If ever there was a war that an American libertarian should feel somewhat comfortable supporting, it’s Ukraine’s effort against Russia, no?
Libertarians are anti-war generally and isolationist when it comes to U.S. involvement specifically but this is the rare case that might give them pause. There’s a fascist aggressor bent on imperial conquest. The other side is defending its homeland in alliance with the liberal democracies of the west. A decisive Ukrainian victory might disable the Russian military in the near term, preventing future wars of conquest in the region. Even the cherished principle underlying the Second Amendment, the right to arm oneself to fend off authoritarian oppression, is being vindicated in western weapons shipments to Ukraine.
Best of all, there are no American boots on the ground. Biden promised he wouldn’t put U.S. troops in harm’s way in Ukraine for fear of escalation and he’s kept that promise. This is a Ukrainian operation with broad western support that may end up relegating an expansionist illiberal regime to minor-power status.
Rand Paul is obliged to find fault with the White House, though, and not just for reasons of partisanship. Partly it’s because he’s a member of what we might call the “insurgent” class in politics who sense opportunity for their views to advance when the prevailing liberal order is being challenged on the battlefield. Noah Smith wrote about that a month ago and theorized that Russia is finding sympathizers in the U.S. among the populist right and the populist left because both are insurgent movements, or what he calls “chaos climbers.” A big win against Russia for the liberal world order might restore public confidence in that order, leaving westerners less open to considering paleocons like Paul and socialists like the DSA types.
So that’s one reason Paul had to press Tony Blinken during his testimony today, to take a bit of the shine off of the surprisingly successful effort in Ukraine so far. But there’s a second reason related to the first: Isolationists fear and loathe NATO but NATO has never looked better than it has since February 24. Its members came together to arm Ukraine effectively and expeditiously; the spirit of unity forged by the alliance helped facilitate the sanctions that are crushing Russia’s economy; and most importantly, despite his dream of rebuilding Russia’s empire, Putin hasn’t laid a glove on any NATO country. To the contrary, Sweden and Finland are scrambling to join NATO to avail themselves of the protection of the alliance after 70 years of “neutrality.”
It’s hard for isolationists to watch NATO expand, knowing that that means more nations America is committed to defending. But it must be really hard for them to see hawks’ theory of NATO vindicated so starkly. The dovish paleocon view of NATO is that the alliance is an ongoing provocation to Moscow that makes war more likely by intruding into Russia’s “sphere of influence.” (Which is diplomatic-speak for “letting Russia dominate whichever neighboring countries it likes.”) The hawkish view is that NATO makes war less likely by raising the potential cost of expansionism to Russia until it becomes prohibitive.
Ukraine and Georgia, two countries that aren’t part of NATO, have been attacked by Russia in the past 15 years. No NATO country has. It’s clear which theory is correct, especially given the surprising weakness of Russia’s effort in Ukraine. Until recently, a war between Russia and NATO seemed as though it’d be a fair fight. It no longer seems that way and Putin must realize it.
Faced with all this, Paul started his questioning today demanding to know why the U.S. hadn’t ruled out Ukraine for NATO membership sooner, suggesting that that might have eased Russia’s concerns about the country potentially joining the alliance. The insinuation is that Russia might not have attacked if that had happened, but that’s Paul still clinging to the dovish view of NATO instead of accepting that the hawkish one has prevailed. He still insists that there’s some sort of provocation here, some legitimate cause of Russian anxiety that led them to attack, when really Putin wanted Ukraine because he believes Russia is entitled to it, that the two countries are fundamentally “one people.” If anything, the fact that Ukraine languished in NATO limbo for so long was an inducement to Putin to attack. He knew the country wouldn’t become a member and therefore knew he needn’t worry about facing the U.S. on the battlefield if he invaded. Assuring him that Ukraine would never join NATO would have boosted his confidence about that.
It was the same story when Paul warned Blinken that if Ukraine were part of NATO then we’d be at war right now. Maybe — or maybe Ukraine’s membership would have done for Ukraine what it did for every other former Soviet country that’s joined the alliance, scaring Russia off from attacking for fear of NATO’s response. Again, Paul refuses to be shaken from his assumption that NATO’s existence increases rather than decreases the odds of war occurring. Blinken might have replied to him that if we’d admitted Ukraine in 2008, a lot of Ukrainians — and Russian soldiers — would be alive today.
But that’s hard to say. The fact that Putin has had special designs on Ukraine for so long, to the point where he might have risked war with NATO to reclaim it, is precisely why NATO didn’t ever admit it. It was a concession aimed at averting war between east and west, another example of NATO being judicious in how it handles Russia.
Then came this strange exchange, which had scores of people on social media today accusing Paul of being a Russian propagandist:
“You could also argue the countries they’ve attacked were part of Russia–were part of the Soviet Union,” referring to the aforementioned countries, which were formerly Soviet Socialist Republics.
“I firmly disagree with that proposition,” Blinken shot back. “It is the fundamental right of these countries to decide their own future and their own destiny.”
“I’m not saying that it’s not, But I’m saying the countries that have been attacked – Georgia and Ukraine – were part of the Soviet Union. And they were part of the Soviet Union since the 1920s.”
What’s he implying?
Many, including Blinken, took him to mean that Russia has some sort of eternal right as part of its “sphere of influence” to try to reconquer Soviet countries and rebuild its empire, which Paul insisted isn’t what he meant. It’d be an interesting position for a libertarian to take if he did, even allowing for the fact that paleocons tend to be Russian sympathizers. But if that’s not what he meant, what did he mean?
I think he was trying to say that NATO might not be the reason that Russia is and isn’t attacking certain countries in the region. Blinken was arguing that NATO is deterring Russia successfully; Paul seemed to be saying that maybe Ukraine and Georgia are simply the former Soviet nations that Russia wanted to reclaim most badly and that’s why they attacked there first. They’ll eventually get around to trying to retake the former Soviet nations in the Baltics that are now part of NATO, triggering a world war when Article 5 is invoked. I don’t think Paul seriously believes that — if he does, he should ask the heads of state in those Baltic nations why they think Putin hasn’t come knocking yet — but this is what it looks like when Russia-enabling “realism” goes up in smoke due to events. He’s not going to let go of his belief that NATO, and international alliances more broadly, do more harm than good. So he’s offering a theory of how NATO doesn’t explain why, uh, NATO countries never get attacked by Russia while non-NATO countries do.