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Pence critical of Russia — days after Trump advocates inclusion at next G-7 summit

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/3/2019 Robert Costa
Andrzej Duda wearing a red and white flag: Vice President Pence looks at Polish President Andrzej Duda, right, during statements after their meeting in Warsaw, Poland, Monday. © Petr David Josek/AP Vice President Pence looks at Polish President Andrzej Duda, right, during statements after their meeting in Warsaw, Poland, Monday.

SHANNON, Ireland —Vice President Pence spoke out against Russia on Monday during his European trip, criticizing President Vladi­mir Putin’s government for election interference and pledging support for Poland as it seeks to bolster its military amid Russian aggression in the region. 

“With its efforts to meddle in elections across Europe and around the world, now is the time for us to remain vigilant about the intentions and actions being taken by Russia,” Pence said during a news conference in Warsaw with Polish President Andrzej Duda.

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Pence added that “Russian forces still illegally occupy large parts of Georgia and Ukraine” and chastised Moscow for seeking to divide the U.S. alliance with Poland. 

Pence made his critical remarks just days after President Trump said it is “certainly possible” he will invite Putin to the Group of Seven summit in 2020, an event Trump will host in an election year.

While Pence remains an unwavering Trump loyalist and dutiful messenger on most issues, Monday’s comments underscored the differences between the president and the vice president in how they talk about Russia, with Pence speaking as a conservative hawk this week even as Trump forcefully defends Putin.

Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, said in a brief interview Monday that Pence and Trump are aligned on foreign policy.

“No president has been as tough on Russia as Donald Trump, and while they may have different ways of expressing Russian concerns, they share the same priorities and goals,” Short said. “As with China, Donald Trump can be both confrontational and engaging.”

At the G-7 summit in France in late August, Trump blamed the Crimea crisis on former president Barack Obama, not Putin, and alleged Obama was determined to kick Russia out of the G-7 because it was “very embarrassing to him.”

“I think it would be better to have Russia inside the tent than outside the tent,” Trump told reporters.

Trump’s invitation would soften Russia’s pariah status and potentially bring it back into an elite club of some of the most powerful industrialized nations that lent Putin prized international legitimacy during the years he attended. Russia was booted following its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, slimming the Group of Eight by a member.

The vice president’s latest hard line on Russia echoes previous comments by Pence that have rebuked Putin. But the timing this week was particularly notable, coming near the start of Pence’s trip across Europe, which is being closely watched by longtime U.S. allies for the Trump administration’s position on Russia. 

Pence was also standing in for Trump in Poland. Trump had planned to visit with Duda, a leading foreign ally of the president. But he postponed his trip because of Hurricane Dorian and asked Pence to travel in his place.

Pence, who is widely seen in GOP circles as a possible 2024 presidential contender, has often been careful and conservative with his statements on foreign policy — speaking generously about Trump’s leadership and his agenda, but doing do calmly and without the brash nationalistic language used by the president.

When Duda said at the news conference that he has reservations about any move by Trump or others to bring Russia back into the fold with an invitation to next year’s G-7 summit, Pence did not contest him.

“This is a very complex issue because the situation with Russia is very difficult,” Duda said. “If we look at the behavior of Russia over the last couple of years, we have to be clear in saying that if somebody realizes their imperial ambitions through changing the borders, through military attack, and that is what happened.”

Duda said that “nobody who respects the dignity of other nations and states can turn a blind eye to” the actions taken by Putin’s government in Crimea.

“I believe that we must not proceed according to the business-as-usual principle. This is my position, and I don’t hesitate to express it,” he said.

Pence praised Poland for being “one of only seven NATO allies that currently meets the commitment to spend at least 2 percent of your gross domestic product on defense.” That commitment has enabled the United States to fully support Poland’s purchase of American-made weapons so it can defend its sovereignty, Pence said.

Pence’s Monday comments on Russia followed his assurance Sunday that Ukraine has U.S. support, as national security adviser John Bolton, who has also been a Putin critic, looked on.

Speaking with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky following an event in Warsaw, Pence said the United States has “stood strongly for the territorial integrity of Ukraine” since 2014 and “will continue to stand with the people of the Ukraine on your security, on territorial integrity, including Ukraine’s rightful claim to Crimea.”

Other issues loomed for Pence’s meeting with Duda. The Trump administration has been slow to call out Poland’s governing party, Law and Justice, as its elected officials breach the country’s constitution and support candidates and leaders who seek to erode LGBTQ rights. 

Most recently, Poland’s deputy justice minister was forced to resign after it emerged that his ministry had waged a harassment campaign against judges resisting government efforts to control the judiciary.

When asked if he confronted Duda on issues of gay rights, press freedom and judicial independence during their private meeting Monday, Pence said he did discuss judicial independence with Duda — but he did not say whether press freedom or LGBTQ rights were part of the conversation.

“We talked about the importance of judicial independence and the rule of law,” Pence said. “As I told President Duda, we are grateful for his commitment to strengthening the foundations of the rule of law in Poland. It is right and just, but it also, we believe, is the surest way to encourage better foreign direct investment.”

Amid the ongoing trade war with China, Pence also signed a security declaration Monday with Poland that puts new pressure on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies, which the United States has asserted is involved with espionage activities.

Pence traveled later Monday to Shannon, Ireland, where he met with that nation’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who warned Pence that Brexit in the United Kingdom could cause “disruption” for Ireland and the peace at its northern border.

Pence said he was “grateful for your candor,” following Coveney’s remarks before a throng of reporters and television cameras.

“We will continue to work closely with our partners in Ireland and the United Kingdom to support a Brexit plan that encourages stability and also one that keeps the strong foundation forged by the Good Friday Agreement,” Pence said, a reference to the landmark 1998 peace accord with Northern Ireland.

Pence is scheduled to meet later this week with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Pence, whose paternal and maternal roots can be traced to Ireland, is staying at Trump International Golf Links & Hotel in Doonbeg. He is traveling with the second lady, Karen Pence, and his mother, Nancy Pence Fritsch.

robert.costa@washpost.com

Michael Birnbaum and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

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