Issue of Ukraine in the U.S. Presidential Race: Positions of Main Candidates

10:37 AM 26-2-2016

Article by Ivan Medynskyi, IWP research fellowCurrent leadership in the White House has a mixed record of addressing security challenges emanating from Russia, Middle East, and beyond. Obama’s administration has less than a year in office and little is expected to change in its position toward Europe and Ukraine. Thus, all the glances are turned toward the presidential hopefuls from both Republican and Democratic camps. For them, Russian aggression in Ukraine is a real test of the foreign policy aptitude. From Ukrainian perspective, not all candidates have passed.
Although the frequency with which Ukraine is discussed during the debates has receded, it is not a sign of diminishing saliency but is indicative of “maturation” of Republican and Democratic candidates’ positions toward Ukraine and Russia. By and large, the front-runners condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine, but propose different solutions to the crisis. Hillary Clinton promised to stand up to Putin, support Ukraine both economically and militarily. She is likely to support stronger ties between NATO and Ukraine. In contrast, Bernie Sanders sees NATO expansion as a provocation against Russia. He will continue Obama’s strategy toward Ukraine that is characterized by a combination of diplomatic efforts and sanctions. Both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio opined that it is imperative to provide defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine, strengthen Ukrainian economy, and boost trade relations. Both candidates advocate for stronger sanctions against Russia that, according to Ted Cruz, should be accompanied by installation of missile defense system in Europe and diversification of energy supply. In contrast to other Republican hopefuls, Donald Trump insisted on “getting along” with Russia to deal with ISIS and letting European leaders handle conflict in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
A year from now when the forty-fifth President will enter the White House, a variety of factors might alter the calculations of today. The possibility of major powers clash in Syria, Russian further expansion in the Eastern Europe or Baltic region, refugee crisis as well as the leadership style of the new president are just a few considerations that should be taken into account. Moreover, once in position of power the newly elected President might not follow up on his campaign promises, not just because there is the lack of will, but increasingly because of the lack of consensus between branches of power. Political gridlock in Congress that haunted Obama’s administration throughout his tenure is unlikely to wither away in near future. Another dimension that has to be taken into account is the American public opinion that according to Pew Research Center supports sending economic aid to Ukraine (62%) and its membership in the Alliance (62%).
Taking into account positions of the candidates and abovementioned trends, the worst strategy that Ukraine can expect from a new American president will include continuation of economic aid, but decrease in military assistance, gradual lifting of sanctions and rapprochement between Russia and the U.S. at the expense of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The best course of action might include boosting the U.S.-Ukraine trade relations, diversification of energy sources, intensification of partnership with NATO, and continuation of pressure on Russia via sanctions and other measures until all annexed and occupied territories will return to Ukraine. To understand where each candidate fits within this spectrum, it is imperative to analyze their background, campaign promises and arguments during the debates. Below is breakdown of Democratic and Republican front-runners’ positions regarding military and economic aid to Ukraine, expansion of NATO, annexation of Crimea, and sanctions on Russia.
Hillary Clinton (49.2% polling average)
Data on February 22, FiveThirtyEight project
Former Secretary of State and U.S. Senator, Hillary Clinton undeniably has more practical experience in foreign policy domain than other candidates and was very vocal about it during the debates. She emphasized her achievements in the capacity of the head of State Department during the “Reset” of relations with Russia such as a New START aimed at reducing the nuclear arsenal of two countries. At the same time, Clinton unequivocally stressed that she is ready to stand up to Putin through decreasing dependence on oil in Europe and deterring Russian aggression. In regards to sanctions against Russia, Clinton insisted that European countries have to be more willing to commit.
Hillary Clinton is ready to increase financial support to Ukraine, yet she argues that the aid should come with strings to hold Ukrainian government accountable. She believes Ukraine deserves more military equipment and training, because Ukrainian army and civilians have proven that they are worthy of greater support. Clinton believes that Putin sees the world as a zero-sum game and annexing Crimea can be viewed through such lenses. In 2008, she co-sponsored a Senate resolution that expressed strong support for NATO to enter into Membership Action Plan with Ukraine and Georgia. After former president Yanukovych announced that Ukraine is a not going to join NATO, Clinton nevertheless stated that the doors to Alliance remain open. She remains a strong supporter for continuation of the NATO’s open door policy.

Bernie Sanders (39.2% polling average)
Bernie Sanders, who had extensive career in the U.S. Congress, built his campaign around the principles of democratic socialism and dissatisfaction with the current political establishment. While his domestic platform implies changing the status quo, in dealing with Russia and Ukraine, Bernie Sanders is supportive of the President Obama’s current approach. He pledged to continue the policy of putting pressure on Russia through freezing all Russian assets around the world and discouraging investment in Russia. Yet, he consistently opposed the expansion of NATO calling it a waste of money and unnecessary provocation of Russia. Moreover, Sanders does not consider Russia a top security priority for the U.S., putting ISIS and North Korea a rank above.
In contrast to other candidates, Bernie Sanders has not been explicit about if or how he will be supporting Ukraine. Given the fact that he believes Obama’s approach to be the best course of action, it seems unlikely that there will be a new impetus for addressing Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Donald Trump (34.7% polling average)
The success of Donald Trump in the polls and early primaries is a sign that Republican voters are tired of the existing state of affairs in the GOP. Trump is not afraid to voice his opinion about the most controversial issues and tap into the dissatisfaction with perceived U.S. economic and political decline. Although lacking foreign policy experience, Donald Trump is far from shy when it comes to criticizing Obama’s strategy towards Moscow and how he, if elected, would manage U.S.-Russia relations. Thus, he notably promised to “get along” with Putin. The latter welcomed the potential rapprochement calling Trump “an obvious leader of the Presidential race.”
While it seems clear whom Moscow favors in the U.S. Presidential race, Trump’s statements that sanctions on Russia will be lifted only if it behaves and that he is impartial regarding the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO are likely to leave leaders in Kremlin puzzled. Indeed, Donald Trump’s strategy on Ukraine lacks consistency and is ambiguous, to say the least. On one hand, he wants European countries, especially Germany, to provide more financial aid to Ukraine as well as to be more active on the issue of Crimea. On the other, the chemistry between Russian president and Donald Trump suggests that not only Ukraine, but also the broader Europe may fall victim to his “business as usual” approach.
Ted Cruz (19.4% polling average)
A senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, has somewhat unexpectedly won in the first caucus in Iowa bringing an intrigue into the Republican presidential race. In contrast to Trump, Cruz believes that the United States should have stood up to Russia immediately after its aggression in Ukraine through installing anti-ballistic missiles in Poland and Czech Republic and exporting liquid natural gas to Europe. He criticized Obama on the way he handled annexation of Crimea and called on vigorous sanctions against Russian energy and financial sectors. Cruz also believes in closer cooperation with NATO allies to counter violent extremism.
Senator Ted Cruz was one of the co-sponsors of the Ukraine Support Act, a bill that authorized financial aid and loan guarantees in the wake of Russian aggression. His economic strategy on Ukraine focuses on expanding trade relations and reducing dependence on natural resources. Militarily, Cruz believes that the U.S. should provide defensive arms to follow up on the treaty obligations with Ukraine.

Marco Rubio (15.3% polling average)

Marco Rubio’s plan “Defend and Restore Ukrainian Sovereignty” aims at reestablishing Ukraine’s control over Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. It advocates for the assistance with modernization of Ukrainian economy, provision of lethal military aid and training, Russian assets freeze and expansion of sanctions.
Rubio has called Russian president a gangster, “an organized crime figure that runs a country, controls a $2 trillion economy … using to build up his military in a rapid way despite the fact his economy is a disaster.” To defend Europe from the Russian threat, he plans to make the U.S. presence in Europe permanent, boost the capabilities of NATO allies and increase assistance to Georgia and Moldova. Finally, Rubio intends to keep membership in the Alliance open to the states that meet the conditions, while excluding the possibility of Russian say in this process.