I flagged this in an earlier post but it deserves its own thread. It’s not every day you see a former — and future? — president doffing his cap to Russia’s strategic acumen as it prepares to smash a democratic ally of the United States.

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

He does say at one point that this never would have happened with him in charge. Perhaps his next interviewer will drill down and get him to explain why.

What would he have been prepared to do to deter Putin beyond sanctions? What’s worse than sanctions but also wouldn’t start World War III?

Transcript here if you’d prefer that. It feels like we’re at a bad place as a party when the most prominent socialist in America is tougher on Russia than the head of the GOP:

War between Russia and Ukraine is a fascinating development politically in the U.S. because it sits on the fault lines that separate different Republican factions, of which there are at least three. The most relevant faction among GOP voters, I suspect, are the “Never Democrats,” the negative partisans who have no strong views of the conflict but will take whatever line on Ukraine is necessary for them to be able to argue that Biden is a wimp and a disgrace. Their view is ably stated by Kayleigh McEnany here:

Is McEnany strongly pro-Ukraine or anti-Russian? Nah. She’s strongly pro-Republican and anti-Democrat. Aligning herself with Ukraine by faulting Biden for the weakness of his response to Russian aggression is the easiest argument to make in service to that cause, so that’s what she’s doing.

Then you have the old-school Republican hawks, the people who fear and loathe Russia and believe we should project strength in defense of our allies, especially pro-western democracies. Look no further than Mitch McConnell, who has a strong electoral incentive to take the same line as McEnany by bashing Biden but is more keen to bash Russia:

Marco Rubio and many other members of the Senate GOP take that view as well. It’s not mutually exclusive with the “Never Democrats” view, of course; all of these guys will inevitably criticize Biden for not responding more forcefully. But a Ukraine/Russia war is more than just a political game to them. They support NATO on the merits and worry that Russian expansionism will lead to Chinese expansionism if Putin doesn’t pay a heavy price.

Finally there are the America First-ers, the populist-nationalists or people posing as populist-nationalists for political or financial gain who’ll insist we have no interest in deterring Putin, or at least none so compelling that we should devote resources to helping them instead of to helping our own citizens. They’re not pro-Russia, exactly, but more like anti-anti-Russia:

Actually, Owens sounds pretty pro-Russia. I’d expect figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene to take a similar position, either because they’ve sincerely lost the plot morally or because their political instinct is always to maximize their ideological purity by getting to the right of everyone else. The most maximalist “America First” position is “ackshually, we’re the expansionist villains here.”

Some Republicans will have a foot in more than one of the camps I’ve described. For instance, I’m sure it’s occurred to McConnell that most Americans are likely to sympathize with Ukraine in this conflict and that it won’t help the GOP in November to have Trump stupidly celebrating Putin’s hackneyed strategy of occupying a country in the guise of “peacekeeping.” To hedge against that, McConnell will doubtless have plenty of criticism of Biden’s “weakness” in the weeks to come. The populist-nationalists will also try to package their isolationism with a critique of Biden, demanding to know why he cares about Ukraine’s border more than he cares about ours.

But the America First-ers will eventually run into a conceptual problem they’ll have to somehow negotiate. How do you call Biden “weak” for failing to contain Russia while questioning why we should be containing Russia? How can Biden be at fault for failing to intimidate Putin when NATO is at fault for intimidating Putin too much, to the point where he feels obliged to seize Ukraine and develop a “sphere of influence”?

As always, Trump’s views will heavily influence how Republican politicians tailor their spin. He said nothing in today’s short interview about Putin being in the right or NATO being at fault. He hinted that he would have stopped this from happening, in fact. But it’s hard to tell how much of that is idle boasting due to his obsession with “strength” and how much is due to some felt commitment to deter Russia from bullying its neighbors, which he’s never evinced before. If Trump lands in the pro-Russia (or anti-anti-Russia) camp, questioning why we’re aiding Ukraine at all, it’ll complicate life for Republican candidates. Especially candidates who want to argue that Biden is being pushed around and should be doing more:

Oz is running as a MAGA-friendly candidate in Pennsylvania but crippling Putin’s regime certainly doesn’t sound like it’s what Owens wants. There’s no reason to think it’s what Trump wants either. Will Oz tone down his rhetoric or will he risk getting on the wrong side of a populist base that’s being encouraged towards isolationism in MAGA media, most notably on Tucker Carlson’s show? Lots of turbulence ahead.

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