Russia is now waging its summer offensive at the Ukrainian front. It was a year and a half ago that Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and commenced a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine that today threatens international norms and the sovereignty of the post-Soviet sphere.
Russia justifies its aggression in the name of Russian national unity, to regain territories lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to contain a perceived NATO expansion. As a result of this Russian hostility, over 1.3 million Ukrainians have been displaced, and over six thousand people have been killed.
The Russian-Ukrainian conflict, however, is not only about Russia and Ukraine. It also represents the fight for self-determination by all nations formerly trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
The United States and NATO allies fear that Russia will continue to violate the sovereignty of its neighbors by waging asymmetric warfare. This is especially concerning to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia which border Russia and have large Russian-speaking populations.
Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Joseph Dunford, and recently retired Chief of Staff of the Army, Raymond Odierno, agree that Russia represents a significant threat to the United States and its allies.
“If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia,” Dunford said to the Armed Services Committee this July. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”
There is a clear disagreement on strategy between the White House and the Pentagon regarding the conflict in Ukraine.
Although President Obama has slapped crippling sanctions on the Russian Federation and provided non-lethal aid to Ukraine, he has not yet supplied the Ukrainian government with the weapons it desperately needs to combat Russian aggression.
As a world leader, the United States is a central decision-maker in the crisis, and the outcome of the presidential election in 2016 will determine how the United States will respond to a militaristic Russia. Each presidential candidate must decide how the United States will answer Putin’s imperialistic ambitions and deal with the crisis in Ukraine.
Some presidential candidates have addressed issues concerning Russia, Ukraine, and the Baltics more clearly, while others have remained undecided.
Hillary Clinton has expressed reservations regarding the Obama Administration’s strategy in Ukraine. Instead of Obama’s more passive take, Clinton proposes greater financial and military assistance.
“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 has also taken a strong stance on Putin’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, and has criticized Russia’s continued aggression.
“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.”
“The numbers are, I understand, in the hundreds, and that doesn’t send a signal of strength,” Bush said. “We need to be more robust, and need to encourage our allies to invest more in security.”
Bush expressed concern for potential aggression by Russia in the Baltic countries, about cyber warfare, and acknowledged concerns from Poland and the Baltics.
“There are things that we could do, given the scale of our military, to send a strong signal that we’re on the side of Poland, the Baltics and the countries that truly feel threatened by the ‘little green men’, this new cyber warfare, and these other tactics that Russia now is using,” Bush said. “I think we ought to consider putting troops there for sure.”
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.”
Donald Trump has taken a much softer position on Ukraine and Russia compared to other Republican candidates. According to Trump’s view, the annexation of Crimea is a European problem.
“This is more of a Europe problem,” Trump said. “And when Europe comes to us and says, ‘We want your help, we want your help,’ but they’re not really doing that. They’re dealing with Russia, they’re taking in the gas, they’re taking in the oil — they’re not really doing that. And you know, we’re making a big deal out of it.”
In the past, however, Trump has advocated for sanctions on Russia to show that the United States is strong.
“We should definitely do sanctions and we have to show some strengths,” Trump said in March of 2014.
Trump believes that Vladimir Putin is extremely popular in Russia.
“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.”
Trump has made concerning remarks on his potential relationship with Vladimir Putin if he were elected president. He argues that the United States should have a greater relationship with Russia.
“I’d get along very well with Vladimir Putin,” Trump said during a press conference in Scotland. “Obama and him, he hates Obama, Obama hates him. We have unbelievably bad relationships.”
Gov. Mike Huckabee disagrees with the president’s strategy on Ukraine, however, he does not believe that a military solution will solve the crisis in Ukraine.
“I think the solution is to put as much economic pressure on the Russians as possible, try to flood with information to the Russian people,” Huckabee said in a CNN interview. “There’s not, I don’t think what I’d say, a clear military solution, because it could escalate. And in that situation, if it’s Russia versus the Ukrainians, Russia is going to win, 80 times the military strength.”
Instead, Huckabee believes that Putin’s system will inevitably collapse on its own.
“They collapsed from within, and they’re on the verge of collapsing again, because their economy is so in trouble,” Huckabee said.
In a Politico piece, Senator Marco Rubio outlined his stance on Ukraine. He supports NATO enlargement and supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine in their fight against Russian aggression.
He is also open to the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO.
“We must enlarge NATO. Allies need to overcome the roadblocks to enlargement before the next NATO summit — including by inviting Montenegro to join the alliance — and to reaffirm that the open door policy is still intact and applies to any NATO aspirant including Ukraine, if it so chooses,” Rubio said.
Rubio has been extremely supportive of supplying Ukraine with lethal aid. Rubio was also a co-sponsor of S.452 which authorizes the president to arm Ukraine with lethal military weapons.
“Putin is in a position where he is very much invoking Lenin’s old adage that you probe with bayonets, and if you find mush you advance, and if you find steel you withdraw,” Walker said. “That doesn’t mean we’re fighting the war for them, but there are significant things we can do beyond what we’re doing, and lethal aid has got to be a part of it.”
Walker criticized the Obama Administration for being too soft on Vladimir Putin. He also stressed the need to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons and send ground troops to the Baltic countries and Poland.
“I would send weapons to Ukraine,” Walker said. “I would put forces on the eastern border of Poland and the Baltic nations, and I would re-instate, put back in place the missile defense system in the Czech Republic.”
Senator Lindsey Graham strongly supports sending arms to Ukraine. Graham is also in favor of expanding NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia.
In an interview with “Meet the Press”, Graham argued that the United States should take greater military and economic action to isolate Russia.
“I’m suggesting that we arm the Ukrainians so they can defend themselves,” Graham said. “I’m suggesting we put more NATO troops around Ukraine, that we rebuild the missile defense systems that Obama took down to let Putin know the path of least resistance is not to continue to dismember the Ukraine.”
Specifically, Graham argued that the United States must create a more robust presence in the Baltics.
“I would move at least a brigade of Americans that could operate in the Baltic region along with other NATO members, and I would begin to build capacity all throughout the region around Russia to let them know that we’re serious about their ambitions here,” Graham said.
Gov. Chris Christie argues that he would take a stronger stance on Russia and Putin. Christie said that he would provide more aid to Ukraine and other regional allies.
“Aggression happens in this world in response to weakness, and peace happens in this world in response to strength,” Christie said to a crowd in Iowa this June.
In a CNN “State of the Union” interview, Ted Cruz reaffirmed his position that the United States should send arms to Ukraine.
“It is long past time for us to step forward and provide defensive weapons, so that the men and women of Ukraine can defend their nation,” Cruz said. “I’m part of a large bipartisan congressional delegation that is united on the need for us to provide defensive arms to Ukraine.”
Rand Paul takes a very passive position on Ukraine compared to many other candidates. Paul adheres to a non-interventionist foreign policy platform.
“America is a world leader, but we should not be its policeman or ATM,” Paul said.
In 2014, Paul stated that due to Ukraine’s history as being a part of the Soviet Union, the United States should be weary of involving itself in the conflict. In other words, Paul argues that Ukraine is a European problem, and the United States should also “suspend American loans and aid to Ukraine, because currently these could have the counterproductive effect of rewarding Russia.” He questions the possibility of allowing Ukraine to join NATO.
“The Ukraine has a long history of either being part of the Soviet Union or within that sphere,” Paul said. “I don’t think it behooves us to tell the Ukraine what to do. I’m not excited about saying ‘hey, let’s put the Ukraine in NATO’ to rub Russia’s nose in it.”
However, in an opinion piece he wrote for Time Magazine, Paul argues that Russia’s violations of Ukrainian sovereignty should be met with “isolation.” He added that sanctions should be in place, the missile defense shield should be restored in Poland and the Czech Republic (on Europe’s tab), and the U.S. should aggressively market natural gas to Europe in order to curb dependence on Russian gas.
Rick Santorum, like many of the other Republican candidates, has denounced the decisions of the current administration on Ukraine. Santorum argued in March of 2014, that if he were president, he would have prevented the crisis in Ukraine by taking a stronger stance.
“I would have deployed missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic. I would have stood by our allies in Ukraine,” Santorum said. “You can’t show the continual weakness and not expect Russia to take advantage of it.”
If elected president, Santorum says that he would send arms to Ukraine.
Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, made some fumbles in March on his foreign policy platform. In an interview with Hugh Hewitt, when asked what Carson would do as president, if Putin made a move on the Baltics, he seemed confused.
“We need to convince [the Baltics] to get involved in NATO and strengthen NATO,” Carson said.
The problem here is obvious. The Baltics are already NATO members.
Although his lack of knowledge on Baltic issues might be concerning to some, Carson still supports arming Ukraine, expanding NATO, and rethinking Russia’s position on the UN Security Council.
(Canadian Prime Ministerial hopeful and Liberal Party Leader, Justin Trudeau needed to ask a reporter what NATO Article V is in October 2014 – ed.)
Senator Bernie Sanders supports President Obama’s use of sanctions to punish Russia for its involvement in the Ukrainian unrest propagated by the Kremlin.
“The entire world has got to stand up to Putin,” Sanders said in an interview with Bill O’Reilly. “We’ve got to deal with sanctions, we’ve got to deal with freezing assets.”
Sanders, however, has not taken a stance on whether or not to send lethal weapons to Ukraine in their war against Russian separatists. Sanders stressed that force should be a last resort in the conflict in Ukraine in an interview on the The Ed Show in March of 2014.
Gov. Rick Perry has been extremely critical of the Obama Administration’s tactics in handling the crisis in Ukraine. He sees the current policy as being far too soft on Russia.
In a video released in February regarding the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Perry encouraged providing arms and deploying troops to the Baltic countries. He also supported increased U.S. natural gas exports to Ukraine, provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine, and impose more sanctions on Russia.
Perry believes that the United States should “lead the debate in NATO, to allow a permanent deployment of US and NATO allies to Poland and the Baltics, to protect our allies and the assets in the area, including bomber wings to the Baltic Republics and permanent US Army forces in Poland,” Perry said. “We need to conduct port visits by the US Navy in the Baltics.”
In July, Gov. John Kasich took aim at President Barack Obama’s foreign policy plan for Ukraine, and urged that the United States should send military assistance to Ukraine to fight Russian-backed rebels.
On the campaign trail in New Hampshire, John Kasich expressed his concerns about Russia and 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.
Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has been critical of the current policy on Ukraine and Russia. Jindal stated that the Obama Administration’s indecision on Ukraine threatens U.S. credibility among the rest of its allies.
“The reality is our enemies today don’t fear us, our allies don’t consistently trust us,” Jindal said.
Jindal favors sending lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine in order to combat Russian separatists, and argues that there needs to be a stronger response to check Russia.
“I think what Putin read in all that was weakness,” Jindal said. “We know he went to Crimea in part, because he didn’t fear real consequences, he didn’t fear real repercussions.”
Gov. Lincoln Chafee has taken a soft approach to the Russia-Ukraine issue. Chafee argues that the crisis in Ukraine is a “tug of war” between Russia and the European Union. He believes that the United States should instead work with Russia to “wage peace”, and is skeptical about even imposing sanctions on Russia.
“I don’t know about these sanctions. I should think that there would be better ways of getting rapprochement with Russia,” Chafee said in a CNN interview. “They’re so important in the world and especially to the former Soviet republic, such as Ukraine.”
Chafee clearly does not view Russia as a threat, and sees the crisis in Ukraine as a European issue. His rhetoric on Russia seems to echo Donald Trump: Russia is a better friend than a rival.
Jim Gilmore expressed worry about the current policy for the crisis in Ukraine in a blog piece he wrote for The Hill. Gilmore maintained that the United States should work to restore Crimea to Ukrainian control, and that “1994 borders are the only option in Ukraine.”
“Restoration of the captured territory must be the U.S. policy, especially in the face of continuing pressure on Eastern Ukraine,” Gilmore said.
Gilmore stressed that NATO should bolster support for its allies along the Russian border.
“NATO must resolve to place soldiers in vulnerable countries along the Russian periphery: not enough to imply aggressive action against Russia, but to make it clear that further Russian invasion will have to go through NATO soldiers,” Gilmore said.
Carly Fiorina argued for an increased military presence in the Baltics, arming Ukraine, and taking a more aggressive stance against Russia.
“I wouldn’t speak to Vladimir Putin. I would act instead and do four things immediately,” Fiorina 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.”
Gov. Martin O’Malley has yet to speak about the crisis in Ukraine, Russia, and the Baltics. O’Malley did visit Estonia in 2009 in conjunction with the Sister State relationship between Maryland and Estonia.
Gov. George Pataki has yet to speak about the crisis in Ukraine, Russia, and the Baltics.
Rumors have spread through media and political circles that Vice President Joe Biden will make a run for 2016. Last week, Biden attended a private meeting with Senator Elizabeth Warren helping cultivate more suspicion that he will throw his hat into the race for the presidency.
Biden is well versed on Baltic issues, having visited Lithuania in 2014, and has met with the leaders of the Baltic states. Senator Biden chaired many of the committee hearings on NATO enlargement in earlier days. He has visited Ukraine three times since the conflict began, and takes a strong stance for military defense of the Baltics.
“NATO’s readiness action plan is an important start, allowing us to step up our military presence in the air and sea and on the land, from the Baltics and Poland to Romania and Bulgaria,” Biden said in a speech at Brookings in May of 2015.
Biden believes that the U.S. response to the conflict in Ukraine will set an important precedent for European sovereignty and the rest of NATO.
“What’s happening in Ukraine is about much, much, much more than that,” Biden said. “It’s about the rights of nations on the frontier of Europe to choose their own futures; it’s about the future of NATO, our collective self defense, and our unity, our strength, our ability to deter aggression together.”
Despite his position as vice president, Biden suggested that more needs to be done in assisting Ukraine in its fight to deter Russian aggression, especially regarding military support.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact Ukraine also needs basic military equipment and training which we’re also providing on the ground,” Biden said. “But more [needs] to be done.”
This piece originally posted by The Joint Baltic American Committee (JBANC)