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.
But some Democratic national security veterans fear that a potentially dangerous level of hostility to Russia has emerged in recent weeks. They say the growing rivalry between Washington and Moscow, stoked by campaign rhetoric aimed at discrediting Trump, may be taking on a life of its own, making global problems harder to solve and increasing the risk of an accidental conflict—potentially even a nuclear one.
“We’re sleepwalking into a new Cold War,” said William Perry, who served as Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1996, an era of relatively warm relations between the U.S. and Russia. “There’s hardly any debate about it, and the public doesn’t understand the danger.”
Perry said he is particularly concerned that poor communication, an arms buildup on both sides, and jangled nerves increase the possibility of an accidental or unintentional nuclear confrontation. “In case anyone thinks that’s an academic concern, I can tell you that’s not academic,” Perry said, recalling a night when we was awoken at 3 a.m. by a night duty officer and informed that radar was showing hundreds of Russian missiles en route to the U.S.
At the moment, the Obama administration’s top worry is not nuclear war but ending the Syrian civil war, which has left more than 400,000 people dead, fueled the Islamic State and al Qaeda, and flooded the Middle East and Europe with refugees. With Obama’s approval, Kerry has been working closely with Lavrov — the two men have spoken dozens of times this year — to strike an agreement that would begin limited military cooperation between Washington and Moscow in Syria. Many U.S. officials believe the Syrian conflict can only be settled with Russian assistance.
Under the agreement, the U.S. would provide the Russians — who are aiding the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad against an armed opposition that includes the Islamic State and al Qaeda, but also more moderate rebels — with intelligence and targeting information against Islamic radicals. In return, the U.S. would expect Moscow to use its its leverage over Assad to halt Syrian military strikes against civilian areas.
Obama officials insist that any cooperation with Russia would not be based on trust, but contingent on verifiable steps by Moscow and Damascus. Their goal is to alleviate civilian suffering and advance a potential political settlement to the Syrian conflict.
But the proposal has drawn strong internal opposition. Two weeks ago an anonymous critic leaked the text of the Kerry’s plan to the Washington Post. Opponents say it could facilitate Russian strikes on so-called moderate Syrian rebels trained by the CIA. They also fear that it would strengthen Assad’s position, thereby extending the conflict.
One former U.S. official who has worked on Russia issues called that leak a dramatic display of dissent: “There’s a rift. It’s really bad.”
More generally, skeptics of dialogue with Moscow — who are mostly found at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies, but also within the State Department — warn that simply talking to Putin rewards and may even encourage his bad behavior. Giving the Russian a seat at the international table feeds his wish to re-establish his country, whose economy is smaller than South Korea’s, as a top global power, and gives him stature at home. If Putin thinks he will be invited to solve problems he has caused, the fear is that he will gin up more of them.
“He wants to be seen as the leader of a great power, coequal with the United States,” said National Intelligence Director James Clapper, also speaking in Aspen on Thursday.
After Putin’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, Obama threatened to “isolate” Russia, and undercut its “status in the world.” The U.S. has imposed economic sanctions on Russia, and on several Putin allies, over Ukraine.
But in recent months Obama has spoken frequently with his Russian counterpart. The two men met three times last fall, and spoke most recently in a July 6 phone call. Kerry visited Moscow five days later—his second trip to Russia this year and his fourth in the past year.
Feeding the concerns of hard-liners in Washington, the Kremlin seems to delight in these contacts. At a May 6 press briefing, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova teasingly recited an English-language poem about Kerry’s contacts with Moscow, modifying a work by the 19th century Scottish poet Robert Burns titled “My Heart’s in the Highlands.”
“His heart is in Moscow, his heart is not there. His heart is in Moscow, chasing a bear. Chasing not Grizzly but Kremlinese. His heart is in Moscow wherever John is,” Zahharova said, concluding with a laugh.
Whether or not it’s true of Kerry, that verse does not apply to U.S. intelligence and cyber security officials, who are doing battle with aggressive Russian cyber espionage and hacking. Clapper said the U.S. is in a “version of war” with Moscow in those areas.
Slotkin acknowledged the many tough obstacles to dialogue with Russia. “How do you get the balance right? Are we being too charitable and giving them too many opportunities to come back to the table? Or are we providing such a high level of deterrence that we’re potentially provoking them? That’s the fundamental question,” Slotkin said.
Some European officials have also warned about the risk of provocation. After a major NATO military exercise in Poland last month that simulated a confrontation with Russia, Germany’s foreign minister expressed his unease.
“What we shouldn’t do now is inflame the situation further through sabre-rattling and warmongering,” said the minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “We are well-advised to not create pretexts to renew an old confrontation,” he said, adding that it would be “fatal to search only for military solutions and a policy of deterrence.”
Even Obama’s former Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, has issued a similar warning.
“If I were secretary of Defense today, I’d be careful with this,” Hagel said at a May 11 media round table hosted by the Atlantic Council. “We can find ourselves very quickly in another Cold War buildup here, and that really makes no sense for either side.”
US officials say they believe Russia likely understands that campaign rhetoric doesn’t fully reflect American policy, and that dialogue with Moscow can continue even as party leaders hammer at Putin. But the tough talk is likely making public opinion more hostile towards Russia, encouraging harder-line policies from members of Congress.
The stakes are highest when it comes to nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, said Sam Nunn, a former Georgia Democrat who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In the following years, Nunn led cooperation with Moscow to that locked or dismantle poorly-secured nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
But that cooperation has slowed in recent years, and this spring Russia declined to attend Obama’s annual nuclear security summit in Washington, developments that Nunn calls troubling. “The United States and Russia cannot afford to treat dialogue as a bargaining chip” given their huge remaining nuclear stockpiles, Nunn said.
“Even when we have profound differences, we still have to communicate,” Nunn said. “I think we are in danger of losing sight of that.”