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Clinton walks a 'fine line' on Putin

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 5:12 PM EDT, Wed March 19, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hillary Clinton talks tough about Russia's moves to annex Crimea from Ukraine
  • She says Russian President Putin wants to rewrite European boundaries
  • Analyst: Clinton seeks to bolster Democrats in November and her presidential chances
  • Republicans already criticize the early Democratic frontrunner for President in 2016

Washington (CNN) -- Hillary Clinton is talking tough about Russia these days, for reasons both pragmatic and political.

The overwhelming favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, if she decides to run, Clinton already faces GOP criticism for allegedly being soft on Moscow as President Barack Obama's secretary of state until last year.

A recent Republican National Committee statement mocked the "reset" button she offered to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2009 in what was a symbolic effort by the Obama administration to move past Russia's military backing for two breakaway regions in Georgia.

Now Russia's attempted annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from neighboring Ukraine, another former Soviet territory, has again put Washington-Moscow relations in the spotlight.

Using generally stronger and more provocative language than the administration she once represented, Clinton seeks to buff her own foreign policy credentials and those of her party without straying too far from the official government messaging and tactics.

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"She has to walk a very fine line"

"She has to walk a very fine line," Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller said of the former first lady and U.S. senator.

The goal is to maintain her credibility as a former secretary of state, and the Democratic Party's credibility on security and defense issues, as the nation heads toward congressional elections in November and the presidential vote two years later, Schiller told CNN.

"She sees it as important not just for her but for the Democratic Party as a whole," Schiller said. Otherwise, "you go from the party that killed Osama bin Laden to the party that can't stop Vladimir Putin."

Hillary Clinton: It's up to Putin whether there's 'another Cold War'

On Tuesday, Clinton used a speech in Montreal to describe the conflict between Russia and Western allies over Crimea as a "clash of values," adding that Putin would determine if another Cold War ensued.

"I hope there is not another Cold War," Clinton said in response to a question. "Obviously, nobody wants to see that. I think that is primarily up to Putin."

She also called the Crimea situation an effort by Putin to "rewrite the boundaries of post-World War II Europe."

"If he is allowed to get away with that, I think you will see a lot of other countries either directly facing Russian aggression or suborned with their political system so that they are so intimidated that in effect they are transformed into vassals, not sovereign democracies," Clinton warned. "There is a lot at stake here."

Much at stake

She called on the Obama administration to "do a better job of supporting" the interim Ukraine government, and pushed for easing Europe's energy dependence on Russia, saying: "The Russians can only intimidate you if you are dependent on them."

Earlier this month, Clinton compared Putin's actions in Crimea to the tactics of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, when Germany began taking over neighboring countries. That remark drew media attention and some criticism, with Clinton clarifying her point the next day.

Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry also have criticized Putin, using careful language to insist that Russia's moves in Crimea violated international law and would never gain international acceptance.

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Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has played the role of administration attack dog by traveling to Poland, Lithuania and Estonia this week to label the Russian move in Crimea a "land grab" and pledge NATO support for former Soviet satellites now part of the alliance.

Biden has hinted he might run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, and Schiller said Clinton's public posture on the Ukraine crisis takes a possible Biden challenge into consideration.

Biden on her mind

"On the off chance Joe Biden decides he wants to run, she's taking every opportunity to one-up him on foreign policy credentials," Schiller said.

At the same time, Clinton wants to avoid launching any kind of "real challenge" to Obama on the issue, she added, saying "you look like a turncoat and it reduces your credibility."

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney rejected any political calculations in the U.S. response to Putin and Russia when asked about Republican claims the issue could hurt Clinton in 2016.

"That's a superficial way of looking at things," Carney said, adding that "our obligation is to be very clear-eyed about what our national security interests are, what our obligations are to our allies and partners, and to pursue those."

Noting a "temptation to see everything through the lens of the next election cycle," Carney said "that's pretty flaccid thinking."

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CNN's Dan Merica contributed to this report.

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