U.S. — Russia relations after 2016: isolation, engagement or confrontation?

With so many presidential candidates in the U.S., there is a great deal of media attention and public discussion. There hasn’t been too much said about where the candidates stand on relations with Russia, Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian crisis, but we have asked our columnist Kyle Menyhert to take a look at their statements and say what kind of actions we should expect after 2016.

Ever since President George Washington advised Americans that it would be best to stay out of other countries’ disputes in his Farewell Address, Americans have been often sympathetic and supportive of the idea of isolationism. Until World War I, the United States was only minimally involved with affairs beyond its immediate borders.  Even then, America’s involvement came late. President Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 Presidential Election with the slogan «He Kept Us out of War», an obvious allusion to World War I raging across the Atlantic. That reluctant attitude towards involvement in foreign wars continued when President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the American people that he would not send American troops to fight in the Second World War. It was only the attack on Pearl Harbor that prompted American military action in World War II.

Since then, however, the United States has been heavily involved in many different disputes around the world. From wars in Korea and Vietnam to intelligence-engineered coup d’etats in Iran and all over Central and South America, to wars in the Middle East and bombings in what was once Yugoslavia, the United States has been involved in all corners of the world since World War II ended. Sometimes the causes were noble, other times perhaps not so much. The United States directly and indirectly supported repressive regimes in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Iran, and even apartheid-era South Africa in the fight to contain communism.

When President Barack Obama was swept into office in 2008, he touted a more restrained approach to a foreign policy centered on diplomacy. Obama has seen victories and defeats with this approach, but the war between Ukraine and Russia remains an open and unresolved conflict.

More blunt isolationism, however, seems to still resonate with many Americans and this is most clearly summed up by three words uttered by the leading Republican candidate.

«It’s Europe’s problem.»

That’s what U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has said when asked about the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the invasion of Russian troops into the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. In an interview with CNN in Scotland, Mr. Trump claimed that Europe should take more responsibility for the crisis, explicitly pondering why Germany had not taken a greater role in resolving the conflict. After all, Ukraine and Russia are European countries, are they not?

Trump has also said he’s going to get along very well with Russian President Vladimir Putin. While his remarks on the relationship between President Obama and President Putin, namely that Obama and Putin «hate each other «and have a «very bad relationship» do carry elements of truth, exactly how he’d mend U.S.-Russian relations is not yet clear.

Considerable consensus is evident among the other Republican Party candidates in regards to the Ukraine crisis.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush supports supplying Kyiv with lethal aid and an increased presence of American troops in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. His Floridian counterpart, Senator Marco Rubio, has been vocal in his support for supplying Kyiv with weapons, as well as the possibility of letting Ukraine join NATO, an ambition that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has expressed interest in holding a nationwide referendum for. Rubio called President Putin a «gangster», referencing the assassinations of Aleksandr Litvinenko and Boris Nemtsov in recent remarks: «He [Putin] is 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 in your drink or shot in the street.»

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Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is also very supportive of both arming Ukraine and bringing both Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, as well as rebuilding missile defense systems that were dismantled under the Obama Administration and is in agreement with Governor Bush in regards to an increased troop presence in the Baltic states.

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin did well to explicitly mention the conflict in Ukraine during the first major GOP debate. “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.” Indeed, an American military convoy recently a made a public trip through the Czech Republic. The convoy saw hundreds of Czechs waving the Stars and Stripes and cheering the passing American troops.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas also is supportive of sending Ukraine lethal aid, as is Ben Carson. Carson, however, was previously and publicly unaware that the Baltic states were members of NATO, raising some American political pundits’ eyebrows.

Governor John Kasich of Ohio has been vigorously supportive of supplying lethal aid to the Ukrainians as well. He is on record as saying “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.”

Despite the consensus coming across among many Republican candidates, some differences exist among the candidates specifically around Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul. While Senator Paul supports «isolating» Russia because of its aggression in Ukraine, he seems more reluctant to directly engage or supply Ukraine with aid. Mike Huckabee, once the Governor of Arkansas, is also quite wary of military escalation, instead opting to focus on economic isolation.

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On the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner and President Obama’s Secretary of State for many years, seems to employ more hawkish ideals than her boss. Clinton, like many of the Republican candidates, has alluded to providing greater financial and military assistance to Kyiv, but whether Clinton would sign a bill  as president directly arming Ukraine is unclear. Clinton has made strong remarks about Putin, though, comparing him to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. She has also spoken highly of the Ukrainian government and armed forces. «I think the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian civilians who’ve been fighting against the separatists have proven that they’re worthy of some greater support.” After many years of directly working with the president, though, it’s questionable that a Clinton Administration would do much different than the Obama Administration. Hillary may also face opposition from those who lean farther left within her own party if she becomes president.

If Vice President Joe Biden runs and wins the White House, the United States will have someone at the helm who is a seasoned and experienced character who has visited and met with leaders in the Baltic states and both Ukraine’s President and Prime Minister. Biden, however, probably will not waver far from Obama’s current policies, which, while they have thrown the Russian economy into considerable instability, have not visibly convinced the Kremlin to change course. Biden has also displayed more caution in regards to the War in the Donbas than Secretary Clinton or even President Obama. Farther to the left, Independent-turned-Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders has expressed interest in economic isolation but has been, like Senator Paul, very wary of military action.

There are over twenty candidates running for President in the United States. However, there are probably only about three courses to choose from when you boil it down regarding Ukraine and Russia. Americans can choose the status quo with Clinton (or Biden if he runs), stronger action against Putin with most of the Republicans, restrained action with Senator Paul or Senator Sanders, or uncharted isolation with Donald Trump.

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