WHITE HOUSE - Views of Russia are playing a surprising role in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. The U.S. government has formally accused Moscow of conducting cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee to influence the elections in favor of Republican nominee Donald Trump. Russian President Vladimir Putin denies any meddling. That is just one issue, however, involving Russia where Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton bitterly disagree.
In the last two years, Russia has adopted a more assertive foreign policy: First with its takeover of Crimea and support of Ukrainian separatist rebels, and second, with its intervention in Syria on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Moscow's actions have been a frequent topic of this year's presidential debates and rallies. Democrat Hillary Clinton challenged Trump to condemn Russia for interfering in the U.S. elections at their final debate: "So I actually think the most important question of this evening... is finally, will Donald Trump admit and condemn that the Russians are doing this, and make it clear that he will not have the help of Putin in this election, that he rejects Russian espionage against Americans, which he, uh, actually encouraged in the past. Those are the questions we need answered. We've never had anything like this happen in any of our elections before."
Trump responded by attacking Clinton on her failed attempt to re-start U.S.-Russian relations as secretary of state. Where Clinton and others see Russian aggression, Trump sees opportunity: "I don't know Putin, he said nice things about me, if we got along well, that would be good. If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good. He has no respect for her, he has no respect for our president."
The rhetoric escalated at the final debate, with Clinton saying Putin would prefer Trump because he would prefer a "puppet." Trump responded angrily, "No puppet. You're the puppet."
Foreign policy analyst Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution said there is no love lost between Putin and Clinton: "Putin blames Secretary Clinton for the protests against his return to power in 2012. He thinks the United States, and particularly the State Department, was behind those."
Terrorism expert Malcolm Nance agrees that the antipathy between Putin and Clinton is mutual. He said Putin and Clinton have exchanged insults in the past, with Putin telling Clinton women should be silent. Clinton responding by saying she knows how to deal with him because she has experience dealing with elementary school children.
Nance says Trump's position on Russia differs dramatically from nearly all mainstream Republican and Democratic foreign policy leaders, and from that of his vice presidential running mate Mike Pence: "He believes that Russia's positions — the obsolescence of NATO, the destruction of the European Union, leaving Russia to have full rein in Eastern Europe, as it sees fit, and allowing Russia to do what it wants with Syria are almost a checklist of Vladimir Putin's requirements."
Clinton has vowed to shore up major U.S. alliances, such as NATO, and to continue being a reliable partner for allies if she is elected president.
Trump says if he is elected, he would ask NATO countries and other U.S. allies, such as Japan and South Korea, to do more to pay for their own defense.