A local resident fills in documents near a ballot box during a parliamentary election inside her house in the village of Fiina near Lviv, October 26, 2014. Seven months into the bloody fighting that has seized Ukraine’s east, the rest of this fractious country is pointing its face more than ever toward the West. (Stringer/Reuters)

— As eastern Ukraine’s conflict has hardened and pro-Russian rebels look likely to hold their territory for years, Andriy Sokolov, a union leader in this European-oriented city, is fantasizing about a clean break.

Seven months into the bloody fighting that has seized Ukraine’s east, the rest of this fractious country, long split between competing tugs from Europe and Russia, is pointing its face more than ever toward the West. Ukraine elected the most pro-European parliament in its history Sunday — in part because the most pro-Russian parts of the country didn’t vote at all. Now some people in western Ukraine wish their nation could just walk away from the rebels who want to be a part of Russia.

Residents of Lviv, where Soviet rule never erased elegant Austro-Hungarian architecture, have long been among the most determined in Ukraine to push their nation toward Europe. So the conflict has stirred powerfully contradictory emotions in people such as Sokolov, a leader of pro-European demonstrations here last winter, who wishes that Ukraine could shed the east even as he says that the country should fight to keep it. There are no mainstream voices suggesting Ukraine should actually spin off eastern Ukraine, since many people fear that if they don’t put up a fight, Russia will take as much of Ukraine as it can for itself.

But few here in Lviv relish fighting for a territory to which they never felt strong ties.

“I never thought Ukraine would be a part of Europe if we had Donbas. It is a depressive Soviet region,” Sokolov said in one of Lviv’s bustling coffeehouses, which are reminiscent of Vienna. “If we could talk about civilized ways to get rid of that area, I would support it.”

Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists swap 25 fighters from each side, amid a fragile cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. (Reuters)

With Russia backing the rebels against the rest of Ukraine, Sokolov said, the choice is far from simple. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March, after protesters ousted Russian-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Then it helped fuel a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine that has claimed at least 3,700 lives, according to U.N. estimates.

“We’re not fighting for the east. We’re fighting for Ukraine against Russia,” he said. “We have to stop the war there before it spreads to other parts of Ukraine.”

Since Ukraine gained its independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union split, control of this nation has seesawed between easterners and westerners. But critics say that national leaders, no matter their origin, were more focused on lining their own pockets than on building a stronger Ukraine.

Western Ukraine has long harbored anti-Russian sentiments, and an anti-Soviet insurgency based in Lviv persisted well into the 1950s. The Ukrainian language and the Catholic Church separate western Ukraine from its eastern counterpart, where the Russian language and the Orthodox Church are predominant.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, European-oriented western Ukrainians demanded more autonomy from Kiev. That desire crested in February, when anti-Yanukovych protesters, led in part by Sokolov, seized Lviv’s regional administration building, the local outpost of the central government.

That meant that when pro-
Russian demonstrators in the east did the same thing two months later in Donetsk, some western Ukrainians at first withheld judgment. The escalation into armed conflict quickly obliterated what might have been a more peaceful national discussion about decentralizing Ukrainian authority.

“A lot of people are asking how we can live in one country with people who wanted to be part of Russia and were killing us. I don’t have an answer for that,” said Otar Dovzhenko, a journalism professor and blogger at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv who participated in the pro-European demonstrations in the winter.

“In my heart, I feel it would be easier to live apart from these people,” he said. “By my reason, I know we have to keep fighting for the territory.”

Many people in Lviv say that Ukraine’s history, caught between shifting empires, makes them particularly cautious about any discussion of changing their borders. Portions of southwest Ukraine might fly off to Romania, other parts to Hungary. Lviv itself was once a part of Poland, whose border lies just 30 miles away.

Poland’s post-Soviet success has helped push Lviv’s attitudes toward Europe. Poland’s economy was about the same as Ukraine’s in 1991 but has since tripled.

Former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski last month told Politico that Russian President Vladimir Putin once spoke to the Polish premier about divvying Ukraine between Russia and Poland. Sikorski quickly retracted the accusation. But the fact that the discussion was even remotely plausible attests to Ukraine’s perilous position.

Politicians say they are working to stitch the country back together.

“This problem didn’t appear in a day,” said Andriy Sadovyi, the mayor of Lviv, speaking about eastern Ukraine.

“For 20 years, the Ukrainian government did nothing to make them feel more Ukrainian. And Russia played a good game,” said Sadovyi, who fought on the side of the pro-European demonstrators and whose new Self-Help political party made a strong showing in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.

As the conflict in the east escalated over the summer, more and more western Ukrainians volunteered to join the battle, seeing it as an existential threat to their nation. Some of the volunteers came from the Right Sector, the far-right nationalist group whose base is in Lviv and that has been demonized in Russia for ties to neo-Nazism. Some moderates also moved quickly from the pro-European demonstrations to the eastern battlefield.

“People will fight to the end,” said Nazar, 27, a Lviv native and soldier who was mobilized to fight near the Luhansk airport this summer, the scene of particularly bitter combat. Fearing retaliation, he spoke on the condition that his last name not be published. “If it were a domestic problem, that would be one thing. But this is a foreign invasion,” he said.

Thousands of refugees from the fighting in eastern Ukraine have streamed westward to Lviv, a development that has served as a vivid reminder that not all eastern Ukrainians wanted to secede from Ukraine. Opinion polls conducted in eastern Ukraine before the hostilities deepened showed that most residents there wanted to remain part of a single country.

Some in Lviv cite that as a reason they want to keep fighting to preserve the country, although attitudes in eastern Ukraine have probably hardened toward Kiev after months of conflict.

The reception for eastern Ukrainian refugees in Lviv and elsewhere has been decidedly mixed. Many refugees say they have been treated poorly by local residents, who blame them for starting the conflict.

Apartment owners “don’t want to rent to people from the east,” said Yevgenia Ivanova, a former resident of Donetsk who has tried for two months to find an apartment in Lviv where she could live with her husband and 2-year-old son and only moved into one last week.

“They believe that in total, all people from the east are angry beasts. They don’t understand that not everybody is the same,” she said. Ivanova said she had started to try to speak Ukrainian at home to fit in better. But she also said that many volunteers had helped her with food and supplies.

Others are getting more tired of war, including some soldiers. Mothers and wives of soldiers have rallied several times in Lviv to campaign for their family members to be rotated home from the front after long deployments. In Kiev last month, several hundred members of the national guard rallied against mobilization.

“They shouldn’t send any more of our boys there. They’re not well-equipped,” said Oksana Alyoshyna, the mother of a soldier who came to a parents’ protest in Lviv last week.

With rebel-held territories set to conduct elections Sunday, Ukraine’s divisions are poised to harden even more. The rest of Ukraine will face the question of how hard to fight for those territories it has lost.

“Many people say it’s now more possible to have policy with more perspective, government with more perspective, because these regions kept Ukraine in a
Soviet mentality,” said Myroslav Marynovich, the vice rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University. “Those same people would say that they are not for the division of Ukraine. These are diametrically opposed visions.”