Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Republican Presidential hopeful and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign stop in Camden, S.C. on Feb. 19.JULIA NIKHINSON/Getty Images

Nikki Haley is accusing Donald Trump of being “weak in the knees” in the face of Vladimir Putin’s brutality as the two candidates for the Republican presidential nomination draw a stark contrast over Russia’s crackdown on dissent and invasion of Ukraine.

They are clashing over the death of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny in prison five days before the primary calendar moves to Ms. Haley’s home state of South Carolina, where the former governor and United Nations ambassador trails the ex-president.

Ms. Haley on Monday assailed Mr. Trump for failing to condemn Mr. Putin, the Russian president, for killing Mr. Navalny.

“It’s amazing to me how weak in the knees he is when it comes to Putin. Because you look at the fact that he has yet to say anything about Navalny’s death,” Ms. Haley said on Fox News. “Putin murdered him. It’s what he does to his political opponents.”

Russia’s prison service claimed Mr. Navalny died Friday after taking a walk, but the dissident’s family and most Western leaders have accused Mr. Putin’s regime of killing him.

Ms. Haley’s broadside heightens the divergence between her foreign policy hawkishness and Mr. Trump’s isolationism, a deep-running fissure within the Republican Party. It lands as further U.S. military aid to Ukraine remains stalled in Congress because of this split.

After Ms. Haley’s interview aired, Mr. Trump compared himself to Mr. Navalny but remained silent on Mr. Putin. In a post on his Truth Social platform, Mr. Trump equated Mr. Navalny’s prison death with a financial judgment last week that ordered Mr. Trump and his companies to pay US$355-million for repeatedly defrauding banks, insurance companies and others.

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

On social-media platform X, Ms. Haley questioned the patriotism of both Mr. Trump and their mutual Democratic opponents.

“Donald Trump could have condemned Vladimir Putin for being a murderous thug,” she wrote. “Instead, he stole a page from liberals’ playbook, denouncing America and comparing our country to Russia.”

Mr. Trump has long taken flak for appearing overly friendly with autocratic leaders. During his presidency, he once suggested he might believe Mr. Putin’s denials of Russian interference in U.S. elections over the word of U.S. intelligence agencies, said he “fell in love” with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and praised China’s Xi Jinping for ruling “with an iron fist.”

Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has thrust the issue to the forefront. Mr. Trump has promised to end the war in 24 hours if elected but never specified how, raising fears he would put pressure on Kyiv to concede vast swaths of territory to Moscow.

The former president’s congressional allies have stalled the latest package of military aid to Ukraine despite a bipartisan majority supporting it. The US$95.3-billion bill, which also includes funds for Israel and Taiwan, passed the Senate this month but Speaker Mike Johnson has so far refused to put it up for a vote in the Republican-led House. The House is currently on a two-week recess.

On Monday, President Joe Biden said he would meet with Mr. Johnson over the issue, which he had previously refused to do. He also tied the stalling on Ukraine with a threat by Mr. Trump this month to “encourage” Russia to invade U.S. allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who do not pull their weight in the alliance.

“They’re making a big mistake not responding” on Ukraine aid, Mr. Biden said of House Republicans. “The way they’re walking away from the threat of Russia, the way they’re walking away from NATO, the way they’re walking away from meeting our obligations, it’s just shocking.”

In a statement, Mr. Johnson condemned Mr. Putin’s “unprovoked war in Ukraine” and “aggression against the Baltic states,” but said Congress was still debating what to do.

Ms. Haley is Mr. Trump’s last remaining rival in the war for the Republican crown. She lost by wide margins in the first three primaries – Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada – and faces long odds in South Carolina, where most polls show Mr. Trump with a 30 percentage-point lead. He will be seeking to clinch the nomination on Saturday while Ms. Haley is hoping for a strong enough finish to continue in the race.

Throughout it, Ms. Haley has run as a representative of the pre-Trump Republican Party, favouring free-market economics and international engagement in contrast to Mr. Trump’s nationalism.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe