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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.

$5 billion to buy an entire revolution?

At first glance, $5 billion is a hefty sum of money – but is it hefty enough to buy an entire revolution?

The money flowed from 1991 to 2014. Most of it from the U.S. State Department, which handles foreign affairs, and its development arm USAID, which was set up by John F. Kennedy. He saw it as successor to the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe after the Second World War.

The agency’s funds come from the U.S. federal budget. In 2016, USAID will have $22.3 billion to spend worldwide, but it has to stick to the president’s foreign policy guidelines. It is therefore a political instrument that is never completely without a political goal in mind. But how will that money be used exactly?

The Kiev offices of USAID are on the edge of the Ukrainian capital, on the same compound as the U.S. Embassy. It’s a gigantic building surrounded by a high fence.

Ann Marie Yastishock, the deputy regional USAID director, has frequently had to answer questions about the money. "We don’t finance revolutions, we support civil society and NGOs," she said. "We financed neither the Orange Revolution nor the Maidan protests in 2014. Those were citizens out there at the Maidan, rising up against their corrupt government."

USAID became active in Ukraine in 1992 at the behest of the Ukrainian government, just as it did in Russia, Georgia and many other post-Soviet countries. "We thought at the time that we would be here at most 20 years and then everything here would blossom," Ms. Yastishock remembers.

America has supported many projects with the money since then with the intention of helping strengthen democracy: Anti-corruption groups, election monitoring, parliamentary expertise. Much more money was spent on health projects, environmental projects and economic development.

But the expenditures have decreased substantially over the years. It was still $195.6 million in 2011, but that had shrunk by 2014 to just $86.1 million. Only in 2015 did that figure rise a little.

Could such amounts have led to people risking their lives during the long weeks of struggle at Maidan?

Mr. Putin seems to think so. He sees the foreign money as interference in the domestic affairs of a country. That’s why NGOs in Russia that receive money from abroad are now subject to the country’s foreign agent law. American NGOs are no longer allowed to operate there. The foundation of the U.S. investor George Soros had to shut down its HIV and methadone projects, helping contribute to Russia’s increasing HIV infection rate.

Mr. Putin, on the other hand, has invested heavily in a number of NGOs meant to increase Russia’s influence abroad since the Orange Revolution in 2004. Starting in 2012, $130 million has flown each year into organizations operating in post-Soviet countries and the Balkans, but particularly in Ukraine.

The overall amount is growing, according to a soon-to-be-released study from the respected London-based think tank Chatham House, which is predominately funded by international corporations. The study shows a huge network in service of Russian interests using fear-mongering and manipulation to influence a country’s populace and attempt to bias it against the West. The biggest difference to the American soft power concept is that Russia isn’t trying to win anyone over with the attractiveness of its own model, but rather makes use of economic pressure and political intimidation.

But even someone failing to see a difference between Russian and American influence has to recognize that neither side now has the upper hand and neither is seriously in any position to steer the course of Ukrainian history. The Ukrainians, just as they did when Bush Senior spoke to them, have always decided their own future.

And it should stay that way, because it could be a highly dangerous scenario if Ukraine became a geostrategic playing field for foreign powers. For example, what would happen if a U.S. president unwilling to ignore Russian provocations, such as a U.S. Republican like John McCain, came to power?

President Barack Obama thinks differently. He avoids conflicts with Mr. Putin and would prefer to leave the problem with Europe, that is, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"Shortly after the annexation of Crimea by Putin there was the policy of not doing anything to provoke the Russians," says Karen Donfried, Mr. Obama’s former Europe advisor. A high-ranking advisor in the White House connects the dots: "We can’t deal with the Ukraine problem in an isolated fashion, since there are other interests as well. We want to keep open our lines of communication with the Russians on topics such as Syria, Islamic State, Assad or Afghanistan." In other words: Mr. Obama believes he still needs the Russians.

In Kiev, the co-founder of the independent broadcaster Hromadske TV, which is financed by Ukrainian citizens, as well as donations from E.U. foundations and the Dutch and American embassies, says that it’s become harder to get money from the Americans. And that’s despite the fact that independent media in Ukraine can only exist with outside help.

Ukrainian TV channels, all owned by the country’s oligarchs, simply can’t be trusted. The Americans, however, are hesitant. They want to avoid at all costs any semblance of meddling.

Back in Washington there are still memories of Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, when relations between the Bush administration and Russia had reached a low point. America had previously lavished Georgia with massive amounts of money and weapons in an attempt to build a strategic bridgehead in the southern Caucasus region. But as Russia marched into Georgia, it wasn’t prepared to intervene. Washington’s Russian policy lay in tatters.

A year later, Mr. Obama became president and attempted to restart ties with Russia. From the economy to disarmament, there were many common interests. Karen Donfried says: "We were honestly convinced that Russia had decided to cooperate with the West instead of risking an open military conflict. We were just as surprised by the events on the Maidan as by Putin’s reaction to them. We knew, of course, that Russia had reacted sensitively to the NATO expansion. But we never thought that it would react in such a way to an E.U. association agreement."

Because Mr. Obama wants to avoid an escalation of the conflict, he’s continued to speak out against arms shipments. Anyone supplying weapons would simply fuel the logic of an arms race. Mr. Putin wouldn’t watch idly, he would send more weapons into eastern Ukraine. That’s why Mr. Obama has up until now ignored those in Washington demanding a more hawkish course of action against Russia.

Ukraine is not an American priority, according to the government advisor, the White House is merely trying to improve the security situation there.

American interest in Ukraine has ebbed and flowed dramatically over the past quarter century. Sometimes it wanted to help build up the country’s democratic society, while other times it wanted to contain its strategic rival Russia. Should the situation escalate anew in the coming months, America will likely change its policy yet again. Barack Obama will then have to again consider sending weapons. His political opponents and some of his political allies will ask him the following question: Should America tolerate such behavior from Mr. Putin?

And then there will be that problem again between America and Europe.

Translated by Marc Young

This article originally appeared in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the authors: diezeit@zeit.de