A mere two weeks away from the beginning of the World Cup, an adage from a legendary German national soccer team coach helps us consider the situation in Ukraine. Sepp Herberger, who helped to lead Germany to an improbable 1954 world championship, was fond of saying that “after the match is before the match.” The aftermath of an important game, he meant to tell his players, is already part of the next challenge, and should be treated just as seriously. He also liked to remind his players that a “match lasts ninety minutes.” It’s not over before it’s over, he meant.

So what does this mean for Ukraine?

For Ukraine, May 25th was an important milestone, with elections as free and fair as one could have possibly hoped for under extremely challenging circumstances. But the long path to stabilize and reform Ukraine is just beginning, right now, after the election. Europe, in particular, would commit the gravest of errors if this basic point were ignored as we move forward. Ukraine will require steady and strong support. This will cost money, lots of money. And finding new ways to engage Russia will continue to be a daunting, yet essential task both for European and Ukrainian leaders.

In fact, the days and weeks right after the election may well be the most critical ones since the crisis began. If the Ukrainian government continues to act with military force against separatists who won’t accept the election results, further Russian action could be triggered. Were Russia to offer continued covert or open support to those on the ground who oppose the election results, further sanctions could follow, which could escalate the conflict or split the West. The crisis in Ukraine is complex and full of ambiguities. 

In any case, the election alone will not nearly be enough to end the conflict in Ukraine. On the one hand, the new president’s first few weeks in office are essential. His actions and signals will have to be measured and smart. In my role as co-chair of the OSCE-sponsored roundtables over the past few weeks, I have met countless individuals from all parts of Ukraine. Yes, there is anxiety, unhappiness about the economy, a grave concern about what comes next, and deep mistrust and suspicion in the East regarding the central government in Kiev. But separatist tendencies are not nearly as strong as some have been suggesting.

The government knows that it needs to engage the East and address the people’s grievances. President Porochenko now has the chance and the obligation to do so. He must demonstrate that he wants to be a president for all Ukrainians — even those who were not able to vote, did not want to vote, or voted for a different candidate.

One element of this process could be a continuation and a refinement of the Round Table approach, maybe as both national and regional meetings. After all, the pre-election round tables did help to calm things down and create a somewhat more positive atmosphere of national purpose. Similarly, it will be essential for the oligarchs to use their enormous clout as constructively as some of them have done in recent days. They, too, have to be measured and smart. And while it is understandable that they want to protect their commercial interests, they have begun to understand that they can only do this if they defend the common good.

On the other hand, to resolve this crisis, more active and consistent international engagement will also be needed. Ukrainians alone cannot overcome the crisis themselves without a strong and useful mechanism through which key international players accompany and support the process.

This is where the idea of an international contact group comes into play again. The group could consist of the so-called “Geneva parties” — Russia, the EU, and the US — a group which met once on April 17, but unfortunately without agreeing on a follow-up process. It should be supported by the OSCE. Whatever its precise composition, this Contact Group could support Ukraine in defining her place in the European security architecture, in building trust, and in reducing and eliminating the recent tensions with Russia. The key point is that Ukraine cannot and should not have to sit at the table with Russia alone, and such a Contact Group is the best instrument available to include Russia in this process.

Obstacles abound, of course. If the West and Russia can’t even come close to agreeing on who has actually fulfilled their obligations under the Geneva agreements, a Contact Group won’t help much. And a lot hinges on Russia fully accepting the outcome of the election — and acting accordingly when dealing with the separatists.

The most challenging international issue is the Russian demand of a neutral Ukraine. Some, including Henry Kissinger, have suggested Finland as the model. It would, as they argue, be beneficial for everyone if Ukraine served as a bridge to Russia, just as Helsinki did during the Cold War in providing a space for critical talks on human rights and arms control.

But the Finnish model should also mean that Ukraine is fundamentally free to choose. We should not put our signature under a treaty excluding EU and NATO membership for all time, as that would run counter to fundamental tenets of Western policy and principles. The Finnish model should mean that Ukraine could one day be a member of the EU and that Ukraine makes its own decisions regarding neutrality, non-alignment, and NATO membership application. The question is whether this type of Finland model would be acceptable to Russia as a long-term solution.

Thus, while there is reason for some guarded optimism after the election, extremely difficult work lies ahead. What we must not do is to consider the election to be some sort of end point. It was a badly needed step forward. But in many ways, after the election is before the election. And, as German coach Herberger was also fond of saying, “the next match is always the most difficult one.”

Representing the OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Ambassador Ischinger recently co-moderated a series of Round Table discussions in Ukraine in order to promote a broad national dialogue. A shorter version of this comment appeared in the Financial Times on 26 May, 2014.