Hillary Clinton's campaign has done a thorough job of painting Donald Trump as a sympathizer of President Vladimir Putin. The Oct. 4 vice-presidential debate led some to believe that there was a split between Trump and his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, on this issue. Yet Trump's statements about the Russian leader and his suggestions about cooperation might be consistent with Pence's advocacy of a tough stance.
Intentionally or not, a significant portion of the debate focused on Russia. Clinton's running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, tried to put Pence on the defensive by reprising claims that Trump and Pence have praised Putin's leadership, Trump's company has "business dealings with Russian oligarchs who are very connected to Putin," and "the Trump campaign management team had to be fired a month or so ago because of those shadowy connections with pro-Putin forces," a reference to former campaign manager Paul Manafort 's work in Ukraine.
The latter two claims shouldn't have survived the recent fashion for on-the-spot fact-checking. Trump's proven connections to oligarchs are limited to the sale of expensive real estate. Manafort worked for deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who wasn't so much pro-Putin as willing to sell his services to the highest bidder — he leaned toward the European Union until 2013.
The first claim is true, though: Both men on the Republican ticket have said that Putin is a stronger leader than President Barack Obama.
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"If you don't know the difference between dictatorship and leadership, then you got to go back to a fifth-grade civics class," Kaine chided Pence. He was wrong. The line between the two can be fuzzy.In 2000, when he came to power, Putin won a fair election that was recognized as such by international observers. He is a proven leader who has since consolidated dictatorial powers and made the rigging of elections a widespread practice, but he has retained much of his popularity. Instead of accusing Trump of having a "personal Mount Rushmore" that includes Putin, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-un, as Kaine did, both Democrats and debate moderators should respond to the substance of what the Republicans are saying.
Pence summed it up during the debate:
"Look, America is stronger than Russia. Our economy is 16 times larger than the Russian economy. America's political system is superior to the crony, corrupt capitalist system in Russia in every way. When Donald Trump and I observe that, as I've said in Syria, in Iran, in Ukraine, that the small and bullying leader of Russia has been stronger on the world stage than this administration, that's stating painful facts. That's not an endorsement of Vladimir Putin. That's an indictment of the weak and feckless leadership."
As a Russian who closely follows Putin's domestic and foreign policy and opposes it on practically every count, I hear Pence. What he says is not an attempt to deflect criticism for his and Trump's statements about Putin — it's a valid criticism of U.S. policies.
Russia's opportunistic cooperation with the U.S. in the Iran nuclear deal has helped the Kremlin forge a stronger relationship with Iran, rebuilding some of the trust that Russia lost by backing international sanctions against it. Arms sales talks immediately resumed. Russia and Iran were able to coordinate military support for President Bashar Assad's regime. That support has turned the tide of the war in Syria, and Assad is close to taking back the city of Aleppo — a major victory that has long eluded him.
In Ukraine, Putin has been able to hold on to Crimea and freeze the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which had become difficult for him to win outright after pro-Russian rebels, perhaps assisted by unbadged Russian forces, shot down a passenger airliner in July 2014. U.S. intervention has been too timid to make him give up any of his gains.
Admitting all this sounds like praise for Putin. Yet, as Pence noted, it can also be interpreted as criticism of specific Obama administration policies, such as the Syria deal and the White House's reluctance to allow U.S. strikes on Assad's forces. That reluctance apparently isn't shared by all top officials — Secretary of State John Kerry said recently that he'd argued for taking on Assad militarily and lost.
The Obama administration, with both Clinton and Kerry as secretaries of state, has produced much tough talk about Putin but little effective action. That has inspired and empowered the Kremlin: Putin is good at testing the limits of the permissible and then stretching them. The Republicans are attacking Clinton and Obama for letting him do it, and they have a point.
Where they don't appear to be perfectly consistent is in their suggestions of what to do about Putin if they win the election. Trump has suggested that he'd cooperate with Russia against the Islamic State in Syria, which would require him to drop the current administration's principled opposition to Assad. He has also argued for letting Russia keep Crimea.
In the debate, Pence appeared to take the opposite stand, a more traditionally Republican one:
"I just have to tell you that the provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength. And if Russia chooses to be involved and continue, I should say, to be involved in this barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Aleppo."
This could mean that Pence is already looking ahead to the 2020 election and isn't bothering to agree with some of Trump's most controversial statements. But it could also mean that a Trump administration — just like the Obama administration — would have internal debates about where cooperation with Putin would be possible and where it would be inadvisable. It's possible to be selective about it — for example, to step up sanctions for the continuing stalemate in eastern Ukraine but relent on Crimea, or fight alongside Russia in Syria but insist on establishing safe zones.
Trump and Pence may also be doing a good cop/bad cop routine. This might be a good tactic with Putin, a former KGB spy who always plays games with his negotiating partners and adversaries. At least he'd be engaged rather than isolated and planning further malicious acts.
Both Pence and Trump have said that any plan for dealing with Russia must include a credible show of strength. They are right: There is no other way to keep Putin on his toes. Theodore Roosevelt's "big stick" must be wielded convincingly — but perhaps not dogmatically, because Russia's cooperation can be useful against common adversaries such as the Islamic State.
What the Republicans are saying is that the U.S. should play its own game with Putin. The Democrats' response is to try to paint them as Putin allies. It's inaccurate; Putin himself would be silly to believe it.
Instead of using this weak line of attack, the Democrats ought to try presenting either a competing plan for dealing with Putin or say outright the U.S. is no longer willing to engage, embracing, for example. Iran-style sanctions against Russia. So far, the Republicans have come closer to indicating what they would do if elected.
Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist