Despite staking out different positions on other policy issues, the candidates running for the U.S. presidency – with the possible exception of Donald Trump appear to be unanimous in their stance towards Russia. The wildcard factor could be Michael Bloomberg.


Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, seen in reflection, poses for a portrait following an interview with the Associated Press. Photo: AP

Although bipartisanship ­– a term that has long been a slogan of the political agenda – remains but an aspiration in the United States, there is one issue where political bipartisanship has seemingly existed throughout the last years: Russia. Both Republican and Democratic parties were very critical of Russia’s taking of Crimea, denounced “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” and largely supported sanctions on Russia and punitive resolutions in the Congress.

Yet still, overall, the Republican party has a much more aggressive position towards Moscow, pushing to build up U.S. troops in Eastern Europe, deploy ballistic missile defense (BMD) in Poland and the Czech Republic, and continue with NATO enlargement. 

At the peak of the Ukrainian crisis, 52 percent of Republicans supported sending lethal weapons to Ukraine and 50 percent thought that a war with Russia was likely (29 and 40 percent among Democrats, respectively.)

It is ironic, though, that while the Republican party at large has a tougher position on Russia, its top candidate – billionaire Donald Trump – has struck a friendly tone, and both parties, heading into the next phase of the presidential competition, have or had before the Iowa caucuses those who argue against confrontation with Russia.

Could Donald Trump really “work well with Putin”?

In an interview with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly in June 2015, Donald Trump stated that he could work well with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a campaign stop at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, New Hampshire. Photo: AP

“He’s got tremendous popularity in Russia, they love what he’s doing, they love what he represents,” Trump said. “I was over in Moscow two years ago, and I will tell you: You can get along with those people and get along with them well. You can make deals with those people. Obama can’t.”

Trump proceeds from his key assumption that the United States, while remaining strong and ensuring its global leadership, should be focused on the well-being of Americans themselves and not waste money on others. Trump did not want to help out Greece during the crisis, claiming that if Germany did not save Greece, Russia would.

Related: "Making sense of the strange relationship between Putin and Trump"

Trump criticizes Obama’s foreign policy for weakness yet does not believe that the United States should be the world’s policeman. Trump contends that “Russia invaded Ukraine because… there is no respect for the United States,”and speaks in favor of Ukraine’s integration into Europe. Yet after the events in Crimea, he said that U.S. should only intervene in Crimea if European countries ask for help and, until then, it remains “Europe’s problem.”

Trump said that he “would not care that much” whether or not Ukraine was allowed to join NATO. “If it goes in, great. If it doesn’t go in, great.”

Trump supported Russia’s operation in Syria. In an interview on CNN he said, referring to Russian airstrikes, “Now they’re supposedly hitting ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria], which is a positive thing.”

He went on to say: “We just get bogged down in the Middle East and Russia will get bogged down in the Middle East.” Speaking of the Syrian president on CNN, he added: “I'm sure Assad is a bad guy, but you can have worse.” Meanwhile, several prominent Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), accused Trump of not understanding the situation in Syria.

Many U.S. commentators see some of Trump’s statements as haphazard and often contradictory and inconsistent. Just a year before this statement, he advocated strong sanctions against Russia and when later asked whether they could be removed, responded that in order to achieve this, Russia should “behave.”

Some pundits note that, although for the moment Trump has turned his softer side to Russia, this does not mean that he will continue to do so and will not insult it like he did with women, Muslims or migrants, whose rights he is planning to restrict. Especially since one of his key foreign policy advisors is former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, known for his hawkish position on Russia.

Ted Cruz: Is he the most radical of them all?

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), winner of the Iowa caucuses, is widely considered the most radical of the Republican contenders. He is associated with the ultra-conservative Republican group known as the Tea Party. Though he is a senator from Texas and early in his career worked for seven years in D.C., Cruz positions himself as an outsider.

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks at a town hall-style campaign event, February 8, 2016, in Barrington, N.H. Photo: AP

He bashes the establishment, proclaims a battle with “the cartel of career politicians and lobbyists,” the corrupt Congressmen, and does not spare even his own Republican party. Much like Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), albeit on the other side of the political spectrum. Yet his radicalism is mostly true for social and domestic issues. While on the foreign policy agenda Cruz places himself “somewhere in between” the “basically isolationist” position of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), and McCain’s active interventionism.

Cruz has listed Russia among U.S. enemies, and called Putin a “thug.” Like most Republicans, he believes that the critical reason for Putin’s policy on Ukraine and Syria was President Barack Obama's weakness.

“That Putin fears no retribution,” Cruz said. “You better believe Putin sees in Benghazi four Americans are murdered and nothing happens. There is no retribution. You better believe that Putin sees that in Syria, Obama draws a red line and ignores the red line.”

And it goes without saying that Cruz supports vigorous sanctions on the Kremlin for its policy in Eastern Ukraine and argues for reinstating the antiballistic missiles and radars in Eastern Europe and providing lethal weapons to Ukraine. Yet he claims that he would be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad – and in this he differs from his other competitor, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), – though Cruz emphasizes that this should be done when needed – like former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, whom he cites as his role model – did in the early 1980s.

In Syria, Cruz called on people to stop “engaging in the fiction” of trying to find moderate rebels and support them, or trying to bring Sunnis and Shiites together.

“Instead, we should defend U.S. national security interests and do what works to defeat ISIS,” said Cruz. “That would mean using overwhelming air power to target and destroy ISIS. But we ought to be arming the Kurds... They are fighting the Peshmerga. Yet the Obama administration refuses to fund them because it wants to send the weapons to Baghdad and they are not using them to defeat the terrorists.”

Yet, unlike Rubio, he does not insist that Assad should be immediately removed.  The one foreign policy-related issue on which Cruz holds a more radical position than Rubio has to do not with Russia, but with illegal immigration: He is strongly against granting citizenship to the eleven million illegal immigrants already present on American soil.

Cruz believes that Russia supports Iran and they are together scheming behind the U.S.’s back. He was the one who filed an amendment requiring affirmative Congressional approval of any Iranian nuclear deal before sanctions relief could occur.

He also contended that Russia and Iran could be cooperating on hacker attacks against the United States. Moreover, he points out that the visit to Moscow of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Army’s Quds Force – a division primarily responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations – coincided with the cyber attack against the U.S. central military commandment.

With his vows to "rip up" Iran Deal and to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital on the very day he is elected, Cruz would certainly not be an easy person to deal with.

Marco Rubio: Someone to watch ­– or watch out for?

Rubio ­– who acted like a winner after the Iowa caucuses upon receiving just one percent less than Trump, is the only one of the Republican frontrunners largely supported by the GOP. Like Cruz, another presidential aspirant whose parents were Cuban immigrants, he is arguably also the most hawkish on foreign policy issues and Russia in particular.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a campaign stop at a high school cafeteria, February 7, 2016, in Londonderry, N.H. Photo: AP

Rubio, like Cruz, also labeled Putin “a gangster” and a “thug.” Furthermore, he went so far as to call at one point for an interruption of dialogue with Moscow and for introducing tougher and broader sanctions that would entail not only economic pressure on Russia as a whole, but would be similar to those imposed on Iran and would include visa and financial restrictions for Russia’s highest-ranking officials.

On the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World II, he published a piece entitled  “My vision for Europe,” where he stipulated that the biggest challenge for the West is to confront Russia’s “blatant attempt to overturn the post-World War order in Europe,” alluding to its incorporation of Crimea and its actions in Eastern Ukraine.

Instead of the temporary deployments, Rubio suggests a “mobile military presence deployed to NATO’s frontier.” He insists “the United States should end planned force drawdowns in the region and work with allies to ensure that the European Reassurance Initiative leads to a more permanent forward defense.”

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Rubio stands up firmly for supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine as well as for providing economic assistance to that country. He supports extending 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.”

Unlike Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio insists on Assad’s immediate removal. When asked about Russian allegedly “indiscriminate” attacks in Syria on Fox News, Rubio responded that the Russian attacks in Syria were actually quite discriminate and targeted.

“Vladimir Putin is deliberately targeting all the non-ISIS rebels,” he said. “The more moderate they are, the more he’s going to target them… He’s trying to thin out the opposition so that the only opposition left in Syria to Assad is ISIS, and at that point he’ll be able to force world to support Assad.”

Hillary Clinton: Balancing her position on Russia?

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton finds herself virtually between a rock and a hard place when she, on the one hand, has to prove that she is tough and distances herself from the alleged failures and weaknesses of Obama’s foreign policy and, on the other hand, tries to present favorably her credentials as his former U.S. Secretary of State.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event in Nashua, N.H. Photo: AP

Thus, she claims that the United States has gotten all they could from the reset while at the same time professes a tougher policy with regard to Russia. It is worth recalling that she, unlike Obama or her current competitor Bernie Sanders, supported the U.S. invasion in Iraq although she also claimed that the United States had a very big interest in stabilizing the Middle East region.

Like her Republican competitor, Clinton was among the most outspoken critics of Russian actions in Ukraine – the incorporation of Crimea – comparing them to what Adolf Hitler, the leader of Germany’s Nazi Party, before the World War II started: the 1938 Anschluss of Austria. Throughout the Ukrainian crisis, she joined the ranks of those in support of providing lethal weapons to Ukraine – which may be used as a litmus paper to delineate between hawks and doves in American foreign policy.

Clinton also criticized Russia’s operation in Syria. “Putin is playing a very dangerous and cynical game,” she said. “He’s clearly doing everything he can to prop up Assad and to establish sort of a Russian presence in Syria and the broader Middle East.”  She called for intensifying U.S. efforts and advocated establishing a no-fly zone, which some pundits interpreted as an advocacy of war with Russia.

Yet, later in an interview with CNN, Clinton ruled out sending American combat troops into Syria, calling this a “non-starter.” She criticized those Republicans that are ready to consider this and leave the door open for more special forces and instructors.

At the same time, she offers a plan to involve the Russians as much as possible in Syria, “especially since they now have felt the wrath of ISIS.” Clinton stated that she wants Russians at the table. That she would tell them that the U.S. needs “if not your help, at least your acquiescence.”

Russia Direct interviewed Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin to know his take about the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and its impact on the policy toward Russia. Read the full version of the interview here. 

The obvious fact is that Russia’s operation in Syria made it necessary not to disregard Russia as a thug, but rather, to take it into consideration. It is also apparent that when Russia and France almost simultaneously suffered from acts of terrorism, Clinton felt less pressure to present the face of a seasoned warrior ready to become the next commander-in-chief.

Moreover, with her two principal contenders advocating better relations with Russia, she had to modify her own position whether she liked Russia or not. There have been other signs as well of Clinton toning down her tough anti-Russian stance.

During the Democratic debate in Charleston, when faced with a question of what kind of relations they have with Putin, she hesitated for a moment and then uttered with an uneasy smile: “Respect.” In addition, when asked whether she would envisage a new reset, she answered that this would depend on what she would get from it. On another occasion, she said that Russia is not a threat, but a challenge.

Bernie Sanders: “The U.S. cannot be the only country intervening in so many countries”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who defines himself as a democratic socialist, once as a young man worked in a kibbutz, and then spent his honeymoon in Yaroslavl in the Soviet Union, is very much focused on domestic social issues and for a long while had but a general “War and Peace” section on his website without detailing his attitude to Russia.

However, on his Fаcebook page, soon after the hostilities in Ukraine started, he posted a comment that the entire world has to stand up to Putin. Sanders emphasized that the United States should not be sending its soldiers to Ukraine and cannot be the only country in the world intervening in so many countries. But he also made a statement suggesting freezing Russian assets over the world.

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, addresses the summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee, August 28, 2015, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: AP

Sanders was against U.S. intervention in Iraq. He believes that it was this war that created vacuum in the region, which was consequently filled up by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). During the debate on Dec. 19, he criticized Clinton for an excessively hawkish position on the Middle East. “I worry too much that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be.”

As for Syria, he stipulated that the first priority is to defeat ISIS. For this, he believes it necessary to join efforts with Russia and China as well as with Iran. “Yes, we could get rid of Assad tomorrow, but that would create another political vacuum that would benefit ISIS.”

Sanders would like to have Saudi Arabia and Iran work together in a coalition to defeat ISIS. And yes, he wants “to move on as aggressively as we can with Iran” and to see Iranian troops in Syria, which evokes vehement criticisms from Clinton.

A Michael Bloomberg wildcard candidacy?

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Secretary-General’s special U.N. envoy for cities and climate changeMichael Bloomberg speaks at a gun violence summit at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Monday, January 14, 2013. Photo: AP

After the results of the Iowa caucuses were made public, the business tycoon, three-time New York mayor, and the founder and owner of the same-name news and information agency Michael Bloomberg announced that he might consider joining the presidential race and would ask his analysts to investigate his chances.

One of the America’s ten richest people, he is said to be ready to invest $1 billion for the campaign. If, indeed, this were to happen and he won, from the Russian perspective, this could present an opportunity for a new start in U.S.-Russia relations.

However, what appears as a plus for Russia – that Bloomberg would be an independent candidate and that relations could pick up from a clean slate – has the other side of the coin for Americans: Bloomberg is not only an outsider but is a latecomer, perhaps much too late.

Moreover, like all other leading presidential contenders he has three additional “impossibilities” for winning, which in his case are his age 73 (just a year younger than Sanders), his Jewish descent (also like Sanders), and the fact that he lives outside of wedlock, which has never been the case with presidential hopefuls before. But times have surely changed and America – as manifested well in this campaign – has become more tolerant. Pundits do believe that if Sanders ends up contesting against Trump or against Cruz, Bloomberg might want to be there to give it a try.

Bloomberg has yet to announce his platform and, at the moment, we can speak only generally about his political outlook, which is social liberal. He is also known for his adherence to environment protection and arms control. To describe his policy approach Bloomberg has used three magic words: “non-ideological, bipartisan, and result-oriented.” Though his agency ran a very critical editorial on Russia’s operation in Syria, this was arguably not his, but the editor’s opinion. What is known is that he is a self-starter, hard worker, an achiever, and among other things has a good sense of humor.

Bloomberg is familiar with Russia (his Jewish ancestors came from the Russian Empire). Among the things he did as the New York’s mayor were cultural exchanges, and he even made Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich and Russian-born businesswoman, art collector Daria Zhukova honorary New Yorkers.

The New World’s leading philanthropist, Bloomberg also carried out broad international charity programs. He has made plans to allocate $220 million to change attitudes to tobacco in the world. Among the recipient countries should be Russia, China, India, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. From the Kremlin’s perspective, this should be preferable to democracy promotion, shouldn’t it?

Seeking a compromise

At the moment, there are too many questions to make informed predictions. The only thing that one can predict for sure is that one of these candidates will win – though each of them at the moment seems unelectable based on the traditional view of America as we used to know it.

 Read the Q&A with Carnegie Moscow Center's Dmitri Trenin: "Key challenges facing foreign policy experts in Russia, US"

Another thing that is clear is that no matter who comes to the White House, he or she would need to figure out how to deal with Russia. And, vice versa, Russia should have a strategy defining where it would like to see bilateral relations go and what to achieve in both the short- and long-term period twenty or thirty years from now.

The resolution of the Ukrainian crisis based on the Minsk Agreements, the end to the Syrian civil war and the cessation of radical Islamist terrorism requires international cooperation. Moreover, reestablishing relations with Western countries is essential, first and foremost for Russia itself, in order to stop its economic downfall, attract investment, and get access to technologies needed for modernization.

What’s needed is a broader perspective, one that takes into account more than just bilateral relations. Paraphrasing what U.S. President John F. Kennedy once said, it would be worthwhile to think not only about what the world can give us, but also what we can and should give to the world.