When someone mentions Ukraine nowadays, Russia automatically springs to mind. What will happen next: Will it be war or peace?
As soon as Russian President Vladimir Putin moved to attack the eastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in an attempt to build a bridge to already annexed Crimea, the West would feel obliged to react. And then it would quickly become apparent that the West is not united.
It would also bring to the fore another problem that has so far been hidden by the conflict with Russia: The problem between Europe and America. At that point, many in Washington would want to send arms to Ukraine. In Brussels, very few would. In Berlin, no one would. That would give rise to another question: What do the Americans really want in Ukraine?
A few months ago, the Ukrainians asked the United States for tanks and missile defense systems. They received instead 300 American military advisors, off-road vehicles and night-vision equipment. That was all the help for a country at war. Anyone attempting to measure the gap between the Ukrainian wishes and American response will see that there hasn’t been anything more than gestures and symbolism so far. But what does that actually mean?
To understand the American relationship to Ukraine, it’s necessary to go back to the beginning. Back in 1991, President George H. W. Bush traveled to Kiev. The Cold War was over. The Soviet Union still existed, but it was crumbling. The West had won. What now?
Mr. Bush had no interest in seeing the complete collapse of the Soviet Union. He feared there would no longer be an organizing power in the region. Which is why he appeared before the Ukrainian parliament to warn against the drive for independence and "suicidal nationalism."
The Ukrainians paid no heed, voting in a December 1991 nationwide referendum – including Crimea – for independence. There was no way Washington could ignore that, so cooperation with Kiev was strengthened.
The nuclear weapons in Ukraine, in cooperation with Russia, were destroyed. Ukrainian soldiers received training in the United States.
In the second half of the 1990s, Ukraine had more military cooperation with the United States than with any other country. Not even with Russia. There were dreams of joining NATO, even while Ukraine’s Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was in power. The Russians didn’t seem to mind much.
But such harmony didn’t last long. As Ukraine’s economic and political reforms stagnated and corruption remained rampant, the Americans slowly lost interest in the country. Only after Mr. Yanukovych, suspected of vote fraud, was kept from ascending to the presidency by the 2004 Orange Revolution did U.S. attention revive.
In December 2004 Viktor Yushchenko was elected Ukrainian president, guaranteeing closer ties with America, especially since his wife grew up there and had even worked for the U.S. State Department for a time.
It’s then that the theories of U.S. meddling in Ukraine started to gain traction. The British journalist Ian Traynor claimed in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian that the Yushchenko campaign was an American plot, citing as evidence American payments to train election observers and protest groups, as well as American financed polls designed to back up accusations of Mr. Yanukovych’s vote fraud.
Not many believe Mr. Traynor’s theory, but one person who does is the respected Professor John Mearsheimer, who teaches political science at the University of Chicago. He says that Washington continues to try to influence Ukraine even a decade after the Orange Revolution. He’s convinced that the Maidan protests – eventually responsible for the ousting of Mr. Yanukovych on February 22, 2014 – were several years in the making and backed by American cash. A putsch. "America wanted a change, because it wanted to gain influence over Ukraine," Prof. Mearsheimer says.
It’s at this point that a large sum of money and a telephone call become part of the story.
Victoria Nuland, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, spoke of $5 billion, or €4.5 billion, for Ukraine in a call to the American ambassador in Kiev on January 28, 2014. That was just a few weeks before Mr. Yanukovych was chased out of the country. Ms. Nuland also spoke of whom from the opposition could join the new government as if she could influence such things. That all came to light after the conversation was tapped and made public – apparently by a Ukrainian intelligence service officer still loyal to Mr. Yanukovych.