Putin looms large as Biden, Trump clash on foreign policy in first debate

First 2024 presidential debate in Atlanta

By Costas Pitas

(Reuters) - With around a dozen mentions in an hour and a half, Russian President Vladimir Putin was repeatedly referenced by President Joe Biden and rival Donald Trump during Thursday's presidential election debate as they vied to show who was tougher on foreign policy.

"If we had a real president, the president that ... was respected by Putin, he would have never invaded Ukraine," Trump said of Biden, kicking off a series of clashes between the two candidates over the wars in Ukraine and in Gaza.

"Go ahead, let Putin go in and control Ukraine, and then move on to Poland and other places. See what happens then. He has no idea what the hell he's talking about," Biden said of Trump.

How to end the war in Ukraine, the debate over U.S. support for NATO and whether European nations are contributing enough to the effort against Russia's invasion dominated discussion on the conflict.

For his part, Putin has previously expressed indifference towards the outcome of the election.

"Basically, we don't care (who wins)", Putin said earlier this month when asked by Reuters whether he believed the outcome of the U.S. election would make a difference for Moscow.

"For us, we do not think the end result holds much significance. We will work with any president the American people elect."

When Americans go to the polls on Nov. 5, many will weigh foreign policy issues such as Ukraine and Israel against concerns closer to home about immigration, abortion and the economy.

On Israel's war in Gaza, Biden touted his ceasefire plan and declared that no one in the world had been a greater supporter of Israel than the United States.

"We saved Israel," he said.

Trump repeated claims that "Israel would have never been invaded in a million years by Hamas" militants had he been president.

"He's become like a Palestinian. But they don't like him because he's a very bad Palestinian. He's a weak one," Trump said of Biden.

(Reporting by Costas Pitas; Editing by Daniel Wallis)