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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.

Paul, a libertarian-leaning lawmaker and longtime critic of U.S. foreign policy, said that both Republican and Democratic administrations had been “agitating” for Ukraine to join the security bloc — an outcome that Russian President Vladimir Putin has called a red line.

“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 added that it was “abundantly clear” that Putin based his invasion on the belief that Ukraine does not deserve to be a sovereign nation, and that Kyiv’s status as a former Soviet republic did not mean it had abandoned the right to choose its own foreign policy.

The top U.S. diplomat also said that 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.”

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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 this November, accused his opponent of “pushing Putin’s propaganda in the Senate.”

That echoed a 2017 attack from the late Sen. John McCain, who had accused Paul of “working for Vladimir Putin.” Paul drew the Arizona Republican’s ire when he tried to block Montenegro’s ascension into 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 Blinken about a drone strike during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that killed 10 civilians.

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