Aaron Blake: Fox News Host Tucker Carlson Goes Full Blame-America on Russia’s Ukraine Invasion

From a Washington Post analysis by Aaron Blake headlined “Tucker Carlson goes full blame-America on Russia’s Ukraine invasion”:

Tucker Carlson’s remarkably Putin-sympathetic view of the war in Ukraine has yet to catch on with large swaths of the conservative movement. But if it doesn’t, it apparently won’t be for lack of trying.

Carlson lately has tempered his unfortunately timed suggestion that perhaps Vladimir Putin isn’t that bad a guy. But with that point largely conceded, he now has shifted to assuring that Putin is not the only bad guy. Carlson on Monday drove home an argument that has lingered on the fringes of the conservative movement for some time — that the United States and the West invited this war with their support for admitting Ukraine into NATO, a step that Russia finds unacceptable.

To be clear, the idea that NATO expansion into countries such as Ukraine is provocative and might even be a bad idea is not a fringe position; it has long been espoused, dating to prominent, establishment foreign policy voices in the 1990s. But Carlson took things a good few conspiratorial steps further, arguing that the push for NATO was deliberately intended to provoke this war.

Carlson said it was “obvious” that “getting Ukraine to join NATO was the key to inciting war with Russia.” He noted that Vice President Harris was sent to Europe as Russia massed troops on Ukraine’s borders and that she said, “I appreciate and admire President Zelensky’s desire to join NATO.”

“‘Up yours, Vladimir Putin,’” Carlson summarized. “‘Go ahead and invade Ukraine.’ And of course Vladimir Putin did that just days later. So the invasion was no surprise to the Biden administration. They knew that would happen. That was the point of the exercise.”

Carlson then turned to his favored rhetorical trick of treating his conspiratorial supposition — that the United States wanted this war — as established fact as he pivoted to related questions: “Why in the world would the United States intentionally seek war with Russia? How could we possibly benefit from that war?”

A version of Carlson’s effort to blame the West — and by extension, President Biden — has been around for a while now, in varying versions. Conservative provocateur Candace Owens tweeted recently that “WE are at fault” for Russia’s invasion, because of NATO expansion. Other Republicans have pointed in that direction as well….

Surely, the consequences of the Ukraine-NATO push must be considered. And you need not look far into the past to see studied minds cautioning about a situation much like the one we find ourselves in today. Former Clinton administration defense secretary Bill Perry said in 2016 that Putin bore most of the blame for Russia’s aggression in Crimea but that “I have to say that the United States deserves much of the blame” for supporting NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe. George Kennan, a former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, called it “a tragic mistake” after the Senate in 1998 ratified NATO expansion, even as Russia was still picking up the pieces from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Senstor Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) warned at the same time, “We have no idea what we’re getting into.” Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski argued relatively recently that Ukraine should not join military alliances and instead stick with a Finland-esque approach of remaining neutral while cooperating with the West in other ways.

But there are a few problems with the attempt to shoehorn this valid concern into the idea that the Biden administration is to blame — or even deliberately fomented war.

One is that Putin has made it pretty clear that this isn’t just — or even necessarily primarily — about NATO. Supporters of this view often point to Putin’s Feb. 21 speech laying out his justifications, which included NATO. But in that speech, Putin labeled Ukraine an illegitimate country on land that he views as rightfully Russian territory. He echoed that in 2008 talks with President George W. Bush. Putin’s aggression in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 coincided with moves to bring Georgia and Ukraine into the Western fold, but there’s much more that undergirds his case for war.

The other is that supporting Ukraine’s right to pursue membership in NATO has consistently been U.S. policy. Carlson isolated Harris’s visit to the Munich Security Conference, but this has been a position across multiple administrations of both parties. However well advised that policy was, it was the long-standing policy. And to shelve it in the face of Russian aggression would be, in the truest sense, capitulation.

Even if you believe it might have averted this war, what message would it send about Russia’s ability to throw its weight around? It’s massing of troops on Ukraine’s borders would have earned an immediate payoff. Even if Harris had merely declined to restate U.S. support for Ukraine’s right to pursue NATO membership, that would have been a telling omission….

And beyond that, there’s the fact that this isn’t just U.S. policy; Ukrainians now support their country’s membership in NATO by a significant margin. If anyone is big on self-determination, it would seem to be Carlson. And yet that’s curiously missing from his argument.

(Carlson, for what it’s worth, oversimplified Harris’s statement as having “encouraged Ukraine to become a member of NATO.” As with past administrations, she described U.S. policy as supporting Ukraine’s desire to join NATO — a key nuance, diplomatically.)

In January, former Trump and Bush administration Russia expert Fiona Hill offered a worthwhile and nuanced view on this in the run-up to Russia’s invasion in an essay for the New York Times:

To be sure, Russia does have some legitimate security concerns, and European security arrangements could certainly do with fresh thinking and refurbishment after 30 years. … But a further Russian invasion of Ukraine and Ukraine’s dismemberment and neutralization cannot be an issue for U.S.-Russian negotiation nor a line item in European security. Ultimately, the United States needs to show Mr. Putin that he will face global resistance and Mr. Putin’s aggression will put Russia’s political and economic relationships at risk far beyond Europe.

Yet negotiating over NATO in the face of Russian aggression — whether explicitly or by scaling back the U.S. public commitment to the alliance’s right to determine its membership — is effectively what Carlson suggests we should have done. It’s one thing to argue this policy has been a bad one (Carlson has long been a NATO skeptic); it’s another to cast Harris’s restating of long-standing U.S. policy as some kind of novel provocation — even a deliberate one with an intended consequence.

But there must be a way to blame the Biden administration for this situation, apparently, even if it means shifting the blame away from Putin and implicitly arguing for his appeasement.

Aaron Blake is a Washington Post senior political reporter, writing for The Fix. A Minnesota native, he has also written about politics for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Hill newspaper.

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