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Vladimir Putin is ‘a gangster and thug’, says US presidential candidate Marco Rubio



Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks during a meet-and-greet event at the Grand River Center in Dubuque, Iowa. Photograph: Jessica Reilly/AP

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio speaks during a meet-and-greet event at the Grand River Center in Dubuque, Iowa. Photograph: Jessica Reilly/AP

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio escalated his rhetoric against Vladimir Putin on Friday, vowing if elected to the White House to “isolate Russia diplomatically” and impose a series of new sanctions on Moscow.

The Florida senator has taken an aggressive tact against Russia while campaigning to become the next US commander-in-chief. Capping off a two-day swing through Iowa, Rubio used a national security forum to detail what foreign policy toward Russia would look like under his administration.

“As soon as I take office, I will move quickly to increase pressure on Moscow,” Rubio said. “Under my administration, there will be no pleadings for meetings with Vladimir Putin. He will be treated for what he is – a gangster and a thug.”

The senator said he would propose new sanctions on Russian officials and entities, including visa bans and asset freezes against senior leadership. He also pledged to work with US allies in Europe to exclude Russia from SWIFT, the international banking system that allows for the exchange of money across countries.

“When I’m president, America will speak clearly about Vladimir Putin. He and his cronies will be the target of US financial pressure,” Rubio said.

The Republican contender’s speech was made against the backdrop of Russian airstrikes in Syria against opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“We are barreling toward a second cold war,” Rubio warned, while dubbing Putin’s moves a “power play” in the region.

Rubio sounded similar alarms in last month’s Republican presidential debate, in which his performance was praised and prompted a boost for his campaign. The senator also used the perch of the debate stage to refer to Putin as a “gangster,” a characterization he repeats often in media appearances and while campaigning in early voting states.

The fiery criticisms even attracted a response from Putin on CBS television’s 60 Minutes program last week, who when asked about Rubio’s characterization of him responded: “How can I be a gangster if I worked for the KGB? Come on. That does not correspond to reality.”

Rubio mocked Putin’s comeback in several campaign stops this week, from an event at a retirement community in his home state of Florida to his appearances in Iowa.

Reading the quote aloud on Friday, Rubio simply said, “Well Mr Putin, I rest my case.”

Barack Obama also took a hard line against Putin on Friday, following his first meeting with the Russian president in nearly a year at the UN general assembly earlier this week.

Putin’s refusal to distinguish between moderate Sunni opposition to Assad and the Islamic State was “a recipe for disaster”, the president said.

“We are not going to cooperate with a Russian campaign to simply try to destroy anybody who is disgusted and fed up with Mr Assad’s behavior,” Obama said.

He rejected, however, the notion Putin was operating in Syria from a position of strength.

“Mr Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength but out of weakness, because his client, Mr Assad, was crumbling,” Obama said.

Drawing a sharp contrast to the Obama administration’s foreign policy has been a central component of Rubio’s pitch, as he seeks to cast himself as the most well versed Republican candidate on international affairs.

Democrats have hit back on Rubio’s approach, criticizing the senator in press releases for holding an “outdated, cold war-era view of the world”.

But polling has shown national security ranks as a top issue among the Republican primary electorate. And Rubio’s efforts to highlight his grasp of foreign policy in a crowded Republican field appears to be paying at least some dividends among voters.

“I was watching TV and they were showing how he predicted word for word almost that Russia was going to get into Syria and start airstrikes,” said Gary T, a voter who attended an event Rubio held on Thursday in Cedar Falls. “I was very impressed … that pretty much decided it for me.”

Wendy Jorgensen, another resident of Cedar Falls, said Rubio is among her top three choices. Naming retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as her other favored candidates, she noted the senator had potentially pushed over the edge during his visit.

“He just seems to really have a command of the issues,” Jorgensen said. “And for foreign policy, he really is better than the others.”

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