Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush is warning Russia that if he becomes president, the U.S. will do more to tamp down Vladimir Putin's aggression, especially in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and to "isolate his corrupt leadership from his people." But Bush did little to tip his hand on what those steps would be.
In his first foreign speech of the 2016 campaign, Bush criticized what he called dramatic declines in U.S. military spending, suggesting that has undercut credibility as Washington and its allies confront threats in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Putin, he said, must know in advance that there will be consequences to his actions, because the Russian president is a ruthless pragmatist who "will push until someone pushes back."
Bush was critical of what he termed a reactive approach to crisis in Eastern Europe by the Obama administration. But his prescriptions were largely along the lines of what the U.S. is already doing, primarily pushing economic sanctions on Russia and sending military equipment and economic aid to Ukraine.
As for NATO military exercises being conducted in Eastern Europe, Bush agreed they were "forward-leaning" and a useful signal to Moscow of the alliance's determination. "I think we should probably do it more robustly," he said.
The former Florida governor addressed a major economic conference in Berlin and took questions from the audience as part of a trip that precedes his planned announcement in Miami on Monday that he is running for the 2016 nomination, a decision his aides have confirmed is already made. He's also visiting former Eastern bloc countries Poland and Estonia.
Bush was given a prominent platform — the economic council of Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union, and she followed him to the stage about an hour later. But the two did not encounter each other after the conference and she didn't mention him in her remarks.
Many in the audience of 2,000 broke into applause when Bush invoked his father, George H.W. Bush, who was president when the Soviet Union collapsed, Eastern European nations turned to their own destiny and Germany reunited as the Berlin Wall dividing East and West came down. But he did not mention George W. Bush, his brother and two-term president of the last decade, who was unpopular in Western Europe when he left office, but had a solid relationship with Merkel.
"That reunification, as you all know, was not inevitable," Bush said. "Many leaders doubted. Many of the people even in this country doubted. Many people in the United States as well doubted whether it should be attempted." But due to Chancellor Helmut Kohl's determination and with the elder Bush's support, he said, "Germany is whole and Germany is free."
Without many specifics, Bush called for deeper economic and security ties with eastern European nations vulnerable to Russian meddling. "Russia must respect the sovereignty of all of its neighbors," Bush said. But as NATO confronts crisis, he said, it must do so in a way that does not push Russia away for another generation.
Bush, like most Republican White House prospects, supports sanctions on Russia and the delivery of military equipment and aid to Ukraine, where separatists, believed backed by Putin, are fighting the Western-backed government in Kiev.
His speech did not propose to take the U.S. in a new direction in that crisis or in diplomacy with Europe broadly, except to say that the U.S. armed forces must be strengthened and Washington must be clearer to adversaries about the consequences of their actions. His visit came a day after President Barack Obama wrapped up a Group of Seven meeting at a Bavarian resort where he and Merkel affirmed ties between the two nations.
The U.S. and Germany — as well as Poland and Estonia — are NATO allies that work closely together on a host of diplomatic issues, among them Ukraine and Iran's nuclear program. Germany is also the U.S.'s strongest European trading partner, and Bush has praised Estonia and Poland as fast emerging free-market success stories.
While it's popular for Republican presidential prospects to condemn Putin, it's also a way to criticize the Obama administration's foreign policy, carried out during his first term by then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, now a Democratic presidential candidate.
Bush has said Obama has ceded to Germany too much of the diplomatic burden in Europe, chiefly for rallying approval for sanctions against Russia for its backing of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. European leaders, particularly French President Francois Hollande and Merkel, have taken the lead on Russian-Ukraine peace agreements.
Bush also was scheduled to meet Germany's finance minister, Poland's president and president-elect, and Estonia's president.
Although Bush has traveled extensively overseas while and since serving two terms as Florida governor, the trip is aimed primarily at strengthening his credentials overseas. Governors who run for president often lack foreign policy experience or are seen that way.