In a contentious exchange at a congressional hearing Tuesday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told Secretary of State Antony Blinken that U.S. support for Ukraine to join NATO contributed to Russia’s decision to invade. Blinken vehemently objected to Paul’s remarks, which were also criticized by Russia experts.
“While there is no justification for Putin’s war on Ukraine, it does not follow that there is no explanation for the invasion,” Paul told Blinken during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “You could also argue that the countries that it has attacked were … part of the Soviet Union,” the senator said; Putin has long wanted a “sphere of influence” over former Soviet states.
Blinken, fresh from meeting with Ukrainian leaders in Kyiv earlier this week, noted that NATO maintains an open-door policy. He said it was “abundantly clear” that Putin based his invasion on the belief that Ukraine does not deserve to be a sovereign nation. Kyiv’s status as a former Soviet republic does not mean it loses the right to choose its own foreign policy, Blinken added.
The top U.S. diplomat also said the Kremlin did not meaningfully respond to Washington’s attempts to assuage Putin’s national security concerns before the invasion.
“We, senators, are not going to be more Ukrainian than the Ukrainians,” Blinken said. “Our purpose is to make sure that they have within their hands the ability to repel the Russian aggression and indeed to strengthen their hand at an eventual negotiating table.”
Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, director of European and Russian affairs for the National Security Council during the Trump administration, criticized Paul’s remarks. “By that logic, Britain is justified in attacking the U.S. and colonial powers their former holdings. What century does he live in?” Vindman said.
Charles Booker, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to run against Paul in November, accused his opponent of “pushing Putin’s propaganda in the Senate.”
That echoed a 2017 attack from then-Sen. John McCain, who accused Paul of “working for Vladimir Putin.” Paul drew the Arizona Republican’s ire when he tried to block Montenegro’s accession to NATO.
Kelsey Cooper, a spokeswoman for Paul, said in a statement after the hearing that Paul sympathizes with Ukraine and has made clear his support for Kyiv’s struggles.
Paul has previously tangled with Blinken during Foreign Relations Committee meetings. Last year, he grilled the secretary about a drone strike during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that killed 10 civilians.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.
The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.
In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.
The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.