In a little more than a year, citizens of the United States will go to the polls and vote for their next president. Central and Eastern European Americans represent roughly 22 million of those voters and make up important voting blocks in key states like Ohio, Michigan, California and New York.
Russian aggression is a major issue for these voters, as many of their descendants fled to the U.S. as refugees following World War II from countries that were run over by the Soviet Union. Today, in light of an again antagonistic Russia, its strings pulled by the mass manipulator Vladimir Putin, the 2016 presidential candidates must take a stance on U.S.-Russia relations.
In recent elections, Russia has not been viewed as a significant foe. President Obama notably shrugged off Mitt Romney’s comment that Russia was the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama said in a 2012 presidential debate. However, the geopolitical climate has changed.
Although Russia’s role in Eastern Ukraine has recently taken a backseat due to Russian adventurism in Syria, nevertheless, this important issue is still highly relevant. Russia still poses a threat to our NATO allies in Eastern Europe. It has violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity by illegally occupying Crimea, and continues to perpetuate a violent conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
President Obama has taken significant steps to crack down on Russia’s actions. The U.S. imposed crippling sanctions, sent economic relief to Ukraine, provided defensive support, and bolstered military exercises in the Baltic countries. These progressive steps, however, should only represent a beginning. Ukraine needs much more in order to effectively defend its territorial integrity, and the Baltic states need more to secure their independence as our allies in NATO.
U.S. foreign policy has been debated by the Republican and Democratic candidates this fall. In the first two GOP debates (August 6 and September 16), the Baltic states and Ukraine were mentioned. The state of U.S.-Russia relations was touched upon in the first Democratic debate on October 13.
The stage for presidential candidates is still very packed. Since the last GOP and Democratic debates, Scott Walker, Rick Perry and Lincoln Chafee have dropped out of the race entirely, while Jim Webb has made his exit from the Democratic primary. On October 21, Vice President Joe Biden stood with President Obama to announce that he will not run for the Democratic nomination.
This leaves the stage to Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, John Kasich, Bobby Jindal, and Jim Gilmore. For the Democrats Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley remain. The number of candidates still in the race is staggering.
Many of these candidates have made other issues more central than foreign policy in their campaigns. Bernie Sanders has focused on issues of economic inequality, Mike Huckabee on family values, and Trump on immigration. However, in terms of transatlantic relations, the contender candidates that stand out the most have been Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Carly Fiorina.
Even so, we cannot overlook the fact that Trump and Carson significantly lead the GOP polls, and Bernie Sanders ranks second among Democrats. The Joint Baltic American National Committee analyzed the U.S.-Russia policy statements and platforms of all eight of these contenders.
Donald Trump leads the Republican polls at 32%, according to an October 21 ABC News poll, and he has led the GOP race since July. Although Trump touts himself as the “most militaristic” candidate, he takes an extremely soft approach to Putin.
“I’d get along very well with Vladimir Putin,” Trump said during a press conference in Scotland at the end of July. “Obama and him, he hates Obama, Obama hates him. We have unbelievably bad relationships.”
Trump views Crimea as more of a European problem, and thinks that the United States should have better relations with Russia. He repeatedly expresses admiration for Putin’s leadership skills and often uses Putin as an example to criticize President Obama.
“In terms of leadership, [Putin is] getting an A, and our president is not doing so well,” Trump said in an interview with Bill O’Reilly in September.
This is not the first time Trump has made similar comments on Putin and Obama. He has called Putin a popular leader in Russia, and argued that Putin would respect him, if he were the president.
“Putin has no respect for our president whatsoever,” Trump said in a Fox News interview. “He’s got a tremendous popularity in Russia. They love what he’s doing. They love what he represents.”
In a speech via video link to the Yalta European Strategy conference in Kyiv on September 11, Trump echoed his foreign policy insights on Ukraine.
“With respect to the Ukraine, people have to band together from other parts of Europe to help,” Trump said. “Whether it’s Germany or other countries, I don’t think you’re getting the support that you need.”
Trump does not believe that Russia is entirely to blame for the downing of MH17, which resulted in the deaths of 298 victims. The Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down over Eastern Ukraine with a Russian-made BUK anti-aircraft missile in rebel-held territory.
“They say it wasn’t them,” he said. “It may have been their weapon, but they didn’t use it, they didn’t fire it, they even said the other side fired it to blame them. I mean to be honest with you, you’ll probably never know for sure.”
Although Trump went back on his comments, and said that Russia “probably” shot the flight down, he still expressed his reservations about getting the United States involved.
“We just can’t fight with everybody,” Trump said.
Recently, Russia has openly involved itself in striking against all enemies of the Assad Regime, which continues to barrel bomb its own people, helping to foster resentment and bolster recruitment for terror groups like the Islamic State. Trump believes that Putin should be more involved in Syria.
“When I heard they were going in to fight ISIS, I said, ‘Great, let them,’ ” he said.
“We have to stand up to [Putin’s] bullying, and specifically in Syria, it is important,” Clinton said. “I think it’s important too that the United States make it very clear to Putin that it’s not acceptable for him to be in Syria creating more chaos, bombing people on behalf of Assad, and we can’t do that if we don’t take more of a leadership position, which is what I’m advocating.”
In the past, Clinton has supported Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression. She broke with President Obama on his Ukraine policy, arguing that Ukraine deserves greater support than what it has received.
“It’s a difficult, potentially dangerous situation, but the Ukrainian army and ordinary Ukrainians who are fighting against the separatists have proved that they deserve stronger support than we have provided so far,” Clinton said.
Clinton clarified her stance on Russian aggression in Ukraine, in a speech she gave at the Brookings Institution in September.
“I have been, I remain convinced that we need a concerted effort to really up the costs on Russia and in particular on Putin. I think we have not done enough,” she said. “I am in the category of people who wanted us to do more in response to the annexation of Crimea and the continuing destabilization of Ukraine.”
In the same speech, Clinton discussed Russia’s power projection across its borders into other countries.
“We can’t dance around it anymore. We all wish it would go away,” she said. “We all wish Putin would choose to modernize his country and move toward the West instead of sinking himself into historical roots of tsar-like behavior, and intimidation along national borders and projecting Russian power in places like Syria and elsewhere.”
Clinton has also made remarks on Russia’s attempts to intimidate its neighbors, particularly the Baltic states.
“What Putin did is illegal,” she said. “It’s not because we gave the poor little Baltic States NATO protection. And people need to say that, and they need to be very clear: This is a clash of values, and it’s an effort by Putin to rewrite the boundaries of post-World War II Europe. If he’s allowed to get away with that, then I think you’ll see a lot of other countries, either directly facing Russian aggression or suborned with their political systems, so that they’re so intimidated, they’re in effect transformed into vassals, not sovereign democracies.”
Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, has moved way up in the polls to second place, nearly doubling his support in the last two months. Carson is currently polling at 22% nationally in an ABC News poll, lagging behind Trump by 10%.
Carson does not have experience in elected office. Similar to Trump, he runs a campaign as an “outsider” candidate. This, however, means that Carson also does not have any foreign policy experience. This was evident when he was caught unaware of the fact that Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were members of NATO. Nevertheless, Carson has taken a hard line approach toward Russia. He calls for arming Ukrainians, so that they can defend their territorial integrity, and for the expansion of NATO.
“I would handle Ukraine in a very different way,” Carson said. “It was agreed that they would be protected, if something happened with aggression. Have we lived up to that? Of course we have not. And what does that say to our other allies around the world?”
Bernie Sanders has picked up a lot of steam in his grassroots campaign from the progressive left. Sanders focuses his campaign mostly on domestic issues like income inequality and corporate regulation. Nevertheless, he has taken stances on U.S.-Russia relations.
“Well, I think Mr. Putin is going to regret what he is doing.” Sanders said, “I think he is already regretting what he did in Crimea, and what he is doing in the Ukraine; I think he is really regretting the decline of his economy, and I think what he is trying to do now is save some face.”
Sanders has not taken a particularly hard stance on Russia, other than to continue the president’s strategy of imposing sanctions on the regime. However, Sanders also emphasized that force should be the very last resort. It is unclear whether or not supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine qualifies as “force” in Sanders’ view.
“I would prefer to deal with a complicated issue in a measured way: serious international discussions about how we proceed, but force, force should be the last option we use,” Sanders said.
Marco Rubio made headlines when he portrayed Vladimir Putin as a gangster and thug in a foreign policy speech he delivered in South Carolina.
“Russia is governed today by a gangster,” Rubio said. “He’s basically an organized crime figure who controls a government and a large territory. … This is a person who kills people, because they’re his political enemies. If you’re a political adversary of Vladimir Putin, you wind up with plutonium [sic polonium – ed.] in your drink or shot in the street.”
In the last GOP debates, Rubio expressed his views on Russia, and emphasized what he believed was a desire for Russia to rebuild the glory of the Soviet Union.
“[Putin] wants to reposition Russia, once again, as a geopolitical force,” Rubio said. “He’s trying to destroy NATO. And this is what this is a part of.”
Rubio stands up for the Baltics, and believes that the United States should proactively step up its military presence in the region to deter Russian aggression. Rubio outlined his plan in a piece he wrote for the National Review in September.
“NATO should station more than token forces in member states bordering Russia, because Putin must learn that he cannot get away with doing to the Baltics what he has already done to Ukraine,” Rubio wrote.
Jeb Bush has criticized the Obama Administration’s “soft” approach towards Russia. Bush has taken a hardline stance on Russian interventionism around the world.
“How to deal with [Putin] is to confront him on his terms, not to create a more bellicose environment, but to simply say that there is going to be a consequence,” Bush said in an interview with Reuters on Russian involvement in Syria.
Bush, like Clinton, views Putin as a bully. He calls for more robust military exercises in the Baltics, and to deploy NATO ground troops. Bush seeks to increase U.S. military presence in the Baltics to send a stronger message to Putin.
“To deal with Putin, you need to deal from strength,” Bush said. “He’s a bully, and bullies don’t — you enable bad behavior when you’re nuanced with a guy like that. I think just being clear — I’m not talking about being bellicose, but just saying, ‘These are the consequences of your actions.’”
Bush has advocated for greater U.S. involvement, including the possibility of sending lethal aid to Ukraine.
“I think we need to provide defensive military support, because it’s very hard to make the structural reforms necessary and grow the economy in a world where there’s a threat of further aggression,” Bush said. “That would be the first step.”
John Kasich is viewed as a more transatlantic candidate and has taken solid positions against Putin’s aggression. Recently, Kasich argued for a no-fly zone in Syria, and suggested that the situation in Syria should not distract people from the crisis in Ukraine.
“Putin seeks to advance Russian interests in the region,” Kasich said. “Nor should we allow Mr. Putin to use the Syrian crisis to distract attention from his ongoing aggression in Ukraine.”
Earlier in his presidential campaign, Kasich criticized the Obama Administration for not supplying arms to Ukraine.
“For the life of me, I cannot understand why we are not giving the Ukrainians [the ability] to defend themselves against Putin and the Russians,” Kasich said on the trail in August.
In a statement made on Ukraine’s independence day, Kasich reiterated the need for defensive weapons.
“Congress gave the President the authority help arm Ukraine—by large bipartisan majorities— but its requests to the U.S. for help have been denied,” Kasich said in the statement. “This must stop and we must help Ukraine protect its independence. That means providing the anti-tank, anti-aircraft and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance systems it needs.”
Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO, has come out as a particularly “hawkish” candidate on a number of foreign policy issues. Fiorina has repeatedly issued talking points on the need to bolster up the U.S. military presence in the Baltics. Fiorina expressed this during the second GOP debate.
“I wouldn’t speak to Vladimir Putin. I would act instead, and do four things immediately,” she said. “Rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, rebuilding the missile defense program, I would begin conducting very aggressive military exercises in the Baltic States, and I would arm the Ukrainians.”
Fiorina, like many of the other GOP candidates, has attacked the foreign policy of the Obama Administration. She made repeated pledges to stand up to Russia militarily, economically, protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and bolster up the Baltics. She advocates for providing more consquences on Russian aggression in order to deter future violations.
“If you permit bad behavior, you get more bad behavior,” Fiorina said. “When we did not push back in anyway on Russia’s aggression into Ukraine, we get more bad behavior.”