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In Independence Square in Kiev on Feb. 6, a woman lights a candle in honour of the Ukrainian soldiers killed fighting in Eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

Sergei Chuzavkov/AP

Ukraine has been bleeding for a year now. And it's getting harder to predict when the fighting will end.

But emerging from all this bloodshed is something that arguably didn't exist before the country's convulsions: a genuine sense of national identity, perhaps even unity.

It was a year ago Wednesday that Kiev was rocked by the deadliest clashes of the uprising that would eventually force the government of Viktor Yanukovych from power. Tens of thousands of pro-Western protesters marched toward Ukraine's parliament on Feb. 18, 2014, only to be blocked by Mr. Yanukovych's riot police. The bullets flew from both sides and 26 people – most of them protesters – were killed, setting in motion Mr. Yanukovych's downfall and flight to Russia three days later.

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At the time, it was viewed as a massive geopolitical defeat for Moscow. Ukraine, it seemed, was on a course to slide free of the Kremlin's orbit, moving closer to the European Union and NATO.

A year later, nothing is so clear. Feb. 18, 2015 brought another massive gunfight, this time in the eastern town of Debaltseve, where Russian-backed separatists routed a large Ukrainian army force that was forced to retreat. The number of dead and wounded is still being counted. Ukraine says 22 of its soldiers were killed in the city; rebel sources say the real number of dead – and thus the scale of Ukraine's military defeat – is much greater.

A year of shooting, and Ukraine has shrunk. Infuriated by what it saw as a Western-backed "coup" in Kiev, Russia sent soldiers into the Crimean Peninsula last March and then annexed it following a controversial referendum there.

Next came armed uprisings, and declarations of independence, in southeastern Donetsk and Lugansk, a region collectively known as the Donbass. Like Crimea, these regions are predominantly Russian-speaking, with their economies closely tied to the giant neighbour to the east. Come any election, Crimea and the Donbass voted heavily in favour of Mr. Yanukovych, or whoever the Kremlin-backed candidate was.

It's fair to say that the trouble that erupted in those parts of Ukraine was largely made in Moscow, but it's also important to recognize that the Russified residents of Donetsk, Lugansk and Crimea never wanted what the rest of the country did.

The EU trade pact that people in Kiev and Lviv were fighting for – and dying for – to get their government to sign was viewed as a threat to the economies of the south and southeast, where residents feared it would mean losing access to the Russian market their mining and manufacturing jobs depended on. (Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko did eventually sign the EU trade deal, though its implementation has been delayed until next year.)

That's all bad news for fans of Ukrainian unity, at least for those who believe Ukraine's pre-revolution borders must somehow be re-established.

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The hard truth is that won't happen. Russia is not giving Crimea back any time soon. Not while Vladimir Putin is in the Kremlin, and no successor will easily hand it to Ukraine either. Russia's "reunion" with Crimea – which was part of the Russian Empire for 200 years until Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to then-Soviet Ukraine in 1954 – is almost universally popular among Russians.

Mr. Putin was exaggerating when said in December that Crimea was as important to Russians as Temple Mount in Jerusalem is to Jews and Muslims. But even his most prominent critic, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, has been forced to make clear that he also wouldn't return Crimea to Ukraine if he were president. To say otherwise would alienate too many potential supporters.

Donetsk and Lugansk, similarly, are lost to Ukraine for at least a generation. Even if the Ukrainian military had the ability to recapture the regions, the population there has no love for the government that has shelled their cities for the past 10 months. Kremlin-owned television calls Mr. Poroshenko's government "fascist." That's scoffed at in Kiev and the West (and among those who fled the new "people's republics") but it's now an accepted truth among most of those who still live in the separatist-controlled areas.

You've had to read all the way to here to get to the good news, but it's important stuff nonetheless.

A year ago, Ukraine was deeply divided. Large Russian-speaking cities like Kharkiv and Odessa were viewed as susceptible to the kind of subterfuge (propaganda plus the famous "little green men" that first appeared in Crimea) that ignited the war in the Donbass. There were running street fights between those in Kharkiv and Odessa who supported the revolution in Kiev, and those who favoured Mr. Putin's idea of a "Novorossiya" – or "New Russia" – being formed from south and eastern Ukraine.

Today, Kharkiv and Odessa are more firmly in the Ukrainian fold than ever before in the country's 24 years of modern independence. They've seen what Novorossiya means in Donetsk and Lugansk – war, accompanied by thugocracy – and they've rejected it. Opinion polls show that Mr. Putin, who was previously admired in both cities, is now an object of anger and scorn. You can buy toilet paper with the Russian President's face on it.

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Some of Mr. Putin's war aims are now within reach. The military victory in Debaltseve makes it clear that Ukraine will eventually have to accept his terms. When the fighting stops, Donetsk and Lugansk will get autonomy, and the "frozen conflict" that seems likely to result will give the Kremlin its desired veto over Ukraine ever joining NATO.

But the rest of Ukraine will never admire and respect Mr. Putin the way it did before. Ukrainians, who have wandered about looking for a self-definition for the past 24 years, are now clear about one important thing: They want what they see on their western border, not what's to their east. They are Ukrainian, and being Ukrainian – whatever language they speak – is different from being Russian.

When I arrived in Kiev in December, 2013, to cover some of the early protests against Mr. Yanukovych, I called up an old contact who I had first met while reporting on the Orange Revolution of nine years before. That first pro-Western uprising foundered against Ukraine's old divisions, allowing Mr. Yanukovych to regain power in 2010.

What, I asked, was different about this time? Wouldn't the circle just repeat itself?

"This time," she told me, "we don't care if Donbass and Crimea are with us."

In those words, spoken 14 months before we got to here, she predicted much of what has happened since. The country, with outside help, has fractured. Donbass and Crimea are more Russified than before.

And the rest of the country is more proudly Ukrainian than it has ever been.

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