Rand Paul on Ukraine: Some people on our side want to "tweak" Russia all the time

He means McCain, of course, but maybe not just McCain. Quick, which Senate Republican issued the following statement in January as the Euromaidan protests in Kiev were heating up?

“The United States must not turn a blind eye to the struggle for freedom in a country where we have such a clear strategic interest. Putin’s proposed Eurasian Customs Union, of which Ukraine would be a cornerstone, is a thinly veiled attempt to re-assimilate the territory of “greater Russia” that made up the old Soviet Union. His offer of economic assistance is a first step in binding Ukraine to this new bloc. Given Ukraine’s economic and security significance to both the U.S. and our NATO allies in western Europe it would be a mistake to allow this expansion of Russia’s sphere of interest, especially given the tenacity with which Ukrainians have fought against it in recent months.

Next-gen superhawk Marco Rubio? Nope. Here’s another statement from the same guy, this one just a week old:

The people of Ukraine need to know that the free world stands with them as they protest the actions of President Viktor Yanukovych designed to destroy their constitutional rights and drive their country into the sphere of influence of Vladimir Putin’s resurgent Russia…

A free and prosperous Ukraine is a natural partner for the United States and our European allies. We should be defending our interests in Ukraine both by quickly imposing economic sanctions against the government officials responsible for human rights abuses and by offering mutually-beneficial economic cooperation in the event that real democratic reforms are implemented.

Lindsey Graham? Nope. It’s Paul’s frequent ally Ted Cruz, who’s building his brand as a more hawkish tea-party alternative. If anyone’s going to thwart Paul’s plan to tilt grassroots conservatives away from neoconservatism on foreign policy and towards paleoconservatism, it’s not Maverick but Cruz. (Or Marco Rubio, if/when he ever fully recovers his tea-party cred.) Makes me wonder whether Cruz, against all odds, might not end up with some grudging campaign boosters among the GOP’s more hawkish establishment. They don’t want him to win, but as an expert debater who’s willing and able to defend certain forms of interventionism against Rand onstage, they can do worse.

As for Paul, his point here has less to do with Ukraine than with NATO: We should be a guiding light for freedom, he says, and it’s fine to support Ukraine joining the EU, but pushing NATO membership for a Russian satellite (as McCain has done) will hurt U.S. national security by antagonizing Russia more than it’ll help to have an extra NATO buffer on Russia’s western border. Okay, but then why support Ukraine’s aspiration to join the European Union at all? That’ll antagonize Putin too. For that matter, why support any lesser power’s wish to be free of domination by a greater one? There’ll always be more to lose in theory by siding with the underdog. This line in particular brought me up short:

“The Ukraine has a long history of either being part of the Soviet Union or within that sphere.”

Right, but that’s the crux of the issue: Western Ukrainians are tired of being in Russia’s sphere while Russians see Ukraine as “little Russia.” Sounds like Paul’s conceding that the country is under Russia’s umbrella (note the point in the Cruz excerpt about the Eurasian Customs Union), not the EU’s, or at least that he’s prepared to concede it if Putin gets too grumpy. I understand the realist argument for that position but it’s odd to see the country’s most famous libertarian (which is what he is now, c’mon) even rhetorically ambivalent about whether a west-leaning population should remain eternally under the sword of an authoritarian neighbor. Should we be “fine” with Ukraine joining the EU, should we be neutral, or should we oppose it because Putin can make it worth our while to do so irrespective of what that means for the liberals next door?