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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BERLIN — Seeking to burnish his credentials as a plausible commander-in-chief, Jeb Bush stepped up his criticism Wednesday of Vladimir Putin, calling the Russian president “a bully” who should be restrained.

On the second day of a three-nation European tour before he formally announces his campaign for president, the former Florida governor called for a more robust international response to counter Russian military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

“He’s a bully,” Bush told reporters here. “And … you enable bad behavior when you’re nuanced with a guy like that.”

But Bush struggled to differentiate himself from current U.S. policy in the region.

He said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ought to consider permanently stationing troops in Poland and Baltic nations that are on the front lines of the conflict. Members of the security alliance, including the United States, have considered and rejected that proposal in the past.

The Obama administration and other NATO governments instead have rotated more troops through those countries, and stepped up military exercises, intelligence sharing and regional air and sea patrols since early 2104, when Russia effectively annexed the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine.

“We have troops there now that move in and out, training exercises. But I think they could be more robust,” Bush said. “You see the difference between our training exercises and the Russian training exercises, where they deploy tens of thousands of people in the region. I mean, literally next door to our allies and our response is far less meaningful.”

Two major NATO military exercises, both led by U.S. troops, are currently underway close to the Russian border.

About 6,000 personnel from 13 countries, including the United States, are participating in the “Saber Strike 15” exercise taking place this month in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

In a press release, NATO said Saber Strike is led by the U.S. Army Europe, and the goal is to improve cooperation and capabilities for “future contingency operations.” The U.S. Air Force is providing aerial refueling, joint tactical air control, personnel and equipment airlift, and close air support.

In a separate exercise called BALTOPS 2015, 17 NATO and partner nations are participating in joint maritime maneuvers this month in Poland, Sweden, Germany and throughout the Baltic Sea. The goal, NATO said, is to “demonstrate resolve of allied and partner forces to defend the Baltic region.”

The exercise, which is led by the U.S. Navy, involves 49 ships, 61 aircraft, one submarine, and about 5,600 ground, maritime and air force personnel.

Bush is under a microscope at home and abroad to distinguish himself from his brother, President George W. Bush, who held the White House from 2001 to 2009, and his father, President George H.W. Bush, who was there from 1989 to 1993.

But wary of making the kind of gaffes that have caused stumbles for other presidential aspirants, the latest member of the Bush family to seek the Oval Office repeatedly declined to lay out specific policy proposals on his European trip.

“Look, I’m here to learn, to listen and learn, and get a better sense of all this. I don’t come to offer five-point plans,” Bush said in response to questions about whether the U.S. military should play a stronger role in the region.

Bush again declared the failure of the proposed “reset” of U.S. relations with Russia, referring to efforts to improve U.S. ties with Moscow shortly after Obama took office in 2009. Putin was then prime minister under Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Relations have soured steadily since Putin, who had previously served as president, was re-elected in 2012.

But Putin proved troublesome for George W. Bush too. Shortly after he took office in 2001, he said he had looked the former KGB officer in the eye and “found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.” That sentiment was soon mocked by other Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

“Putin has changed,” Bush argued on Wednesday. “He’s just invaded another country, that was different than it was a decade ago. This is a different, this is a different Putin, much more aggressive. So, look, I don’t begrudge anybody trying to develop better relationships with any country, but it’s clear that in this particular case the much-heralded reset didn’t work out.”

Russia denies that it has sent troops in Ukraine.

Bush flew to Poland later Wednesday and made an unannounced visit to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp. He is scheduled to meet Thursday with President Bronislaw Komorowski and President-elect Andrzej Duda, before he leaves for Estonia on Friday.

(Los Angeles Times correspondent David S. Cloud contributed from Washington.)

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (theglobalpanorama via Flickr)