Kyle Menyhert

Columnist of Free Russia Foundation

The GOP debate: attention shifts from Ukraine to Syria

On Wednesday night, Americans tuned into the second round of Republican Party debates. It didn’t take long for the simmering tensions between the United States and Russian Federation to be brought up.

However, the War in the Donbas was not the topic of discussion. Instead, moderator Jake Tapper of CNN asked the candidates:  

“Russia is sending troops and tanks into Syria right now to prop up a U.S. enemy, Bashar al-Assad. President Obama’s incoming top general says, quote, “Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security.”A bit ironic, considering former Governor Mitt Romney in the 2012 Presidential election claimed that Russia was the United States’ “biggest geopolitical foe”, a claim widely mocked by Democrats. 

Tapper continued to the question, addressed at business mogul Donald Trump: “Mr. Trump, you say you can do business with President Vladimir Putin, you say you will get along, quote, “very well.” What would you do right now if you were president, to get the Russians out of Syria?”

Trump responded as follows: “So, number one, they have to respect you. He [President Putin] has absolutely no respect for President Obama. Zero. Syria’s a mess. You look at what’s going on with ISIS in there, now think of this: we’re fighting ISIS. ISIS wants to fight Syria. Why are we fighting ISIS in Syria? Let them fight and pick up the remnants.”

On Putin, he continued: “I would talk to him. I would get along with him. I believe — and I may be wrong, in which case I’d probably have to take a different path, but I would get along with a lot of the world leaders that this country is not getting along with. I believe that I will get along — we will do — between that, Ukraine, all of the other problems, we won’t have the kind of problems that our country has right now with Russia and many other nations.”

Trump’s answer, like his previous responses to questions about the Kremlin’s recent offensives, was again, vague and seemingly isolationist. Again, while the claim that President Putin does not particularly respect President Obama probably holds some truth to it, he did not specify how he would fix that problem. 

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Tapper then moved to Florida Senator Marco Rubio, bringing up that Rubio had in the past called President Putin a “gangster” and asking him why his approach would be more effective than Trump’s. 

Rubio offered a scathing but more detailed condemnation of the Kremlin’s policies, reminding the audience that Putin wants to “reposition Russia as a geopolitical force” in the world and that Putin is on record claiming that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. He also claimed Putin wanted to “destroy NATO” and wants to do that by capitalizing on an opportunity in Syria left open by the Obama Administration and expressed fear that the Kremlin would turn to Egypt and Saudi Arabia next if they made headway in Syria. 

It’s most likely an exaggeration on Senator Rubio’s part that President Putin and the Kremlin want to “destroy NATO”, but it is obvious that the organization is widely disliked and criticized among pro-Kremlin Russians as overstepping its boundaries into what’s perceived as the Russian sphere of influence, something the Kremlin is clearly interested in maintaining and even growing, perhaps at the expense of Europe and the United States. While growing regional and global influence is not an evil ambition in theory, the problem of who is leading that ambition and with what ideology still stands. 

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Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina took an even more active role. She wasted no time telling the audience that she met President Putin and that she wouldn’t talk to him. Fiorina assumed a fiery tone right off the bat and proposed rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, which is docked in Naples, Italy, the missile defense program in Poland, and aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states as well as sending more troops to Germany. She claimed, without hesitation, that “Vladimir Putin would get the message…the only way he will stop is to sense strength and resolve on the other side, and we have all of that within our control.” The remarks gained substantial applause from the audience. 

Rand Paul, sticking to his more cautious foreign policy, criticized the idea proposed by Ms. Fiorina, citing that American diplomats were in near-constant dialogue with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. 

The Kremlin’s decision to move closer into Syria to bolster Assad is a complicated and controversial issue. Some claim it’s an implicit move by Putin to divert attention away from the War in Eastern Ukraine both domestically and internationally. Domestically, he could spin the move into Syria as a distraction away from the stalemate in the Donbas and internationally he may be hoping that a fight against ISIS (despite his decision to stand by Assad’s brutal government) will lead the United States and the European Union to reconsider the sanctions. Right now, however, it seems like it’s only driving the wedge between our two countries farther.