Despite tensions with Russia, many Ukrainians have high hopes for a Western future

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Ukrainians live in fear of a Russian invasion. Their Crimean Peninsula has been taken over by Moscow. And the nation's economy has careened to the brink of collapse. Ukrainians might be forgiven for losing hope in the dreams of the protest movement that drove their corrupt president from power in February.

But polls and conversations with ordinary Ukrainians show something that may surprise: People are more confident about their future today than they were during the rule of deposed leader Viktor Yanukovych.

There are many reasons for the resolve in the face of adversity. Crisis seems to have crystallized a Ukrainian sense of identity. The new leadership, despite frequent missteps, is seen as taking on heroic challenges. And Moscow's aggression has tilted the sentiment of many Ukrainians dramatically toward the West.

Since Yanukovych was toppled, the percentage of Ukrainians who feel their country is moving in the right direction rose from 18 to 34, while those who are pessimistic about the country's course fell from 64 to 48 percent, according to polling conducted in February and April.

Under Yanukovych's rule, polls had shown Ukraine's voters to be closely divided on whether they would rather join the European Union or the Moscow-led Customs Union. The new poll found 53 percent saying they prefer the EU and just 24 percent choosing the Customs Union. From March to April, support for the cabinet of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk rose from 46 to 52 percent, while disapproval fell from 44 to 40 percent.

The nationwide polling was conducted by the International Republican Institute and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Each poll had 1,200 respondents and a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.

Andriy Poklonov, a technology worker from southern Ukraine visiting Kiev with his family, believes Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Ukrainians a new sense of purpose.

"The enemy has done a better job uniting us than all the language issues," said Poklonov, referring to historical divisions in Ukraine between Ukrainian and Russian speakers. "Our idea is Ukraine. We stand for freedom, for liberty, for unity."

After Yanukovych fled to Russia following the killing of more than 100 activists in clashes with police, the Kremlin swallowed up Crimea and placed tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border — while pro-Russian insurgents seized more than a dozen government buildings in the east to seek greater autonomy from Kiev or outright annexation by Russia.

Ukraine's new government has been less than forceful. It has launched some essential economic and anti-corruption reforms, but has struggled to find an adequate response to Russia's incursion and the unrest in the east. It put up little resistance in Crimea, issued conflicting statements and carried out indecisive, often botched security operations.

But Yatsenyuk and his government still enjoy a high level of support.

"I don't envy them, because what they are doing is crisis management that you cannot even imagine," writer Larysa Denysenko said.

Denysenko likened the crisis to painful but necessary medical treatment that will leave Ukraine stronger in the end: "We are like a cancer patient who has agreed to surgery and must now undergo chemotherapy."

Some Ukrainians believe they are fighting a delayed struggle for their country's independence. After centuries of dominance by Russia, Ukraine became an independent nation with relative ease in 1991, as the Soviet Union was crumbling and Russia itself was too weak to object. Twenty-three years later, a stronger Kremlin is now fighting to maintain dominance over its smaller neighbor.

Still, some disillusionment is emerging among Maidan supporters.

Distrustful of the new leadership, hundreds of activists continue to occupy the tent camp and some nearby buildings in downtown Kiev, saying the government has yet to deliver on promises of reform, such as a pledge to prevent corrupt officials from holding office and to punish those guilty of killing protesters.

"People have died, but in reality nothing has been done about it," said Oleh, a member of the ultranationalist group the Right Sector, who occupies Kiev's central postal office with two dozen fellow activists. "Nobody has been punished, nothing has been done." He declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals.

Opponents of Maidan are also expressing discontent. Ksenia Zubakova, 34, who teaches museum management in Kiev, says she didn't support the movement, objecting to the violence against police and the nationalist rhetoric of some protesters. Since the new government moved in, her displeasure has grown: Without Maidan, she says, Crimea would still be part of Ukraine and the east would not have revolted.

"I was born in a country where Crimea was ours. I've been going there since I was 5. For me it's insane that Crimea is Russia," Zubakova said. "The loss of human life and of territory is the worst that can happen to a country."

Volodymyr Paniotto, head of the Kiev International Sociology Institute, said that such views represent a minority in central and western regions, where residents have historically tilted more toward Europe and support for the protests was strong.

"My feeling is that most still trust the government and are ready to give it time," he said.

And hope remains strong among Maidan's true believers.

Several months ago, Natalia Snihur and her husband Yegor Kornev, both 35, were contemplating emigrating from Ukraine to secure a better life for their three children. After taking an active part in the Maidan protests, they are now planning their future here.

Recently, they attached the Ukrainian yellow-and-blue flag to their one-story house.

"Ukraine is being born; it is in labor now," Snihur said. "It is giving birth to a nation that will have a conscious national identity."