The distance between Ukraine and its giant neighbor to the east was readily apparent in today's celebration of Ukraine's 25th anniversary of independence from the USSR, if you knew where to look.
Some signs were quiet, like the marching soldiers' new, Western-style uniforms – a break from the Ukrainian military's hitherto Soviet-style appearance. Others were quite overt, such as President Petro Poroshenko's defiant talk of fighting until victory against Moscow-backed separatists in the country's troubled east.
But despite the showmanship, the reality behind the country's independence day – its third since the Maidan Revolution triggered civil conflict and a still-intensifying split with Russia – is that Ukraine's situation remains grim. Ukraine has defied terrible odds by surviving more than two years of extreme hardship, and government paralysis was relieved by a reshuffle that consolidated President Poroshenko's hold on power last April. But the economy remains stagnant, the fight against corruption and behind-the-scenes oligarchic rule has shown little progress, and there are ubiquitous signs that public patience is running out.
"The ideological goals of the Maidan Revolution are increasingly exhausted, and seem to be unattainable," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. "The West is unhappy with Ukraine for its failure to implement promised reforms. Russia is not backing down. Ukrainians are miserable for any number of good reasons. The situation is total deadlock."
Stasis in the east
Little has changed in Ukraine's outlook since last year's independence day, and a range of Russian and Ukrainian experts offered little optimism Wednesday that next year's is likely to see any significant changes.
Ukraine's most worrisome problem, highlighted by 76 percent of respondents in a recent Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) poll, remains the war in eastern Ukraine. All efforts to broker peace under the Moscow-Berlin-Paris-sponsored Minsk II peace accords have hit a brick wall with Kiev's inability to deliver constitutional changes that would give special status and greater autonomy to the two rebel republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the separatists' refusal to hold local elections under Ukrainian law. Fighting has been spiking in recent weeks, leading to fears that the deadlock will lead one or both sides to return to the battlefield.
"If we can't get constitutional changes done, then nothing will alter the relationship between Kiev and the Luhansk-Donetsk republics," says Vladimir Panchenko, an expert with the International Center of Political Studies in Kiev. "There is nothing happening right now that could influence positive change in our situation."
Russia also appears to have abandoned much of the optimism of a few months ago that the Minsk Accords might be made to work, and has returned to saber-rattling as a means to pressure Kiev. Last week, President Vladimir Putin visited Crimea, whose annexation by Russia was internationally condemned. He accused Kiev of plotting "terrorist" acts, including sabotage and assassination, while Ukraine warned that Russian troop buildups just over the border threaten to ignite "all-out war."
Mr. Putin will meet French and German leaders on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in China next month to discuss the Ukrainian crisis, but few analysts in Russia or Ukraine expect any diplomatic breakthroughs.
"Had Minsk II been implemented as it was agreed, the way would be open for a pragmatic improvement in relations between Moscow and Kiev," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "Everyone can see that the situation has become completely frozen."
Little trust in Kiev
That has soured most Ukrainians' expectations for their country's future.
The most comprehensive recent KIIS survey found that 68 percent of Ukrainians think the state of the economy is bad, 76 percent believe the country is headed "in the wrong direction," and just 14 percent trust the leadership of Mr. Poroshenko. Another red flag is that support for joining the European Union – the signature goal of the Maidan Revolution – has fallen to less than half, 46 percent, while the idea of joining NATO is at 44 percent of respondents. Ukrainian experts point out that pro-Russian policy options fare much worse in the polls, but admit that the revolutionary spirit of most Ukrainians does appear to be waning.
"The population is disillusioned. They do not trust their own authorities, and there seems to be no alternative on the horizon they can believe in," says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev.
Moreover, the survey found that 82 percent of Ukrainians now yearn for a "strong leader" with sweeping powers to save the country from its various crises. "Strange to say, many Ukrainians these days say they wish the country had a leader like Putin and was more like Russia," says Mr. Karasyov.
The growth of "Ukraine fatigue" in the West, especially events like the April referendum in the Netherlands to reject economic association with Ukraine and Britain's vote to leave the EU altogether, has contributed to the popular loss of confidence. Some analysts say the perceived anti-Ukrainian posture of Donald Trump in the US election campaign, widely covered on Ukrainian and Russian TV, is also working to demoralize Ukrainians and embolden the Kremlin.
Mr. Zharikhin, whose institute receives Kremlin support, argues that the pendulum will swing back toward better relations with Russia in the long term.
"Do you remember the Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008? It seemed that there would be hatred between our two countries forever. But never say never. Things have normalized greatly in Russia's relations with Georgia, and the same will eventually happen with Ukraine. No matter how things look now, reconciliation is in our future. Of that I am certain."