Donald Trump was the bogeyman of this week's Democratic national convention. But placing a close second to Trump was Russia's President, Vladimir Putin. Democrats linked the two bad guys together, hammering Trump for his past words of praise for Putin as a "strong leader" and his claim that the U.S. would "get along great" with Russia if he is elected.
“He cozies up to Putin,” said President Barack Obama. Vice President Joe Biden denounced Trump for “embracing dictators like Vladimir Putin.” And on Thursday night Hillary Clinton herself said she would defend NATO allies against any threat, “including from Russia.”
But just the day before, on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry sat down with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. On their agenda was a U.S. proposal to cooperate with Russia in Syria, which he presented in a meeting with Putin at the Kremlin earlier this month. And on Thursday, a senior Obama administration official reminded a national security conference that better relations with Moscow, something Trump has been criticized for saying would be “a great thing,” remains a core goal of U.S. foreign policy.
“We do not want to be adversarial with the Russians,” said Elissa Slotkin, acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, in a panel at the Aspen Security Conference. “I think, I hope, that the message that Russia is receiving now is that we want to talk to you. We’ll send John Kerry to Moscow. We are open, we are ready to talk to you.”
To be sure, Obama officials have low expectations about the prospects for constructive dealings with Putin, who has pursued an aggressive foreign policy while clamping down on dissent at home. They are also outraged by what they believe to be a Kremlin's hand in the cyber theft and release of Democratic National Committee emails. (Kerry sternly raised the issue with Lavrov on Tuesday, U.S. officials said.) And Slotkin made clear that Washington’s offers of dialogue are part of a “balance” that includes military muscle-flexing and steps like recent U.S. reinforcements of NATO’s eastern flank. “We have to have a twin deter-and-dialogue message,” Slotkin said.