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'Frontline' follows Putin grudge from Ukraine uprising to U.S. elections

Vladimir Putin shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Last week, the PBS documentary series “Frontline” premiered the first part of a two-part series, titled “Putin’s Revenge,” about the reasons for and the implementation of Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. election. Part 1, about which I wrote last week, mostly tried to explain the “lifetime of grudges” that motivated Vladimir Putin’s operation. I actually found it more interesting than Part 2, because it offered those who can escape overwhelming self-righteousness of the U.S. mindset to try to imagine how a Russian leader might view us as aggressive and hypocritical.

Part 2, which airs Wednesday night and deals with the 2016 U.S. election, picks up the story as Ukraine is rising up against its Kremlin-backed government, turning Ukraine —  long part of Russia’s sphere of influence — into a West-leaning posture and raises the possibility that NATO’s reach will extend even closer to the Russian heartland. Putin, the film tells us, sees this as another and perhaps the worst ever hostile act against Russian interests by the United States and its hegemonic vision.

Putin is a cynic or, to put it more neutrally, a hard-boiled realist, annoyed by the long U.S. propaganda campaign to portray the United States as the friend of freedom-loving people everywhere and Russia as the cruel, ruthless imperial power. To him, the uprising in Ukraine could not be happening except as the latest manifestation of America’s longstanding crusade to not just contain but to shrink the formerly vast Russian sphere of influence in Europe.

Assumes U.S. is behind it

Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats backs up this view of Putin in the film, saying that Putin “doesn’t believe that people might get out in the streets [in Ukraine] protesting just because they don’t like the people in power.” He assumes that Washington is behind it and that Ukraine (and its pro-Russian, breakaway region of Crimea) are pawns in the longstanding U.S.-Soviet power struggle. He responds by sending military assets into Crimea, to establish its independence from Ukraine, and the operation introduces a somewhat new set of geopolitical tactics that have come to be called “hybrid war.”

In the film, Evan Osnos of the New Yorker describes “hybrid war” as combining a blend of assets including conventional military power, the use of paramilitaries, disinformation tactics and — the latest addition — cyber warfare.

Along comes the 2016 U.S. election campaign, and Putin is perhaps tempted to bring “hybrid war” tactics to bear. Russian journalist Mikhail Zyar testifies that “Putin loves the idea that all elections are rigged. We are all the same. We are all dirty bastards.”

Trump publicly praises Putin

Putin has some grudges against Hillary Clinton from her days as secretary of state. With the rise of Donald Trump as a serious contender, Putin finds Trump publicly praising him in previously unimaginable ways for a U.S. presidential candidate. Said Trump: “I think in terms of leadership, he [Putin] has to get an ‘A,’ ” while “our president [referring to Barack Obama] isn’t doing so well.”

All of the above seems to suggest to us that Trump and Putin each see the other as someone with whom business can be done. The film does not close the loop of proof, but seems to suggest agreement with the theory, widely believed in liberal and Democratic circles in America, that Putin set out to do what he could to harm Clinton and help Trump. The film does not, in my view, deliver a tight proof of that theory, but assembles some of the evidence, much of which you have heard before, that Russia engaged in cyber-war to help Trump and hurt Clinton during the campaign.

There is evidence that Russian hackers obtained good access to the servers of the Democratic National Committee. In the summer of 2016, Wikileaks began releasing DNC emails embarrassing to Hillary Clinton, emails that journalist Robert Costa says caused “chaos” at the nominating convention.

A lot of the information in the film seems familiar, but here’s one data bit I didn’t recall. The CIA presented Obama with some evidence that the Russians were behind the hacking, and he approached the leaders of both parties in Congress and asked for a bipartisan denunciation of any such interference.

But Republicans declined to participate, Frontline suggests, and Obama decided that, since Clinton was going to win anyway, it might do more harm than good to create the appearance that her fellow Democrat Obama seemed to be using intelligence services to help her.

Obama administration puts out statement

Late in the campaign, with Wikileaks now pouring out damaging emails hacked from Democratic Party official John Podesta, the Obama administration put out a brief, cautiously worded statement, attributed to the CIA and the Homeland Security Department (HSD), without mentioning Putin’s name, asserting that there was evidence Russians were trying to influence the U.S. election.

By coincidence, that statement came out just before the release of the famous “Access Hollywood” video of Trump bragging about his ability to grab women by the pussy and get away with it because he was so famous. That tape, of course, did not help Trump, but did help distract from the official, highly cautious warning to the electorate that Russia might be interfering.

Journalist Julia Ioffe of the Atlantic, in the film, calls Obama’s decision not to make a bigger deal of what the CIA and HSD had concluded “a classic case of the Obama administration overthinking something.”

The rest, of course, is history.

'The most aggressive, direct and assertive campaign'

I learned a few new details from this film, but not much that changed the basic understanding of what probably happened. John Brennan, who was CIA director at the time, called it “the most aggressive, direct and assertive campaign that the Russians have ever mounted in the history of our elections.”

Did it make the difference in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin? Would it have made a difference the other way if the Obama or the Democrats in general had made a bigger deal about it? If someone can answer those questions convincingly, I’ll be interested to hear it. 

Part 2 of “Putin’s Revenge premieres on KTCA-Channel 2 and other PBS stations at 9 p.m. Wednesday.

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Comments (7)

Putin certainly had

means, motive and opportunity.

If the Russians thought $100,000 was going to weigh much

...in the 2016 election, they are more naiive than anyone has supposed so far.

See the NY Times estimates of spending on the election as a whole and on the presidency: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/04/14/somebody-just-put...

$100,000 doesn't get you much of anything in a Presidential election, except for invitations to more swanky fund-raisers.

Likewise, much of the fretting about interference by the Russians, when it comes time to state particulars, reduces to vague claims of inciting divisiveness in the US electorate, AS IF that electorate were not already bitterly divided.

There is an unstated propaganda message beneath all this focus on the Russians, which is that our election process is JUST FINE except for those doggone interfering Russians !! Our election process is NOT just fine.

Just this week, Facebook

Just this week, Facebook estimated that 126 million people had viewed material placed on line by Russia with the intent of influencing elections. That is a pretty wide reach with very little expenditure. It is also clear that the Mercers and Cambridge Analytics have operations that also exert significant political influence through internet campaigns. So no, it's not just the Russians that realize the power of innuendo, distortion, incitement and outright convenient lies. And given the peculiar imbalances of the electoral college system, a strategic targeting to influence outcomes in a presidential election is a reality.

As was said before, Putin (an other authoritarians) is assisted simply by chaos in the democracies of the world and so the creation of disputes and increasing divides works well for his purposes. Others, like Cambridge Analytics work more toward building consensus views of issues that people like the Mercer's want..

In a reality show world, what should people base their votes on ?

Let’s start with the obvious

Let’s start with the obvious question: Who was the US president when all those things (from the Ukraine crisis to the election meddling) were happening? And why would saying that Putin earned an A as a leader be considered a praise in this case? It’s just a statement of the fact that Putin did indeed lead Russia to where he wanted (and where many Russians wanted, at least based on polls); it says nothing of whether it was a good or bad direction…

“All of the above seems to suggest to us that Trump and Putin each see the other as someone with whom business can be done.” If Obama couldn do business with Iran, why can’t one do it with Russia, even if we want to forget that Obama and Clinton started with “reset” with Russia.

“Russia engaged in cyber-war to help Trump and hurt Clinton during the campaign.” Putin doesn’t really care who American President is so long as he or she is weak. And he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams… But let’s not forget that Putin didn’t write those Clinton’s and Podesta’s e-mail; if there were nothing bad there, hacking would not have done anything. On the other hand, how is it worse than “finding” that 10 years old Trump’s tape…

“Obama decided that, since Clinton was going to win anyway, it might do more harm than good to create the appearance that her fellow Democrat Obama seemed to be using intelligence services to help her.” This was Obama’s excuse for not responding to Russia and was widely reported. But isn’t meddling bad regardless whether it has chances to succeed or not?

“official, highly cautious warning to the electorate that Russia might be interfering.” And what would electorate do even if it paid attention? Stop reading leaked Podesta’s e-mails? So did those leaked e-mails make a difference for voters? Probably yes. But then someone should make one more step and say that it would have been better if voters did not know the truth. Who would that be? On the other hand, did that Trump tape make a difference?

You do realize that the idea

You do realize that the idea of a secret operation is that the extent and nature of the operation are meant to be secret. And that there are currently a significant number of Trump fellow-travelers who did their part to conceal their Russian contacts, connections and initiatives.

But yes, by all means, in "conservative land", it's Hillary's and Obama's fault. I saw that message loud and clear on the conservative media outlets--good to see you're keeping up with them.

“You do realize that the idea

“You do realize that the idea of a secret operation is that the extent and nature of the operation are meant to be secret” Absolutely, which makes it strange to me that half of America knows for sure about Trump’s collusion.

“And that there are currently a significant number of Trump fellow-travelers who did their part to conceal their Russian contacts, connections and initiatives.” You mean half a dozen?

“But yes, by all means, in "conservative land", it's Hillary's and Obama's fault” What is “it?” On the other hand, what do you think of this: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/24/us/cash-flowed-to-clinton-foundation-.... Or that Hillary paid to a firm that had helped Putin against Russian opposition to get a document that was relying on Kremlin sources?

Which president

told the Russians to stop and increased sanctions?
Which president asked the Russians to provide 'opposition research'?
What money (that's what 'doing business' is about) did Obama or his relatives receive from Iran?
Arms negotiations are not 'doing business'.