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What Rand Paul’s Russia exchange with Antony Blinken was really about

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on April 26 said while there was no “justification” for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there were “reasons” for the invasion. (Video: Reuters)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has made waves yet again for his questioning of a government official at a Senate hearing — this time, Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

But the exchange has been somewhat misconstrued, and the reaction carries lessons about how the domestic debate over NATO has evolved.

The focal point was Paul’s invoking Ukraine’s status as a former Soviet republic, saying of Russian forces that “the countries they’ve attacked were part of Russia.” (He quickly corrected himself to say “Soviet Union.”) Some argued that this echoed Russian propaganda — Vladimir Putin has said Ukraine “is not a country” — or even that Paul was justifying the invasion.

But Paul’s point was more nuanced: that if Ukraine were admitted into NATO, that could lead (or even would lead) to a NATO-vs.-Russia confrontation, and that the idea was provocative to Russia. And, relatively recently, this wasn’t exactly a fringe view.

Paul suggested that if Ukraine had joined NATO, U.S. troops would be fighting in Ukraine right now. (This is highly debatable, for reasons we’ll get to.)

Blinken responded: “My judgment is different. If you look at the countries that Russia has attacked over the last years — Georgia, leaving forces in Transnistria in Moldova, and then repeatedly Ukraine — these were countries that were not part of NATO. It has not attacked NATO countries for probably a very good reason.”

Paul quickly offered a different emphasis. It wasn’t that Russia had attacked only non-NATO countries, it was that Russia had attacked former Soviet republics — the implication being those that countries’ accession to NATO wouldn’t be the same as, say, Poland’s membership in NATO.

“You could also argue the countries they’ve attacked were part of Russia,” Paul said, before correcting himself to say the Soviet Union.

Blinken took exception to this framing and shifted the terms of their debate. He suggested that Paul was calling into question Ukraine’s right to self-determination and intimating that Russia might have been justified in invading because of a shared history with Ukraine.

“It is the fundamental right of these countries to decide their own future and their own destiny,” Blinken said, adding: “And that does not give Russia the right to attack.”

Paul was quick to emphasize that he was not questioning Ukraine’s right to self-determination or saying Russia had that right. “No one’s saying it does,” he said.

In fact, while raising the issue, Paul had repeatedly emphasized that he wasn’t justifying the invasion. His argument was that perhaps the United States should have taken a dimmer view of Ukraine’s joining NATO. You can object to how he raised that point, including initially saying that Ukraine was once part of “Russia” — a framing that is indeed hazardous — but the context is important.

“While there is no justification for Putin’s war on Ukraine, it does not follow that there’s no explanation for the invasion,” Paul said. He added later: “There is no justification to the invasion; I’m not saying that. But there are reasons for the invasion.”

The two reached something of an impasse on this point. Paul pitched it as the U.S. government — and, at present, the Biden administration — having pushed for Ukraine to join NATO, even as Russia threatened to attack. Blinken, in keeping with stated U.S. policy, emphasized that the United States merely supported Ukraine’s own right to pursue the alliance.

A few points.

One is that, historically speaking, many have supported the thrust of Paul’s argument. As we recounted recently, the debate over ratifying NATO expansion into Eastern Europe in the late 1990s featured senators of both parties arguing that the move would be provocative to Russia, although the ratification ultimately and overwhelmingly passed. And, on the same grounds, many studied, big-name foreign policy minds have since questioned the wisdom of the move.

Another point is that raising this retrospectively (rather than prospectively) is fraught. It’s one thing to say that expanding NATO might provoke Russia; it’s another to cite that when Russia has already launched an invasion. At that point, you risk — despite your assurances to the contrary — offering an excuse for the invasion. You might not be justifying it, but you’re casting blame on someone besides the invader.

Paul, a long-standing critic of NATO whom John McCain once accused of “working for Vladimir Putin” when he tried to block Montenegro’s membership, clearly sees this as an opportunity to raise that issue and to ding the Biden administration. (He didn’t go nearly as far as Tucker Carlson, who recently and very conspiratorially wagered that entertaining Ukrainian membership in NATO amounted to deliberate incitement of Russia.) But it’s not quite the same as Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) raising these issues in 1998, during peacetime.

And the last point is that it’s a stretch to say that we would be at war with Russia right now if Ukraine were in NATO, as Paul contends. Blinken’s point is that Russia might not have invaded if it knew NATO were on the other side of the border, which is quite plausible. It’s an unknowable hypothetical, and Paul treated it as if there would somehow be no difference in Russia’s calculation.

What’s clear is that the NATO issue has evolved considerably. While some questioned the provocativeness of admitting the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary in the late 1990s, a few years later, the vote to admit several former Soviet republics was unanimous. Today, Paul is fighting a rather lonely battle questioning whether NATO should be expanded — although 63 House Republicans recently voted against a symbolic resolution reaffirming support for the alliance.

The question increasingly is whether other Republicans might take up the mantle as well, amid the overwhelming domestic opposition to Russia these days. They may risk drifting into the kind of territory that Paul preemptively sought to avoid (and from which he was still forced to try to remove himself).