastern Europeans. They will need to make a choice between east and west, taking a number of factors into account. Some, like Georgia, will reaffirm their European vocation. Others, like Belarus and possibly Armenia, will move even closer to Russia. Oil-rich Azerbaijan can afford to remain an outlier, while Moldova will face the choice between being a “second Romanian state” and a hard-to-implement vision of a multicultural crossroads.

As for Ukraine, decision time will come not in November 2013 in Vilnius, but in 2015, when the country’s next presidential elections will be held. To go east, an elite decision may suffice. To go west, the public needs to be engaged.