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How The Republican Presidential Hopefuls Would Take On Putin

Republican Presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio (left), Donald Trump (center), and Ben Carson look on during a break in a Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colorado.
Republican Presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio (left), Donald Trump (center), and Ben Carson look on during a break in a Republican presidential debate in Boulder, Colorado.

Foreign policy is not the driving issue of the U.S. Republican Party's primary campaign for the 2016 presidential nomination, but when the topic comes up, it often boils down to one name -- Russian President Vladimir Putin -- and how to deal with him.

Speaking in New York on November 2, U.S. President Barack Obama noted that one thing most of the 15 nationally recognized Republican presidential hopefuls agree on is that he has been "weak" in relations with Russia.

"Every one of these candidates say, 'Obama is weak. Putin is kicking sand in his face. But when I talk to Putin, he's going to straighten out,'" Obama said.

But then he added that many of the same candidates have complained about the questions from moderators of the party's campaign debates.

"Then it turns out they can't handle a bunch of CNBC moderators at a debate," the president said. "Let me tell you, if you can't handle those guys, then I don't think the Chinese and the Russians are going to be too worried about you."

Republican candidate and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (brother of former U.S. President George W. Bush and son of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush) made a similar quip following a debate in August.

"There is a candidate, a couple of candidates, complaining that the questions were too tough," he said. "If you think that's tough, how about dealing with Putin?"

At the most recent Republican debate, in Milwaukee on November 10, several of the eight participating candidates used the opportunity to again outline how they would cope differently with what might be called "the Putin problem."

Republican Candidates On Putin
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WATCH: What Have The Candidates Said?

Billionaire real-estate mogul Donald Trump repeated that he is not concerned about Russian air strikes in Syria, which Moscow has portrayed as targeting the Islamic State militant group. Western officials, however, have said Russian strikes have largely hit more moderate rebel groups.

"I got to know [Putin] very well because we were both on [CBS TV newsmagazine] 60 Minutes. We were stablemates, and we did very well that night," Trump said.

"If Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it, 100 percent, and I can’t understand how anybody would be against it."

Previously, Trump has said he believes he would "get along" with Putin. Although he doesn't say why, he implies it is because both Putin and Trump are tough, no-nonsense negotiators who respect strength.

In a CNN interview in July, Trump said that if he was president, Putin would hand over former U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden, who has been granted asylum in Russia and is wanted on criminal charges in the United States.

"I would get along with Putin," Trump said. "I have dealt with Russia. I think I'd get along with him fine. I think he'd be absolutely fine."

"Look, if I'm president," he continued, "Putin says [to Snowden], 'Hey, boom, you're gone.' I guarantee you that."

'Russia Is A Bad Actor'

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, during the Milwaukee debate, stressed that she has actually met Putin "in a private meeting," saying that she "wouldn't talk to him for awhile" because the United States is in a position of weakness.

She laid out a litany of measures she would take to send Putin a message, including "a no-fly zone in Syria," a military build-up, missile defense in Poland, "a few thousand more troops in Germany," and "very aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states."

"We have the strongest military on the face of the planet, and everyone has to know it," Fiorina said.

In another debate, in September, Fiorina said simply, "Russia is a bad actor."

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul pointed out the risk of a direct military incident between Russia and the United States inherent in trying to impose a no-fly zone in Syria -- a position that neurosurgeon Ben Carson and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have also endorsed.

"That is naïve to the point of being something you might hear in junior high [school]," Paul said.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio said that, unlike Trump and Fiorina, "I've never met Vladimir Putin, but I know enough about him to know he is a gangster."

"[Putin] understands only geopolitical strength," Rubio said.

Rubio did not say in Milwaukee how he would respond to Putin, but in an interview with CNN in April 2014 he stressed that the United States should "sit down and calculate" with European countries "a long-term strategy to break this sort of dependence on the oil and natural gas from Russia that gives [Moscow] a disproportionate amount of leverage over these countries."

He said the United States can help by increasing energy production and lifting energy-export restrictions, but added that "ultimately you need to see countries like Norway and others step up and produce more."

He also said he supports sending weapons to Ukraine to assist in Kyiv's conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the east.

During a debate on September 17, Rubio accurately predicted Russia's military intervention in Syria.

"Here is what you are going to see in the next few weeks," he said. "The Russians will begin to fly combat missions in that region, not just targeting ISIS [the militant group Islamic State, or IS] but in order to prop up [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad. [Putin] will also turn to other countries in the regions and say, 'America is no longer a reliable ally, Egypt. America is no longer a reliable ally, Saudi Arabia.' Begin to rely on us.' What he is doing is he is trying to replace us as the single most-important powerbroker in the Middle East, and this president is allowing it."

During the Milwaukee debate, former Florida Governor Bush criticized Trump's views on Putin and Islamic State as unrealistic, but did not say specifically how he would deal with the Russian leader. In the past, he has called Putin "a bully" and said the only way to deal with a bully is to be "resolute."

His campaign issued a clip that specifically addressed Bush's approach to Putin.

"The best way, I think, to deal with a bully is probably to pop him in the nose," Bush said. "That's how a bully stops acting like a bully. You can't do that necessarily in foreign policy.... Here's what I know Putin responds to -- he responds to strength."

During a speech in Berlin in June, Bush called Putin "a ruthless pragmatist" who "will push until someone pushes back." That "someone," he said, should be NATO.

Carson has also advocated a tough approach to Putin. On Fox News last month, he said "let's get in [Putin's] face a little bit."

"I would be talking to Putin, and he needs to understand that if he continues with this activity, we are going to use all the facilities that we have available to us, including financial facilities, to inflict pain on him," Carson said.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz has stressed increased U.S. energy production and exports as the best way to counter Russia. He told journalists in March that "Putin would not be acting with this level of aggression if it were not for the consistent weakness and appeasement of our enemies of President Obama."

"Bullies and tyrants do not respect weakness," he said.

He argued that increasing energy exports to Europe would "help free them from the economic blackmail and tyranny that is coming from Russia."

"We have the potential with energy to tell people across the world there is a better way, a way of prosperity and free commerce and opportunity. Rather than being under totalitarian oppression, you can be free," he said.

Christie was not invited to participate in the main Milwaukee debate because of his low poll ratings.

However, in an interview with Fox News in October, he used a boxing metaphor to describe how he would cope with Putin as president.

"This guy's economy is in the tank and he's swinging above his weight," he said, referring to a boxer who is fighting larger opponents. "The only American he could knock out in the ring is Barack Obama. Put me in the ring with Vladimir Putin and we'll do just fine."