Rand Paul Almost Killed a Senate Rebuke of Russia. Here’s Why That Matters

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For months, senior Senators had traded proposals back and forth, mostly in private and with a quiet assumption that they could agree on a unified response should Russia invade Ukraine. After all, American solidarity with the West had pulled the world through the post-World War II era and kept a relative peace in the years since the former Soviet days. The ghosts of Ike, JFK and even Ronnie weren’t that far gone.

But with war drums echoing in Kyiv, Moscow and Washington alike by mid-February—not to mention in NATO Headquarters in Brussels—the pressure had begun to seem insurmountable. With as many as 190,000 Russian forces poised to lay siege to Ukraine, NATO seemingly incapable of defending the non-member state against the exact aggression the alliance was built to counter, and senior Ukrainians themselves already fleeing the country, the tendency for inertia took over in D.C. The good-faith talks collapsed earlier this week as the Republicans and Democrats seemed to be sliding apart, especially when it came to the objective: were lawmakers trying to punish the Russians, or deter them from future actions? Getting to yes is difficult if you don’t see eye to eye on the original question. If comic books teach us anything, it’s that the origin story matters.

In the end? The Senate passed a toothless rebuke.

“We believe that it should say, ‘Nothing in this resolution is to be construed as an authorization for war,’ and ‘Nothing in this resolution is to be construed as authorizing [the] introduction of troops into Ukraine,’” Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, said.

Facing the reality that sanctions require 60 votes to clear the Senate and both sides are divided over whether to impose sanctions now or to hold some back to make an invasion a more painful choice, the leadership in both parties came to agreement: they’d prepare and fast-track a bipartisan—and non-binding—resolution expressing the Senate’s condemnation of a Russian expansion over its borders with Ukraine. It would be symbolic but still better than nothing.

Except that their plan required a unified Senate to fast-track the effort; a single objection could trigger hours of debate. And on Thursday, it seemed even that unity was absent. A potential late-night vote proved it. Paul, who is perhaps the most vocal non-interventionist in the Republican Party, threatened to derail the non-binding resolution unless he secured concessions that the document was not going to be used as a declaration of war or a commitment to sending U.S. troops to fight the Russians. The move left lawmakers, who were already grappling with keeping the government open for three more weeks, frustrated.

“How would you like to have this headline in Moscow? ‘The U.S. government can’t even stay open. Why are they lecturing us about an invasion of Ukraine?’” said an exasperated Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Late Thursday, Paul got his way. He won concessions—however immaterial—that allowed him to claim that he averted the current threat of war with Ukraine. And caving to Paul and passing the measure with his tweaks also allowed the entire Senate exit Washington having funded the government for a few more days and sent an opaque signal to Moscow that the D.C. power structure isn’t happy with the posturing it’s seeing from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 1950s-era understanding of geopolitics.

Senators, already weary from funding the government and gearing up for another fight in two weeks over a massive spending plan to keep the lights on through October, quickly left the Capitol. Once again, colleagues had humored Paul’s eccentricities. But for the slice of the far-right ecosystem he represents, Paul and his stunt proved valuable. For Paul’s fans, it not only was a way to symbolically check any Joe Biden-led military intervention abroad, but also a nod to Donald Trump’s non-interventionist stance. And, given Democrats are on a razor’s edge this fall to hold their majority, even the long-shot Democratic challenger to Paul’s re-election by Charles Booker is worth a beat to consider.

Which is to say this: Democrats are on polenta-soft ground as they defend their majority. But Republicans are also foolish in thinking they have an indisputable electoral advantage. A protracted fight over sanctions on Russia wins neither party votes, which is why everyone this week felt burned.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com