The topic of Russia continues to hang over the U.S. presidential election, this time with new charges from Hillary Clinton that Donald Trump is just Putin’s “puppet.”

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton waves to the audience as her Republican counterpart Donald Trump puts his notes away after the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Oct. 19. Photo: AP

America is less than three weeks away from electing its next president. While many differences exist between Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, relations with Russia might be the one issue that generates the most intense reactions between the two.

During the final debate on Oct. 19, Clinton lashed out at often-reported positive feelings Trump has expressed for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Clinton hammered away at Trump, suggesting, “You are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up NATO, do whatever he wants to do, and… you continue to get help from him, because he has a very clear favorite in this race.”

She added there was little doubt Russia and the Kremlin were behind recent cyberattacks against the United States because Putin wanted Trump to win. Such a victory would give him “a puppet as president of the United States,” Clinton said.

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Trump deflected that criticism, to the dismay of one columnist from the conservative magazine National Review. First, he argued that no concrete evidence has been presented to affirm Russia’s involvement with the cyberattacks.

Next, he attacked Clinton’s record as U.S. Secretary of State, a position she held during the first four years of Barack Obama’s presidency. He said that the Middle East was in a deeper mess now than it was when she held that post and Russia has taken advantage of that disarray to gain a toehold in the region, most notably in Syria.

Later in the debate, Clinton noted that Syria was in such flux because Iran and Russia continued to inject themselves in the civil war. Trump argued that the situation could be made worse if the rebels succeed in overthrowing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad because there was no guarantee the person replacing him would be any better.

Perhaps the most interesting moment about Russia came when debate moderator Chris Wallace asked Clinton if she would authorize shooting down a Russian military aircraft that violated any new no-fly zone agreement that the U.S. might create in Syria.

She didn’t say yes. Or no. Rather, she said substantive conversations with the Syrians and the Russians would be needed in order to ensure they understood the American position that the humanitarian crisis couldn’t be ignored.

Trump was not asked if he’d authorize such a strike, and he didn’t react to Clinton’s dodge of the question.

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The choice presented to American voters this year has been (simplistically) defined as a boorish, ill-prepared and dangerous demagogue against a corrupt, ethically challenged and evasive apologist. Trump’s continual refusal to say something critical of Putin or Russia enhances that image and stokes fear that authoritarianism could be a feature of his presidency.

Considering that Trump continues to trail badly in the polls, anything that disputes the contention that he deeply admires Putin and appears willing to accept that Russia might be trying to influence the election seems destined to fall on deaf ears.

The critics who think Clinton is corrupt, ethically challenged or an evasive apologist must acknowledge that she will be tenacious in dealing with Putin. Such a stance could mean even frostier relations between the two countries in 2017 if she is elected as the next U.S. president.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.