Every good story needs a villain and in Vladimir Putin, candidates in the 2016 White House race have found the perfect foil.
The Russian President – with his expansionist worldview, Cold War-style mindset, KGB roots, tough-guy stunts and implacable anti-Americanism – makes the quintessential campaign trail scoundrel.
Putin’s walk-on role in the 2016 campaign was on display at the CNN Republican presidential debates on Wednesday, perhaps inevitably, since echoes of the Cold War were everywhere. The back-to-back showdowns were hosted by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, which honors a man who helped hasten the end of the Soviet Union by famously saying in Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Candidates, Republicans in particular, seem eager to drop his name and take a stance that makes them look strong, President Barack Obama look weak and that does not require much policy detail. But their harsh talk could end up further straining the U.S.-Russia relationship and handing the next president an even bigger foreign policy challenge.
Putin’s name came up 18 times Wednesday night, recalling previous eras when Soviet bashing was a staple of U.S. presidential campaigns.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who touted his foreign policy credentials throughout the debate and says Putin is nothing more than a “gangster,” warned that the Russian leader was trying to reverse the collapse of the Soviet Union and wanted to “destroy NATO.”
And the breakout star of the debate, Carly Fiorina, took the Putin cold shoulder a step farther.
The former Hewlett-Packard CEO picked a fight with Russia to portray herself as a potential commander in chief.
“Having met Vladimir Putin, I wouldn’t talk to him at all. We’ve talked way too much to him,” she said.
“What I would do, immediately, is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland, I would conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states,” she continued. “I’d probably send a few thousand more troops into Germany. Vladimir Putin would get the message.”
Talk is one thing …
If elected president, Fiorina would feel under pressure to live up to her threat to shun him, but not every vow made on the campaign trail ends up translating into administration policy.
And while ignoring Putin might make a strong statement at the start of a presidency, Russia’s global influence, its position on the U.N. Security Council and its capacity to thwart U.S. foreign priorities would likely eventually force a President Fiorina to conduct a dialogue with the Russian leader.
Front-runner Donald Trump, meanwhile, sees the Putin problem as less of a geopolitical conundrum and more of a character issue, vowing that the Russian leader will change his tune once a strong personality is back in the Oval Office.
“I will get along with him,” said Trump, with typical self-confidence.
But Trump’s certainty appears to fly in the face of events. Putin has shown no affection for billionaire businessmen who disagree with him. Several in his country have been thrown in jail during his tenure. Others have fled abroad. Oligarchs close to Putin, on the other hand, benefit from the spoils of Russia’s energy riches.
One of Trump’s rivals, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, used the image of a Machiavellian Putin to cast doubt on Trump’s qualifications to be president.
“Do we want someone with that kind of character, that kind of careless language, to be negotiating with Putin?” Paul asked.
In the debate for second-tier candidates, Sen. Lindsey Graham played the Reagan card.
“Do you think Putin would be in the Ukraine or Syria today if Ronald Reagan were president?” he asked. “No. This is what happens when you have a weak, unqualified commander in chief.”
Graham’s point, however, ignored the fact that Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union when Reagan was in office, and that Moscow maintained a port in Tartus, Syria, for much of the Cold War.
Putin seems unlikely to blink
While Republican candidates play to the gallery of grassroots hawks nostalgic for the Reagan era, it’s unclear just how effective their strategy of tougher talk and further isolation of the Russian leader would be.
The recent history of both Republican and Democratic administrations suggests Russia may believe threatening U.S. oratory is rarely backed up by action, and that Washington has no desire to raise military tensions with Moscow. That could change under a new U.S. administration, but it seems unlikely.
Republicans tend to skip over the fact that Russian troops invaded Georgia in 2008 under the watch of Republican President George W. Bush, who offered a less robust response than the sanctions imposed by Obama over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and incursions into Ukraine.
And Putin – who has proven himself to be a ruthless operator atop a Russian state apparatus and who, experts say, often makes national security calculations based on a desire to thwart Washington – is unlikely to be fazed by GOP threats.
After all, Putin puts muscle behind his tough-guy persona.
The State Department says the Russian government presides over harsh restrictions on freedom of expression, harassing and imprisoning dissidents, crushing media freedoms, suppressing gay rights and rigging elections and hassling NGOs. Russian security services are accused of murdering Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London by radioactive poisoning in 2006.
But while Republicans might be guilty of cheap talk on Russia, the Obama administration’s record has hardly been stellar. Indeed, one of the reasons why Putin is such a useful adversary for GOP candidates is that his rule underscores the struggles of the current White House.
Obama, with Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, pursued a mixed “reset” strategy with Moscow starting in 2009.
It did initially yield some results – including a nuclear arms reduction treaty, an agreement for Moscow to join international sanctions on Iran that lead to the recent nuclear deal with Tehran and talks opening a transit route for U.S. supplies into Afghanistan. But the progress came while Putin was behind the scenes as prime minister and Dmitry Medvedev served as president.
With Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, relations quickly dipped into the worst freeze since the Cold War, with the annexation of Crimea leading to U.S. sanctions and Russia being kicked out of the G8 club of wealthy nations.
Russian planes and ships are now testing the frontiers of NATO states, experts say espionage by Moscow is at Cold War levels and the Kremlin is sending troops and equipment to Syria, apparently seeking to shore up Middle Eastern ally President Bashar al-Assad, whom the United States has said must leave power.
Russian hackers have been accused of infiltrating Pentagon email systems and Moscow has granted refuge to Edward Snowden, the fugitive intelligence contractor blamed for one of the most stunning breaches of U.S. intelligence data.
Even Clinton – perhaps wary of the failure of the “reset” on her own foreign policy reputation – has taken to bashing Putin. She’s compared him to Adolf Hitler and complained earlier this year that Europe was being too “wimpy” toward the Russian leader, according to London Mayor Boris Johnson.
’Echo chamber on the American side’
Some foreign policy professionals are becoming increasingly worried about the impact of the campaign debate on already fractious U.S.-Russia ties.
“The biggest problem we have is that there is only one side to this conversation,” said Matthew Rojansky, a Russian scholar at the Wilson Center. “It is an echo chamber on the American side. It is not a serious foreign policy discussion.”
Anti-Russian rhetoric on the campaign trail also risks handing Putin a propaganda coup – and making the situation for the next president that much more fraught – because it risks exacerbating anti-U.S. prejudice in Russia that the former KGB agent has stoked to shore up his own regime during tough economic times.
“The problem is that anything that is said that is hostile towards Russia on the campaign trail is viewed as confirmation of what Putin has said all along and that Russians believe … that America wants to destroy Russia,” said Rojansky. “That is what justifies the whole Putin system today.”