President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin professed their mutual admiration Friday through a flurry of sometimes conflicting statements on nuclear arms, the U.S. elections and future U.S.-Russia cooperation.
From his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, Trump said he had received a letter on Dec. 15 signed "V. Putin" wishing him the best for the holidays and offering a path to reconciliation with Moscow following the Jan. 20 inauguration.
"Please accept my sincere wishes to you and your family of sound health, happiness, well-being, success and all the best," Trump quoted from the letter.
"A very nice letter from Vladimir Putin, his thoughts are so correct," Trump said. "I hope both sides are able to live up to these thoughts, and we do not have to travel an alternate path," Trump said.
The letter released by the Trump team quoted Putin as saying that, "Serious global and regional challenges, which our countries have to face in recent years, show that the relations between Russia and the U.S. remain an important factor in ensuring stability and security of the modern world."
Putin wrote: "I hope that after you assume the position of President of the United States of America we will be able -- by acting in a constructive and pragmatic manner -- to take real steps to restore the framework of bilateral cooperation in different areas as well as bring our level of collaboration on the international scene to a qualitatively new level."
The letter, and Trump's enthusiastic response, appeared to presage a "reset" in U.S.-Russia relations that Trump -- during the campaign -- had mocked former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for attempting at the outset of the Obama administration. Putin later vilified Clinton for charging that Russian elections were rigged.
Closer ties with Putin would also go against the grain for many in the Republican party, which has made opposition to the Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation one of the bedrocks of GOP policy.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has called Putin, a former KGB agent, a "thug, a murderer, and a killer" who can never be trusted.
The back-and-forth between Trump and Putin followed Trump's tweet on Thursday that "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes."
The suggestion appeared to go against decades of U.S. policy through Republican and Democratic administrations aimed at reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles.
Trump aides said he may have been referring to the "modernization" of the nuclear triad, which is already being planned by the military, but Trump seemed to double down Friday on his tweet about expanding the arsenal.
If expansion resulted in a new nuclear arms race with other world powers, "Let it be an arms race because we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all," Trump was quoted as saying by MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program.
In a wide-ranging, marathon year-end news conference in Moscow Friday, Putin praised Trump for gauging the mood of American voters in winning the election, and rejected White House accusations that Russia meddled in the vote.
"We know the Democratic Party lost not only the presidential election, but also the elections to the Senate, where the Republicans have the majority, to the Congress, where the Republicans have the majority," Putin said. "What is that -- also our, also my work?"
"Democrats are losing on every front and looking for people to blame everywhere," he said. "They need to learn to lose with dignity."
Despite the continuing dispute over the elections, Putin said that Russia hopes to develop "businesslike and constructive relations that would benefit both Russia and the United States."
On Thursday, after meeting with his defense chiefs, Putin suggested that Russia had surpassed the U.S. in military strength, saying: "We can say with certainty we are stronger now than any potential aggressor – anyone."
On Friday, Putin said "It is true that we have carried out a large amount of work to upgrade the nuclear missile potential of Russia and our armed forces. New nuclear-powered strategic submarines with new types of missiles on board are being commissioned. The same applies to the aviation component," Putin said, according to Russia's Tass news agency.
However, Putin acknowledged that the U.S. military was ahead of Russia's in several aspects, particularly in weapons systems such as aircraft carriers. "Nobody is arguing that," Putin said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com