What was Uncle Sam up to in Ukraine?
When it comes to explaining how we ended up with Russia launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Europe proceeding to cut itself off from its main energy supplier, there are two main camps.
One camp says that Putin is an imperialist bent on recreating the Soviet Union, who invaded Ukraine (a country he doesn’t consider real) in order to expand Russia’s territory and population. According to this camp, there’s nothing the West could have done to prevent Putin’s invasion short of allowing Ukraine to become a hollowed-out vassal state, or arming Ukraine to the teeth in the faint hope of deterring Russian bellicosity.
The other camp says that Putin saw US/NATO involvement in Ukraine as a threat to Russian interests (including both the security of Russia itself and the interests of ethnic Russians in the Donbas), and he invaded the country as a way to neutralise that threat. According to this camp, the West could have prevented Putin’s invasion by enforcing an agreement along the lines of Minsk II, i.e., one that enshrined Ukrainian neutrality.
The key element here is US/NATO involvement, since without such involvement Kiev would never have risked provoking its larger and more powerful neighbour. Despite this, few in the second camp try to explain why the US/NATO got involved in Ukraine. Or if they do, they chalk up to “misguided policy” or “policy mistakes”; US officials were just too wedded to the principle that every state can choose its own alliances.
Yet there’s an alternative possibility: the US got involved in Ukraine in order to provoke Russia; it took the various actions that it did, starting in 2008, with the aim of inciting conflict between Russia and Ukraine (though not necessarily all-out war).
Why would it do this? Two primary reasons. First, to get a geostrategic rival bogged down in a costly and protracted conflict, thereby degrading its economy and armed forces. Second, to drive a wedge between Europe and Russia, thereby limiting future cooperation between them and cementing the power of the US-led NATO alliance.
The first reason is self-explanatory – the US wants its rivals to be less powerful. But the second requires further elaboration. What would the US have to gain by driving a wedge between Europe and Russia? In short, reduced European strategic autonomy and increased reliance on the US.