The Iowa Caucus and the start of the United States’ presidential election season is less than a week away. For Americans, this is a big election that will unquestionably change the course of history and serve as a referendum on what voters perceive to be the identity of the United States.
Just as it was in 2016, Russia is a topic at the forefront of conversations swirling around this year’s election. There have been overly broad discussions about foreign policy during the Democratic debates, but where does each candidate stand concretely when it comes to Russia? And what would relations look like under the various candidates?
Here’s a summary of where some of the top 2020 candidates stand on Russia based on what they’ve said, what they’ve done, and what they say they’re going to do.
Of all the candidates with at least a viable chance at becoming the next Commander and Chief of the United States, Amy Klobuchar boasts by far the most antagonistic and hawkish attitude towards Russia. Her antipathy towards Russia is likely linked to her strong, yet mysterious affinity towards Ukraine. Klobuchar is one of fifteen Senators who sits on the Senate Ukraine Caucus and even spent New Year’s Eve in Ukraine alongside John McCain and host of Ukrainian marines. There is no concrete evidence that Senator Klobuchar has received or currently receives any financial support from any pro-Ukrainian organizations or individuals, but some say there is likely a lobbyist connection to Klobuchar and her fervent support for Ukraine.
Among the lot of candidates vying to become President, Senator Klobuchar has branded herself as someone who will be tough on Russia and President Vladimir Putin. She famously downplayed allegations about mistreating members of her staff by turning the question into a positive testament of her ability to operate on the international stage. She said, “When you’re out there on the world stage and dealing with people like Vladimir Putin, yeah, you want someone who’s tough.” Klobuchar’s “toughness” will likely take the form of introducing more sanctions on Russia, strengthening the United States’ presence in Syria, and ratcheting up the rhetoric against Russia.
Although she’s unlikely to win the nomination, she recently secured the thumbs up from the New York Times, one of the most highly coveted endorsements for Democratic candidates. If you’re someone who wants better relations between the United States and Russia, then Amy Klobuchar is not you’re candidate. That said, one should note that she does support renewing the New Start Treaty, but that’s the full extent of her goodwill towards Russia.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was a dark horse in 2016 who came very close to winning the Democratic nomination despite corruption within the Democratic party which sought to undermine his candidacy and prop up Hillary Clinton. This year, the tables have turned and now Sanders, a self-described socialist, is a crowd favorite with a real chance to win it all.
Sanders is unique for a number of reasons. One, he is the only candidate who is proposing to fundamentally change the United States or in his words bring about a “political revolution.” If he were to win, Bernie would be the first president in US history to take office with a socialist ideology. That would be huge considering the word “socialist” has long been a pejorative in mainstream American political discourse. When it comes to Russia, Senator Sanders is likewise very unique. As someone who spent ten days in the Soviet Union for his honeymoon, Sanders has what can be described as a nuanced view of both foreign policy and Russia.
Sanders’ campaign is eccentric in the fact that it’s narrowly focused on improving lives, reversing income inequality, and bringing about social justice. His foreign policy for that reason is minimalistic in that it calls for the United States to shift its focus from endless wars and a maximalist military presence across the globe to solving problems at home. This idea carries over to Russia — where although he has talked tough on “Russian interference” and supported various rounds of sanctions, he doesn’t seem interested in escalating tensions or pursuing provocative policies with regards to Russia. Sanders at the very minimum seems to view Russians as human beings and not predestined arch-nemeses. In 2017, Bernie Sanders recalled witnessing a Russia-U.S. exchange program that helped form his views: “I will never forget seeing Russian boys and girls visiting Vermont, getting to know American kids, and becoming good friends. Hatred and wars are often based on fear and ignorance. The way to defeat this ignorance and diminish this fear is through meeting with others and understanding the way they see the world.”
Sanders’ presidency would likely be a mixed bag. The number of confrontations on issues like Syria, Ukraine, Libya, and Iran would likely dissolve and there could be a considerable amount of groundwork and cooperation made on issues concerning arms control. That said, one shouldn’t expect there to be a complete detente or for his administration to abruptly lift sanctions on Russia. That will not be inside a fortune cookie any time soon.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is a man who needs no introduction. As someone who has been in the political limelight ever since limelights were invented, Biden has long developed and made known his views on Russia.
At the beginning of the Obama administration, Biden was a strong proponent of forging a fresh start with Russia that would focus on mutual interests like nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, stabilizing Afghanistan, fighting terrorism, opening global markets, and a range of other issues. That temporary partnership took a turn for the worse in 2014 following Crimea’s reunification with Russia and Russia’s intervention in Syria that thwarted the Obama administration’s efforts to enact regime change. Since then, Biden has advocated an adversarial foreign policy towards Russia. He has been in favor of increased sanctions, arming Ukraine, pushing back on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and hitting Russia with cyberattacks.
By every indication, a Joe Biden presidency would look a lot like the Obama presidency during its second term. And although it’s true that Biden has a reputation for bringing a sort of charm when it comes to building relations with other countries, it’s unlikely that he’ll carry with him that charm to build better relations with Russia. Biden is the most likely candidate to unseat Donald Trump, which means that Russia-U.S. relations are likely to continue being hostile, confrontational, and counterproductive.
While there are no candidates running who can be described as pro-Russian, there is at least one adult in the room who recognizes that this constant confrontation and New Cold War with Russia does not promote America’s interests or make Americans safer. That adult in the room is Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran and serving major in the National Guard who has received quite a bit of attention for being a white crow when it comes to foreign policy.
Gabbard has been a vocal and consistent critic of Washington’s regime change policies that she argues “are wasteful and have drained our country of trillions of dollars, undermined our national security, and cost the lives of thousands of our men and women in uniform.” Beyond that and in stark contrast to her opponents, Congresswoman Gabbard has called for the United States to ally with Russia to restore stability to Syria. She has also been at the forefront of calling for sensible nuclear arms control, which includes renewing the New START Treaty and introducing legislation to keep the United States compliant under the INF Treaty.
Tulsi Gabbard’s unique stances on foreign policy have made her a target for both the media and establishment Democrats who are fervently in favor of the status quo. Just this past year, CNN and the New York Times smeared her by suggesting that she might be a “Russian asset.” This, of course, followed accusations by Hillary Clinton that Gabbard is a “favorite of the Russians” and that Russia was “grooming” her to run as a third-party candidate.
As in the 2016 election and the case of Donald, there has been a groundswell of careless conflation between the idea that Gabbard is a Russian plant and the idea that a few people in Moscow, who actually know who she is, would like her to do well. The truth is Tulsi Gabbard is neither pro-Russian nor a “Russian asset.” In fact, she’s far from it. She does not support Crimea’s reunification, she’s voted for sanctions against Russia, and she’s even called out Russia over election interference. The difference between her and the rest of the field is that she’s the only candidate consistently calling for diplomacy and dialogue. She’s repeatedly argued that inflaming tensions between the United States and Russia is taking us in the wrong direction — and for that reason alone, Tulsi Gabbard is perhaps the only candidate who could bring about better Russia-U.S. relations.
Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren is the woman with a plan. More accurately, Senator Warren is well-known for having an exhaustive list of plans that she would execute as future President of the United States. Those plans range from healthcare to foreign policy, to green manufacturing — to almost everything in between. When it comes to Russia, the former Harvard professor proposes “strong, targeted penalties on Russia for its attempts to subvert elections” and implementing policies that will help make America’s European allies “energy independent.” This is, of course, consistent with her voting record while in the Senate, where she has voted repeatedly to sanction Russia on virtually every occasion.
It’s apparent from Warren’s statements that she views Russia as an adversary and has very little interest in repairing relations between the two countries. Although she supports cooperation on arms control and protecting the New START Treaty, that’s the bare minimum and in itself is a commonsensical position that virtually all of the presidential candidates agree on.
Warren’s foreign policy views share a lot of similarities with Bernie Sanders in that she supports drawing down America’s presence and excessive military spending across the globe. The difference between her and Sanders is that she doesn’t seem willing to pursue diplomacy with Russia or treat her Russian counterparts with mutual respect. She instead embraces the typical stereotypes about Russia that cast the country as irremediably corrupt, authoritarian, and “not one of us.” That sort of approach will most certainly not lead to better relations between our two countries.
America’s reigning champion and current president is quite possibly the hardest candidate to read into when it comes to his feelings towards Russia. While it’s true that Donald Trump has said complimentary things about President Putin and is regularly accused by conspiracy theorists and political opponents of possessing a bred-in-the-bone affinity towards Russia, his deeds don’t actually line up very well with the flowery language he uses to talk about relations with the United States’ historic rival. In fact, if you take a moment to just ignore the flattering rhetoric and concentrate on Trump’s actions through his first term, then you end up with an incredibly different picture than what is often portrayed in American media.
Trump, since taking office in 2017, has levied hundreds of new sanctions against Russia — oftentimes without a real clear rationale for doing so. He has forcefully lobbied against Gazprom’s Nord Stream pipeline connecting Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea. He has led regime change efforts in Venezuela, a country where Russia has billions of dollars invested in contracts with the Maduro-led government. Trump has likewise pulled out of treaties like the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) against Russia’s wishes. He’s armed Ukraine with lethal weapons and his administration has tried to subvert any prospects of peace in the Donbas region. Trump has continued the United States’ illegal occupation in Syria and even authorized a military strike that killed dozens of Russian contractors, all of which have undermined Russia’s quest to restore stability to its most valuable ally in the Middle East.
With this laundry list of transgressions, it’s hard to imagine that Trump does the bidding of the Kremlin or Vladimir Putin. It’s even harder to imagine that President Trump sincerely holds an affinity towards Russia and that improving relations with Russia is a matter of top priority for him. It’s true, he often commends and expresses a willingness to pursue dialogue — however those sweet words rarely if ever translate into actions that Russians could genuinely perceive as being friendly. True to his days a reality television star — Trump is unpredictable and keeps his audience at the edge of their seats.
Donald Trump, in that sense, is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. However, it’s unlikely that another term with Trump as president will bring about any improvements in Russia-U.S. relations.
From our partner RIAC