Jeb Bush Wants Russia to Be a 'European Nation'

The all-but-declared GOP presidential candidate offered an unlikely litmus test for handling Russian aggression (and a dig at Hillary Clinton) in Berlin on Tuesday.

Jeb Bush greets German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the CDU Economics Conference of the Economic Council on June 09, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. (National Journal)

Sabers—curved, single-edged swords—haven't been used in warfare for more than 100 years. Today, sabers are more likely to be deployed as a metaphorical weapon in political journalism, when reporters describe foreign policy speeches as "saber-rattling."

And that's how news outlets have been previewing Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's tour through Europe, which kicked off with a speech in Berlin on Tuesday. In his address to Wirtschaftsrat, a conference held by Germany's Economic Council of the Christian Democratic Party, Bush talked about his vision for the global economy and slotted in some jabs at the Kremlin.

"Ukraine, a sovereign European nation, must be permitted to choose its own path," Bush said. "Who can doubt that Russia will do what it pleases if its aggression goes unanswered?"

Bush added that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should be the group to answer Russia's aggression. Then he offered his frame for the future of Western relations with Russia.

"There should be a clear understanding of, first of all, our support for the Russian people," Bush said. "Ultimately, Russia needs to be a European nation. Everything we do should be to isolate its corrupt leadership."

Expecting Russia to become a "European nation" is a much more ambitious goal than attempting to press the "reset button" on U.S. relations with the country, which Bush said "didn't turn out so hot." Geography is one reason for that: Siberia—which makes up 77 percent of Russia's territory—is considered a part of Asia, 73 percent of Russia's population falls on the European side of the country.

Another, more politically important reason: For the most part, Russian President Vladimir Putin has appeared content to keep Russia separate from the West. Last year, after Russia seized the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, Putin accused the United States and Europe of trying to declaw the metaphorical Russian bear.

"Sometimes I think maybe it would be better for our bear to sit quietly, rather than chasing around the forest after piglets. To sit eating berries and honey instead. Maybe they will leave it in peace," Putin said at the time.

Bush's speech in Berlin was not the most hawkish toward Russia—he came nowhere near comparing Putin to Adolf Hitler, as Hillary Clinton did in 2014­—but it acted as an early draft of how Bush plans to paint Clinton's foreign policy experience on an international stage.

While real diplomacy may not change much, it has become a more useful token for Republicans to use when arguing that Clinton failed as secretary of State. In its playbook against Clinton's presidential campaign, the conservative super PAC America Rising marked the "reset button" as one of its key arguments against Clinton's foreign policy.

The biggest applause line Bush delivered came when he cited his father, President George H.W. Bush, for working to reunite East and West Germany during his presidency.

"Because of that, Germany is whole and Germany is free," the younger Bush said.

Starting June 15, Bush will have to prove his own ability to unify an increasingly polarized country—his own.