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It is hard to overstate just how much is riding on the Republican primary in South Carolina. It almost seems as if the course of history might come down to the choice that a few thousand people in a single U.S. state make around who will top the GOP ballot in November’s presidential election.

Though its voters barely know it, the eyes of the entire world are on the Palmetto State.

That Saturday’s GOP primary falls on the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and barely a week after the death of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, only serves to raise the stakes.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who has refused to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin for his role in Mr. Navalny’s death in an Arctic prison, has warned he would advise Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” with NATO countries that fail to spend enough on their own defence if he wins the White House again. As it is, he has encouraged Republicans in Congress to block a US$60-billion aid package, delays to which have left Ukraine critically short of the weapons it needs to defend itself.

This comes amid U.S. intelligence warnings that Russia may be preparing to launch a nuclear weapon into space. Such a weapon could knock out the commercial and military satellites that underpin global communications systems. Mr. Putin this week dismissed such speculation as an attempt by President Joe Biden’s administration to put pressure on Republicans in the House of Representatives to approve more aid for Ukraine. But his comments sounded more like a wink-wink bid to help his not-so-secret-admirer coast to the GOP nomination.

Mr. Trump goes out of his way to avoid criticizing Mr. Putin, despite the long trail of poisonings, murders and imprisonments of political opponents that all lead back to him. The reasons for his silence may or may not have to do with some unpaid debt in Mr. Trump’s past. But whatever the cause, it makes him unfit to serve as the leader of the free world. No one with such a low opinion of democracy, or such a high opinion of Mr. Putin, should ever be entrusted with that job.

If, in the words of former GOP congresswoman Liz Cheney, Mr. Trump is the leader of the “Putin wing” of the Republican Party, the non-Putin wing is now led by Nikki Haley, the last non-Trump candidate standing in the Republican race. The former South Carolina governor has a reputation as a giant killer on her home turf, having defeated one well-connected and well-financed member of the state GOP establishment after another during her career. But polls still show her trailing Mr. Trump by about 25 percentage points on the eve of Saturday’s vote.

“Either he sides with Putin and thinks it’s cool that Putin killed one of his political opponents, or he just doesn’t think it’s that big of a deal,” Ms. Haley said last Sunday of Mr. Trump. “I think it’s important to stand with the Russian people who believe Navalny was really talking for them.”

Mr. Trump did later acknowledge Mr. Navalny’s death, but only as a pretext to draw parallels between his own indictments and the trumped-up charges that led to the Russian politician’s sentencing to multiple prison terms by Mr. Putin’s cronies. The move was just another disgusting attempt by Mr. Trump to discredit U.S. democratic institutions and play the victim.

“The sudden death of Alexey Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our Country,” Mr. Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform. “It is a slow, steady progression, with CROOKED, Radical Left Politicians, Prosecutors, and Judges leading us down a path to destruction.”

Ms. Haley can sound like a throwback to a bygone era before Republicans embraced isolationism. “Russia isn’t the only country that smells blood in the water,” she said recently in an attack on the foreign-policy failures of both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. “When dictators in Iran, North Korea and Communist China see America step back, they lurch into the breach.”

Such hawkish talk is a tough sell among most Republican voters in 2024. Unfortunately, the number of regional conflicts with global repercussions is increasing by the day – and with it, the probability of U.S. military intervention to counter Russian, Chinese or Iranian involvement.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, seems more interested in hawking his own branded high-tops to pay off his ballooning legal bills than in the breakdown of the world order. Ms. Haley’s campaign team responded to the news of Mr. Trump’s latest marketing gimmick by posting a picture of sneakers emblazoned with the Russian flag, with the tagline: “Fixed it for you.”

It was only half funny.

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