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At Odds With Trump, Pence Seeks Harder Line on Russia

Mike Pence split from Donald Trump most aggressively on Russia’s role in Syria, criticizing Russia for its aggressive military campaign
Republican vice-presidential nominee Gov. Mike Pence speaks during the vice-presidential debate with Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)Patrick Semansky / AP

Republican Mike Pence dramatically split from the top of his ticket, Donald Trump, on the issue of Syria, sharply criticizing Russia for its aggressive military campaign that is killing thousands of civilians in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In Tuesday's one and only vice presidential debate, Pence took a tough stance against Russia, even calling for the U.S. military to respond to Russia's actions there. That's in direct opposition to Trump, who has repeatedly praised Russia's role in Syria and its leader Vladimir Putin, has taken.

Hillary Clinton's top adviser, John Podesta, described Pence's policy on Russia on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" the morning after the debate as doing "backflips on Russia."

"He made a whole new policy up on Syria, which embraced Hillary Clinton's approach to what's going on in Syria," Podesta added.

During the face-off between Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine at Longwood University Tuesday night, Pence outlined an aggressive policy never once uttered by the top of his ticket.

“The provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength,” Pence said, calling Russian attacks on civilians “barbaric.”

“The United States of America should be prepared to use military force, to strike military targets of the Assad regime, to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Aleppo,” Pence added.

Pence's remarks come as the United States and Russia have cut off bilateral talks after a short-lived ceasefire negotiated largely by the two countries was broken by the most intense bombing in civilian areas of the five-year civil war.

Related: Analysis: Pence Charges at Clinton and Runs Away from Trump

Trump has neither advocated military force against Russia for provocative actions nor criticized Russia for its role in the humanitarian crisis in eastern Aleppo that has trapped 275,000 civilians, cutting them off from food and aid while also becoming the subject of deadly and persistent bombings.

Just a few hours earlier while campaigning in Arizona, Trump called the bombings “sad” and said that they “should end fast,” which is the most critical he's been of Russia's role there. But he offered no solution other than saying that Russia has “no respect for this country” or “for our leadership.”

During the primaries he supported Russia’s military involvement in Syria, saying it was a “positive thing” and that he’s “all for it."

Later in the primary, he proposed sending up to 30,000 ground troops into Syria and Iraq to defeat ISIS but made no critique of Russia's role.

Kaine pushed Pence throughout the debate on Trump's position on Russia, insinuating that Trump's praise of Russia is because of Trump's financial interest.

"You guys love Russia," Kaine said.

Clinton spokesperson, Jesse Lehrich, echoed Kaine's theme, saying Pence might have “talked tough on Russia” but he refused “to acknowledge the pro-Kremlin agenda Trump has staked out, his deep financial ties to Russia and his incessant fawning over Putin.”

A Trump aide said on background after the debate that “Trump was supporting Russians bombing ISIS. Gov. Pence is condemning bombings of civilian population centers to bolster Assad.”

The aide added: “Both believe in working with anyone who had an interest in defeat ISIS and that includes Russia.”

Related: VP Debate Recap: Pence and Kaine Attack Top of the Ticket

But during the debate Tuesday night, Pence didn’t say he would work with Russia to defeat ISIS, but he worked to separate himself from Trump’s constant praise of Putin.

Because Kaine consistently forced Pence to answer to Trump’s praise of Putin, Kaine spent little time explaining Clinton's plan for Syria other than to say that she supports a “humanitarian safe zone.”

Clinton’s support of a no-fly zone puts her at odds with President Obama who has been reluctant to engage the U.S. military in Syria beyond several hundred special forces on the ground there.