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The Candidates on U.S. Policy toward Russia

November 7, 2008

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Issue Trackers trace the positions of candidates from the 2008 presidential campaign on major issues related to foreign policy.

U.S.-Russian relations remain troubled on a number of fronts, especially policy toward Iran, the expansion of NATO, and Kosovo’s status.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has firmly opposed (Deutsche Welle) President Bush’s plan to build a missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland and signaled changes to an important post-Soviet arms pact. Russia has also been critical of U.S. attempts to ratchet up pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear program; in October 2007, then-president Vladimir Putin likened the Bush administration’s posture toward Iran to “a madman with a razor blade” (al-Jazeera). Russia’s increasingly anti-democratic moves have also raised alarm among both Republican and Democratic policymakers in Washington. At the same time, top officials and candidates from both parties have stressed the importance of engaging Russia on matters of strategic importance, in particular securing Russia’s vast stocks of nuclear materials, to avoid proliferation to rogue states or other groups.

Democratic Ticket on U.S. Policy toward Russia

Barack Obama
Democratic Party Nominee - President

President Obama said in April 2007 that Russia is "neither our enemy nor close ally," and said the United States "shouldn't shy away from pushing for more democracy, transparency, and accountability" there. In a September 2008 presidential debate, Obama said, "our entire Russian approach has to be evaluated, because a resurgent and very aggressive Russia is a threat to the peace and stability of the region." He called Russia's August 2008 actions toward Georgia "unacceptable" and "unwarranted."

Obama called Russia's April 2008 move to seek closer ties with Georgian the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia "deeply troubling and contrary to Russia's obligations as a permanent member of the UN Security Council." He condemned Russian attacks on Georgia in August 2008, calling them a "violation of Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity." He called for an immediate cease-fire and urged both sides to allow humanitarian assistance to reach civilians. Obama said diplomats from the United States, the European Union and the United Nations should "become directly involved in mediating this military conflict and beginning a process to resolve the political disputes over the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia." He also called for an international peacekeeping force in those territories.

In September 2008, Obama praised the Bush administration for pledging $1 billion in humanitarian and economic aid for Georgia. The same week, Obama said he welcomed news that the European Union would postpone talks on a new EU-Russia partnership, and applauded the EU's decision to send civilians to Georgia to monitor the ceasefire agreement.

If Russia does not abide by the ceasefire agreement between Russia and Georgia, Obama warned, "[t]hey will imperil the Civil Nuclear Agreement, and Russia's standing in the international community - including the NATO-Russia Council, and Russia's desire to participate in organizations like the WTO and the OECD."

Obama has focused much of his discussion of Russia on diminishing the possibility of nuclear weapons use. In a July 2007 Foreign Affairs article, Obama said the United States and Russia should collaborate to "update and scale back our dangerously outdated Cold War nuclear postures and de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons." In an October 2007 speech in Chicago, Obama said if elected he would work to "take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert, and to dramatically reduce the stockpiles of our nuclear weapons and material." He said he would seek a "global ban on the production of fissile material for weapons" and an expansion of "the U.S.-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles."

In 2005, Obama traveled with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) to nuclear and biological weapons destruction sites in Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan. Obama and Lugar then introduced legislation to eliminate nuclear stockpiles throughout the former Soviet Union. That law was enacted in 2007.

Obama has said he supports a U.S. missile defense system in Europe, but has some reservations. His campaign website says he supports national missile defense, but he will "ensure that it is developed in a way that is pragmatic and cost-effective; and, most importantly, does not divert resources from other national security priorities until we are positive the technology will protect the American public." Still, he expressed hesitancy about the Bush plan. "We need to make sure any missile defense system would be effective before deployment," he said in a July 2007 statement. Obama criticized the Bush administration for having "exaggerated missile defense capabilities and rushed deployments for political purposes," and for doing "a poor job of consulting its NATO allies about the deployment of a missile defense system that has major implications for all of them."

In a September 2008 presidential debate, Obama said the United States needs missile defense, "because of Iran and North Korea and the potential for them to obtain or to launch nuclear weapons," but stressed the need to also increase spending on nuclear nonproliferation.

Click here for this candidate's position on other top foreign policy issues.

Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Democratic Party Nominee - Vice President

Sen. Biden (D-DE) has voiced concerns about Russia backsliding on democratic reforms. In August 2008, Biden criticized Russia's military action in Georgia. "By acting disproportionately with a full scale attack on Georgia and seeking the ouster of Georgia's democratically elected President Mikheil Saakashvili, Moscow is jeopardizing its standing in Europe and the broader international community – and risking very real practical and political consequences," Biden wrote in a Financial Times op-ed. Biden urged Russia to abide by the negotiated cease fire.

Biden introduced legislation in July 2008 urging members of the Group of Eight to "work toward a more constructive relationship with Russia," and encouraging Russia to behave according to the G-8's "objectives of protecting global security, economic stability, and democracy." The resolution also called on Russian and U.S. leaders to increase cooperation and funding for the Nunn-Lugar program and other nonproliferation initiatives. It also emphasized the need for a successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty. The resolution passed.

In 2005, Biden criticized Putin for making regional governorships appointive positions, and said he had "manipulated the Duma to eliminate most of the opposition." In December 2006, Biden warned that Russia was "moving more and more toward an oligarchy."

In 2005, Biden cosponsored a Senate resolution criticizing Russia for failing to uphold its commitments at the 1999 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Summit, which included agreements on a completed Russian military withdrawal from the Moldova. That resolution also expressed disapproval of Russia's demand for the closure of the OSCE Border Monitoring Operation (BMO), which served to observe border crossings between Georgia and the Russian republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. That bill passed in the Senate.

Biden previously supported the lifting of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which attaches conditions to trading with Russia. But he became opposed to the repeal after Russia imposed a cap on U.S. poultry imports in 2002. Biden's state of Delaware is a major poultry producer. In response to news in August 2008 that Russia planned to ban chicken imports from nineteen U.S. plants, including two in Delaware, Biden criticized Russia for "once again using non-tariff barriers as an excuse to close its markets to American poultry." Biden said Russia's application to join the World Trade Organization should remain on hold "[u]ntil Russia reverses their recent actions—both big and small."

Click here for this candidate's position on other top foreign policy issues.

Republican Ticket on U.S. Policy toward Russia

John McCain
Republican Party Nominee - President

Sen. McCain (R-AZ) has called for a new approach to what he called a "revanchist" Russia. McCain said in a September 2008 presidential debate that Russia has "become a nation fueled by petro-dollars that is basically a KGB apparatchik-run government." In a November 2007 Foreign Affairs article, McCain advocated Russian exclusion from the G-8, and said the West should send a message to Russia that NATO "is indivisible and that the organization's doors remain open to all democracies committed to the defense of freedom." He also said the United States should promote democracy in Russia.

In an October 2007 Republican debate, McCain expressed support for President Bush's plan to build a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. "I don't care what [Putin's] objections are to it," he said.

McCain called Russia's March 2008 election a sign that Russia has taken "yet another step away from democracy." He also said it was "a tragedy of history" that the Russian people were "again deprived of the opportunity to choose their leaders in a free and open contest."

In August 2008, McCain condemned Russia's military operations in Georgia, and said Russia should "immediately and unconditionally" withdraw from the region. He also emphasized the need for a "truly independent and neutral peacekeeping force in South Ossetia."

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Sarah Palin
Republican Party Nominee - Vice President

Palin has said the United States should "keep an eye on Russia." In a September 2008 interview with ABC News, Palin criticized Russia's actions in its August 2008 conflict with Georgia. “For Russia to have exerted such pressure in terms of invading a smaller democratic country, unprovoked, is unacceptable," she said. Palin also said Georgia and the Ukraine should be admitted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Once that happens, Palin said, a Russian invasion of Georgia might merit war between the United States and Russia. "If another [NATO] country is attacked, you're going to be expected to be called upon and help," Palin said. Still, Palin said in an interview with FOX News later that month that war with Russia should be “off the table.”

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Democratic Primary Candidates on U.S. Policy toward Russia

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Clinton favors diplomacy toward Russia with the goal of promoting democracy there and reducing nuclear stockpiles. In a November 2007 Foreign Affairs article, Clinton pledged to “negotiate an accord that substantially and verifiably reduces the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.”

She also called for engagement with Russia on “issues of high national importance,” including Iran, loose nuclear weapons, and the status of the Serbian province of Kosovo. She said Washington’s “ability to view Russia as a genuine partner depends on whether Russia chooses to strengthen democracy or return to authoritarianism and regional interference.”

Still, she told the Boston Globe in October 2007, “I'm interested in what Russia does outside its borders first. I don't think I can, as the president of the United States, wave my hand and tell the Russian people they should have a different government.”

Clinton said in April 2008 that she was "deeply disturbed" by Russia's move to strengthen links to Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which she said undermined Georgia's "territorial integrity." Clinton called on President Bush to send a senior representative to Tbilisi to "show our support" for the Georgian government. She also criticized the Russian government for engaging in a "pressure campaign to prevent Ukraine from seeking deeper ties with NATO."

Editor's Note: Sen. Clinton withdrew her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on June 7, 2008.

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Christopher J. Dodd
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Dodd (D-CT) says the United States should engage Russia diplomatically and call on Russia to “support freedom and democracy” at home and “to eliminate the conditions that export terrorism and allow our enemies to thrive.”

In 2000, Dodd traveled to Russia to participate in talks on national security issues, including missile defense and nuclear treaties.

In a 2004 interview with PBS’ Online NewsHour, Dodd urged cooperation between Russian and U.S. intelligence agencies to fight terrorism toward the United States and by Chechen militants toward Russia. He said the United States has not taken effective action to facilitate a relationship with Russia on Chechnya and “in connection with the other issues we face in the Middle East and elsewhere.”

Editor's Note: Sen. Dodd withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 3, 2008.

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John Edwards
Democratic Primary Candidate

Edwards co-chaired the Council on Foreign Relations’ Russia Task Force in 2006, which urged U.S. cooperation with Russia, but said the United States must pressure Russia to maintain democracy. The report from the Task Force recommended Russian accession into the World Trade Organization, which, it said, would “promote further liberalization of the Russian economy and should signify full Russian acceptance of a rules-based international trading system.” Edwards has been critical of Putin for his anti-democratic tendencies, but says Russia should remain a member of the G-8. In an April 2007 Democratic debate, Edwards expressed concern about Russia’s political direction. “They've moved from being a democracy under Yeltsin to being a complete autocracy under Putin,” he said.

Editor's note: Edwards dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on January 30, 2008.

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Mike Gravel
Democratic Primary Candidate

Gravel campaign spokesman Shawn Colvin has said the United States must “increase diplomatic communication” with Russia. In an interview with Pravda, Colvin said Gravel would not create a missile defense shield in Europe if he is elected president. He also said Gravel would move the United States “toward nuclear de-escalation in an effort to encourage Russia to do the same.”

Editor's Note: Mike Gravel ended his bid for the Democraticnomination on March 26, 2008. He then ran for the LibertarianParty's presidential nomination before announcing the end ofhis political career on May 25, 2008.

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Dennis Kucinich
Democratic Primary Candidate

Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) favors the elimination of nuclear weapons and has called for new talks with Russia and all other nuclear countries to accomplish that goal. Kucinich supports preservation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which the Bush administration announced it would opt out of in December 2001. “Scrapping it and building a missile defense system will only invite Russia and China to build up arsenals able to overcome our defenses.”

He says the United States should cancel ballistic missile defense plans, which he has called “a wacky idea that will never work” (CNN).

Editor's Note: Rep. Kucinich withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 25, 2008.

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Bill Richardson
Democratic Primary Candidate

New Mexico Gov. Richardson has said the United States should use diplomatic pressure to get Russia to “control some of the loose nuclear weapons in their domain.” In an April 2007 Democratic debate, Richardson also said Russia should be “more humane in dealing with Chechnya.” He views Russia as a potential “stable source of energy” for the United States. He also said Russian leaders should increase democracy promotion “in their own nation.”

In an October 2007 Democratic debate, Richardson said Russia’s relationship with Iran is “not healthy.”

Editor's Note: Richardson withdrew his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 10, 2008.

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Republican Primary Candidates on U.S. Policy toward Russia

Rudy Giuliani
Republican Primary Candidate

Giuliani advocates commercial engagement with Russia, but has also expressed support for the planned missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. In an October 2007 Republican debate, Giuliani also called for an increase in military spending to “send a heck of a signal” to Russia.

In November 2001, Giuliani accompanied Putin on a visit to Ground Zero. Giuliani told news media at the time that the attacks of September 11, 2001 would bring the United States and Russia closer together. In 2004, Giuliani traveled to Moscow to promote U.S.-Russian business relations.

Editor's note: Giuliani dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 31, 2008.

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Mike Huckabee
Republican Primary Candidate

Huckabee seems optimistic about the U.S.-Russian relationship. "Things will be better than during the Cold War because, much as we do not want another 9/11, Putin does not want another terrorist attack like the 2004 school siege in Beslan," he wrote in a January 2008 Foreign Affairs essay. Still, he is critical of Putin, whom he calls "a staunch nationalist in a country that has no democratic tradition."

Editor's Note: Huckabee withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on March 4, 2008.

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Duncan Hunter
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Hunter (R-CA) views Russia as a potential hindrance to U.S. foreign policy goals, such as tightening sanctions on Iran to deter its nuclear program. In an October 2007 Republican debate, Hunter said the United States should work with Russia on sea-based missile defenses. The United States should “discuss the prospects of putting our Aegis missile defense cruisers in the Black Sea,” he said.

Hunter sponsored the National Defense Authorization Act for 2004, which included provisions to encourage Russia to “open up its secret biological research facilities,” he wrote in the Washington Times. The act also required that Russia give Washington “land-use permits necessary to construct and operate disarmament facilities so nonproliferation dollars are not unnecessarily wasted on facilities that cannot be used because of Russian red tape,” he wrote. That bill passed.

Hunter, who once chaired the House Armed Services Committee, calls himself a “strong supporter” of Bush’s missile defense shield plan.

Editor's note: Hunter dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 19, 2008.

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Ron Paul
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Paul (R-TX) advocates a "strong national defense and a policy of non-intervention abroad" to ensure a Russia policy that "seeks our national interest."

In January 2007, Paul cosponsored a resolution to suspend the antidumping duty orders on imports of solid urea—a substance used in fertilizers, plastics, and animal feed—from Russia and Ukraine. That bill failed.

Paul was the only member of the House to vote against a 2007 resolution "noting the disturbing pattern of killings of numerous independent journalists in Russia since 2000, and urging Russian President Vladimir Putin to authorize cooperation with outside investigators in solving those murders."

Editor's Note: Rep. Paul withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on June 12, 2008.

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Mitt Romney
Republican Primary Candidate

Romney advocates "a lot of cooperation" with Russia, as well as "frank and open discussions" about the state of democracy there. He also said in an April 2007 speech that the United States should work to secure "the vast amount of highly enriched nuclear material in their country."

Romney supports the planned National Missile Defense program of the Bush administration.

Editor's note: Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on February 7, 2008.

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Tom Tancredo
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Tancredo’s stance on Russia is unknown.

Editor's Note: Congressman Tancredo formally withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on December 20, 2007.

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Fred Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Thompson is skeptical of the Russian government, which he has said is “apparently run by ex-KGB agents” (National Review Online).

"Oppose the Russian leadership, and you could trip and fall off a tall building or stumble into the path of a bullet," writes Thompson, whose studies focused on Russia, among other national security topics, at the American Enterprise Institute.

Thompson has not yet specified a plan for U.S. policy toward Russia.

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 22, 2008.

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