The collapse of the Soviet Union gave Ukraine statehood without an identity. Many have sought to define one by promoting a certain external orientation. As a result, much of the discussion about Ukrainian foreign policy centers on which political camp Ukraine should belong in.
Some advocate joining the Western camp as the best means for ensuring independence. Others call for reunion with Russia as the only solution to Ukraine's present difficulties. Still others seek a place in all camps.
Ukraine's official foreign policy is to become politically part of Europe while retaining economic ties with Russia. Although that policy emphasizes the pro-Western option, realistically it places Ukraine in the third category, because you cannot divorce economics from politics. Ukraine thus follows a multi-vector foreign policy, seeking to be part of the European Union while retaining an attachment to the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Seven years of enacting that policy has produced a distinct result. Ukraine is unable to join any political camp.
As an independent state, Ukraine cannot return to Russia. Moreover, to do so would be unwise. The future of Russia is uncertain. If Russia restores its undemocratic roots, there will be no room for an independent Ukraine within its grasp.
Russia and Ukraine were also hatched from the same egg, the Soviet Union. They inherited many similar problems and deficiencies. In a post-Cold War world, Ukraine's survival now depends on learning how to produce quality consumer goods, not just tanks and rockets. Such knowledge does not exist in Russia. An alliance with Russia has its limits.
As a non-capitalistic entity with rudimentary democratic credentials, Ukraine has not been accepted by the West. When it visits the West, it is only given a small handout, with the hope it goes away. It will only be taken seriously when it has achieved the same level of reform as those Central European states about to enter the European Union.
As the process of EU enlargement gains momentum, Ukraine is paying the price for its lack of real progress. Unable to obtain a commitment from the EU for associate membership, its politicians now warn of a new Iron Curtain that could descend on Europe.
If one does go up, it will not be because the European Union has sought it. The EU's first wave of eastern expansion will bring it to Ukraine's border. It will be natural for the EU to seek a close relationship with its neighbor. Eventual membership should be a normal outcome of this. It is the responsibility of Ukraine to be in a position to take advantage of the situation that will soon present itself. If a new curtain does appear, it will be of Ukraine's own making.
Although Ukraine remains very vocal about its goal of joining the EU, membership in itself will not solidify independence. There is no substitute for carrying out the necessary work within Ukraine to build statehood. That lesson was not learned when Ukraine voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1991. It was thought that the vote alone would free it from the problems of its past. The vote, however, only provided the means, not the end.
One of the old problems that has not been eliminated is the historical East-West divide. Since independence it appears half of Ukraine has waited for the West to save it, while the other hoped Russia would do the same. As long as that difference remains, so too will the question of whether an independent Ukraine can endure.
A single national identity based on a particular external orientation cannot be forged within the existing divisions that remain in Ukraine. It therefore needs to be developed from within. This identity should be based on values that can be embraced by all Ukrainians.
Ukraine's people must be able to interact within democratic institutions, using a free press and the rule of law. And they need to possess the ability to create economic wealth. If those values become the foundation of the Ukrainian identity, then the old divisions will dissipate. The people (regardless of which region they are from) will have a convincing reason for living in an independent Ukraine.
The need to develop a Ukrainian identity from within is best exemplified by the question of future NATO expansion. Today, depending on where you live in Ukraine, NATO is viewed either as a great savior or a great threat. Its discussion accentuates the existing divide. When Ukrainians can begin experiencing the benefits from living in their own state, then any question about NATO expansion could be conducted on a constructive level. Regardless of where a Ukrainian stood in the country, they would ask the same question: Does NATO membership best protect what Ukraine possesses? By consensus an answer could be obtained.
With a strong national identity Ukraine will embrace (and be embraced by) those who share its values. That will include Western Europe. It can also include Russia. The level of compatibility of the Russian identity will determine that.