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.