(CNSNews.com) – At Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate, Sen. Tim Kaine repeatedly accused the Republican ticket of praising President Vladimir Putin, while Gov. Mike Pence sought to undercut the charge by labeling Putin – twice – “the small and bullying leader of Russia.”
Russia’s foreign policy, from Syria to Ukraine to Iran, featured prominently in the debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. Pence drew a line between Putin’s conduct and Hillary Clinton’s much-hyped 2009 “reset” with Russia.
“After the Russian reset, the Russians invaded Ukraine and took over Crimea,” he said. “And the small and bullying leader of Russia is now dictating terms to the United States to the point where all the United States of America, the greatest nation on earth, just withdraws from talk about a ceasefire while Vladimir Putin puts a missile defense system in Syria, while he marshaled the forces …”
For his part, Kaine accused Donald Trump of praising Putin “all the time” and said Pence had called Putin a better leader than President Obama.
“Governor Pence made the odd claim. He said, inarguably, Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama. Vladimir Putin has run his economy into the ground, he persecutes LGBT folks and journalists. If you don’t know the difference between dictatorship and leadership, then you’ve got to go back to a fifth grade civics class.”
Pence hit back: “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 is not an endorsement of Vladimir Putin,” he continued. “That’s an indictment of the weak and feckless leadership of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.”
In a campaign that has seen Trump repeatedly characterized as being soft on Putin and Russia – encapsulated in Kaine’s debate barb, “You guys love Russia” – Pence seemed keen to shut down that line of attack.
“America is stronger than Russia,” Pence said. “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.”
He also recalled a proverb saying the Russian bear never sleeps, only hibernates, and charged that Russia’s aggression had been awoken by Obama and Clinton’s “weak and feckless” foreign policy.
Pence said the U.S. needs to take firm action in response to Russia’s provocations.
On Syria, he said, if Russia continues “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 [Russian-allied] Assad regime, to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Aleppo.”
The U.S. should also respond to Russia’s behavior by deploying a ballistic missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, something which he said Clinton and Obama had “pulled back on out of not wanting to offend the Russians.”
(In 2009 the Obama administration reviewed and then dropped its predecessor’s BMD plan – which Moscow had vigorously resisted – replacing it with an alternative “phased” plan designed to protect Europe against short- and medium-range missiles. Russia opposes that plan too.)
Kaine said Clinton “has the ability to stand up to Russia in a way that this ticket does not.”
“Hillary Clinton has gone toe-to-toe with Russia,” he said, citing her involvement as secretary of state in achieving the new START nuclear arms reduction pact, and her response to Russia’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine.
(When Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008, Clinton was in the U.S. Senate, where she pushed for a commission to examine the issue. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea occurred a year after Clinton left the State Department.)