CFR invited the presidential candidates challenging President Trump in the 2020 election to articulate their positions on twelve critical foreign policy issues. Candidates’ answers are posted exactly as they are received. View all questions here.
What, if any, steps would you take to counter Russian aggression against Ukraine?
First, I would make Ukraine a U.S. foreign policy priority. On the military side, I would provide more U.S. security assistance — including weapons — to strengthen Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. I would also expand the successful training mission for the Ukrainian Armed Forces that was initiated by the Obama-Biden administration.
Economically, I would work to increase Western direct investment and support for Ukraine’s energy independence from Russia, particularly if the Nordstream II pipeline is built in the coming year, because this project would severely jeopardize Ukraine’s access to Russian gas.
I would also ensure that all U.S. assistance to Ukraine is strictly conditioned on anti-corruption reforms, including the appointment of genuinely independent anti-corruption prosecutors and courts.
Finally, I would support a much stronger diplomatic role for the United States, alongside France and Germany, in the negotiations with Russia. For diplomacy to work, however, we need stronger leverage over Moscow, and that means working more closely with our European partners and allies to ensure that Russia pays a heavier price for its ongoing war in Ukraine. Our strategic goal will be to support the evolution of a democratic, unified, sovereign Ukraine and to force the Kremlin to pay a price for its unrelenting attacks on the international order.
When it comes to Russian aggression, let's be clear: the Russians are not just attacking Ukraine, or the U.S.--they are trying to undermine democracy. They are attempting to create divisions and divisiveness between individual leaders as well as within nations, and that's unacceptable. The Trump Administration has looked the other way in the face of Russian aggression, whether that aggression is against Ukraine, which I visited and witnessed first-hand, or an attack on the integrity of our elections.
As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee I signed a letter affirming Ukraine’s sovereignty, and voted to disapprove of President Trump’s decision to end sanctions on companies connected to Russian oligarchs. I support increasing the use of the Global Magnitsky sanctions and other tools to assert pressure on Russia into cooperation with the global community. We also need to mend our relationship with our transatlantic allies and NATO, which President Trump’s has undermined. I would seek to repair any doubts about the U.S. commitment to its allies and partners in NATO.
Russia’s unwarranted and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine demonstrates its lack of regard for the territorial sovereignty of its neighbors and the extent to which it is willing to go to maintain its so-called “sphere of influence.” Such action has set a dangerous precedent for several of our allies in Central and Eastern Europe, and we must work closely with these allies to ensure that they have the necessary military capabilities to deter future Russian aggression. We must coordinate with our NATO allies to ensure there is adequate military preparation and readiness in the case of such an incident, particularly in the Baltic region. Simultaneously, we must also continue, in coordination with our allies and partners, effective sanctions against entities connected to the ongoing occupations of Crimea and the Donbas to make it explicitly clear to Russia that its unlawful infringements of Ukrainian sovereignty is unsustainable and counter to its long-term interests.
Russian aggression against Ukraine is an attack on the agreed principles and rules of European and global order that protect global citizens beyond Ukraine, including Americans. Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is protected by the UN Charter and European security agreements, which the Russian Federation has signed and is obligated to respect. The OSCE mission and Minsk agreement both obligate Russia to resolve the conflict peacefully with Ukraine. We must keep tough, targeted, and effective economic and financial sanctions on Russia as long as it continues to assault Ukrainian territory and citizens, and continues to illegally occupy Ukrainian territory in the Donbas and Crimea.
But countering Russian aggression also means supporting Ukraine’s independence and ability to make and implement sovereign foreign policy decisions by supporting Ukraine’s political, economic, and defense capabilities. Although Ukraine is not a formal treaty ally, the U.S. should be willing to help Ukraine develop a modern and capable defense force to defend its citizens, including advice, education, training, and willingness to consider commercial sales of weapons appropriate to the situation. While the US must not exacerbate instability or conflict, we should not shy from responsible defense assistance to a democracy in the heart of Europe that is under assault because its citizens have chosen a democratic European path.
The United States should take a leading role in demanding Russia’s return to its established borders. I would provide leadership within NATO to deliver a unified message to Moscow that such aggression will not be tolerated. I would engage with elected Ukrainian leaders to support their efforts to push Russia back, including military aide, training and support as appropriate. Russian aggression against Ukraine has become a lost issue since the beginning of the Trump Administration. President Putin has led Russia with an antagonistic and predatory foreign policy, including the invasion into the Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, which are unacceptable. I would not walk away from this challenge as the Trump Administration has done. I would also pursue targeted sanctions against Russian interests to drive this point home.
In both Ukraine and Georgia, Russia has used military force to seize territory and undermine democratically elected governments. Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea is a severe violation of the international norms that have guided the world since World War II – as are Russia’s support for combat operations in eastern Ukraine and its cyber-attacks. Thousands of people have died because of Russia’s aggression, including 298 civilians killed when a Russian missile shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014.
As president, I would continue to support Ukraine and ensure the U.S. is unequivocal in affirming Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. I would also prioritize working with the government of Ukraine to build out its military, strengthen its civil society, and combat corruption, while working closely with our European partners on a diplomatic solution. And unlike the current occupant of the White House, I will consistently stand up to Putin in defense of democratic values, human rights, and the international rule of law.
Russia’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine violated the post-World War II international consensus that states cannot expand their territory through military force. In addition to Russia’s direct military aggression against Ukraine, Russia continues to try to destabilize Ukraine through disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and threatening its energy supply. By cozying up to Putin and running down NATO, President Trump invites this kind of hostile behavior from Russia.
As President, I will support Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself against Russian aggression. Key among those efforts is helping Ukraine build institutions that will stabilize its democracy. A free and prosperous Ukraine sitting on Russia’s doorstep would not only better deter Putin’s aggression, it would undermine the political narrative Putin relies on for power. The Ukrainian people and their newly-elected government have an opportunity now to adopt reforms that will strengthen the legal, economic, and political architecture supporting democratic progress—and root out corruption—for the long haul. As President, I will encourage these steps and will leverage American finance, particularly through the promotion of renewables, to help Ukraine become energy independent from Russia.
Finally, we now know that Putin has used Ukraine as a laboratory to test disinformation and cyber tactics that it later deploys elsewhere, including in the US. I will be prepared to sanction Russian officials who engage in activities aimed at undermining American democracy, and I will place a high priority on safeguarding our elections by investing in cybersecurity systems and risk-limiting audits for ballots.
Russia has shown that they must be contained and we will use every diplomatic tool available to us in order to prevent Russian aggression in the Ukraine and other Eastern European countries. The most successful counter to Russian hybrid war in Ukraine would be to continue to work with our Ukrainian partners to build a strong democracy and steadfast adherence to the rule of law and anti-corruption. We must also work with our European allies to ensure a credible threat of harsh sanctions against any new Russian aggression.
The framework put in place by the Obama Administration—the European Reassurance Initiative and multilateral sanctions—seems to have helped contain Russian aggression in Ukraine. My administration will make clear to Russia that additional aggression will force the United States to increase pressure, including expanding beyond current sanctions. For now, our main priority should be to work closely with our European allies to help the new Ukrainian government make good on its promises to reform the economy, improve standards of living, and substantially reduce corruption.
The territorial aggression of Russia and other bad actors on the world stage must not be allowed to continue. It is a threat to global peace and security, and it is an affront to the values we hold dear. Ukraine, from the perspective of Russia, is merely a domino that may lead to further “near abroad” gains. If it fails in one of several ways — from internal dissention that shatters its frail democracy to incursions by “insurgents” supported by clandestine Russian support —Russia will feel empowered to assess where it may find further success in neighboring nations once part of its orbit. This is a prime example of why US leadership of a rules-based global order is so important that also recognizes the value and need of allies for their equal contributions in different ways. We need new leadership here at home in order to re-establish that the United States is committed to democracy’s values, and that we will not turn our backs on democratic countries under threat from autocrats like Vladimir Putin. Putting Russia on notice will require demonstrating that we are serious. We can accomplish that through expanding sanctions, through curtailing Russia’s participation in international organizations and efforts, and even through more active deterrence measures, including cyber activity.
By illegally annexing Ukrainian territory and fueling a war in eastern Ukraine, Russia has imperiled the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace that prevailed for nearly a quarter century. Our response must be centered on a durable strategy that strengthens the security of NATO allies threatened by a resurgent Russia, supports Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and holds Russia accountable while also deterring further reckless actions.
Ukraine faces immense challenges that will require patient, long-term diplomacy and support from the West. We should start by shoring up relations with our EU partners in order to maintain the strongest possible diplomatic front, and by keeping pressure on the Kremlin to encourage changes in behavior. Ukraine must also get serious about sweeping reforms to root out corruption, which Russia exploits to undermine Ukrainian democracy.
Ultimately, Ukraine and Russia will have to negotiate a peace, and my administration will focus on setting the conditions for productive talks.
Ukraine, while not a NATO member, is an EU partner and a treaty-recognized buffer zone between Russia and NATO.
Ukraine is also a sizeable population and economic zone whose seizure would be a major first step toward reconstituting the old Soviet Union’s borders and corresponding influence – for Putin, both an ex-KGB man (and there famously is no “ex”) and an old-school Russian nationalist, it is therefore a major opportunity if it could be seized intact.
Conversely, Ukraine has shown itself willing to fight and take losses in blood and treasure – it would be a mistake to dis-incentivize this, and it would be a mistake to let this first line of defense be overrun.
Allowing Ukraine to fall would effectively “Finlandize” Europe, to the extent it has not already been. It would call into question the U.S.’ willingness to assist in the defense of Europe’s eastern frontier. It would undermine further the EU’s credibility as a guarantor of Europe’s security. It would further break European unity and allow Putin to play European states off each other politically. And all this, in turn, would further hollow out NATO and the U.S.’ partnership with Europe, effectively convincing European states – and not just the ones on the eastern edge – to make their terms with Russia.
Accordingly, I would provide military aid to Ukraine – as much as was necessary. I would make it clear that if the Ukrainians wanted to defend their territory, we would help, and further incursions would be costly. I would continue to hold exercises in Eastern Europe and look at ways to defend the Baltics. I would reach out to Belarus to dissuade it from cooperating with Putin, which would be catastrophic for Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian security.
Part of the Russian aggression against Ukraine involves the Russian interference with the Ukrainian elections. Methods that Russia used against the United States in the 2016 election were first used against the Ukrainians. Russia launched a cyber Pearl Harbor attack against the United States and successfully interfered in our elections. I support a vigorous investigation into the Russian interference in elections in the US, Ukraine and Europe, and massively strengthened cyber-security for US elections.
Russian aggression in Ukraine is a blatant violation of international law, and we have the obligation to work with our allies to act. We need to echo the chorus of our allies in stating that Russia must return to its borders, and we won’t recognize any expansion they have into neighboring territories. Russian aggression is a destabilizing force, and we must work with our allies to project a strong and unified face against Russian expansionism.
Even though Ukraine is not a NATO member, that relationship is an important one, and I’d work with our NATO allies to reaffirm and expand our security coordination with Ukraine. It was encouraging to hear Pres. Zelensky’s words during his visit to NATO headquarters.
Helping Ukraine will also help us prepare for Russian aggression. The Russian interference in Ukrainian elections was a precursor to their interference in US elections. By helping neighboring states to Russia defend themselves, we’re also learning how to defend ourselves.
Finally, we need to expand sanctions against Russia, and Putin and members of his government specifically through the Global Magnitsky Act, in order to pressure the country to play by international rules.
Russian aggression toward Ukraine - whether in the Crimean Peninsula, Eastern Ukraine or in the Kerch Strait - is dangerous, not only toward Ukraine, but broadly, because it emboldens Russian aggression elsewhere. Russia’s cyber hacks of Ukrainian infrastructure gave it a testbed, and its lessons could be used to target the U.S. We must be very clear with President Putin that Russia’s illegal attempts at annexation are not acceptable. That is why rather than warmly greet Putin in confidential conversations, or weigh his assertions above U.S. intelligence assessments, I would continue a policy of sanctions aimed at the group of Russian leaders who have undermined Ukraine’s democracy, security and territorial integrity, and closely coordinate our policy with our European allies to deepen their impact. And I would once again deepen our NATO ties because this alliance presents one of the strongest bulwarks against Russian aggression.
And because Russia has demonstrated its willingness to invade its neighbors, it is all the more reason that we must ensure we have arms control agreements in place to limit Russia’s nuclear and strategic forces. I had opposed President Trump’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement because its absence opens the door to a new and dangerous arms race. It is all the more critical that we extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to limit Russian nuclear weapons and provide information to the U.S. intelligence community.
The United States needs to hold Russia accountable for its ongoing aggression against Ukraine. We should do so by increasing sanctions to impose costs on the Russian government—ones that specifically impact Vladimir Putin and his close allies—and by continuing to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, a step the Obama administration should have taken. The actions we take against Russia must also be part of a broader strategy to counter Moscow’s malign behavior. That means strengthening NATO’s military capabilities and modernizing it to counter cyberattacks with the same resolve we’ve used to stop tanks from rolling into Europe.