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‘Putin’s Revenge’: ‘Frontline’ explores ‘a lifetime of grievances’ against the U.S.

REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev
Over the course of Vladimir Putin’s life, he has seen the Soviet Union fall apart and Russia’s standing as a leading world power dramatically reduced.

Tonight (9 p.m., KTCA-Channel 2), the great PBS documentary series “Frontline” will premiere the first of a two-parter on the 2016 election (about which you may have already heard and read a fair bit) and especially about the role of Russian interference.

The second part will run a week from tonight.  The Frontliners made a preview copy available to me, so this is a preview of Part 1, and I’ll put up a preview of Part 2 a little closer to the air date.

The whole two-parter is titled “Putin’s Revenge.” Part 2 is about Russian interference in our election. But most of Part 1 is devoted to the rise of Putin and the growth of the various grudges that may have led him to want to seek “revenge” by interfering in our election.

I should get this out of the way right quick. There’s little or nothing in either part to suggest active collaboration by candidate Donald Trump or his minions in the interference, except by exploiting some of the material that the Russians hacked from the Democrats last year and made public, with the assistance of Wikileaks.

Most of Part 1 is unrelated to the 2016 election and instead traces the sources of “a lifetime of grievances” Putin had developed against our dear nation that led him to want “revenge.” If you can summon an extremely high level of objectivity to see how real these “grievances” might seem to Putin, you can perhaps understand Putin’s motivations. I am certainly not a Putin admirer, and I’m not suggesting that you should sympathize with his grievances, but Part 1 offers a pretty good chance to see things through Putin’s eyes and to perhaps see how U.S. smugness and domination looks to those on the receiving end. Here goes:

Putin is a Russian nationalist/patriot. He came up through the KGB, which trained him to think of the United States as “the enemy” and rival of the Soviet Union in a struggle for global dominance. Over the course of Putin’s life, he has seen the Soviet Union fall apart and Russia’s standing as a leading world power dramatically reduced.

As a young KGB agent in Dresden, East Germany (when there was such a nation, which was part of the Soviet-dominated European Communist bloc), Putin was present for the fall the Berlin Wall, which was a stark symbol of growing U.S. power and waning Soviet/Russian influence.

George H.W. Bush, who was president at the time, called the fall of the wall “a victory for the moral force of our values.” For Putin, the film says, it was a “humiliation.” It was, of course, part of a long series of similar humiliations for Russian imperialism, as all of the Eastern Europe was similarly “liberated” (as an American would say) or lost to Russian control (as Putin might say).

Putin saw the decline continuing as Russia lost not only its “satellites” in Eastern Europe, but all of the so-called Soviet Socialist Republics that made up the Soviet Union. Through his eyes, these developments were all humiliations brought about by the interference of the United States, which he views as an imperial power constantly expanding the size of its empire and, during Putin’s life, doing so mostly by taking territory away from Russian control.

The film says that, to Putin, all of this shrinkage was the work of the United States. The constant increase in the U.S. sphere of influence tends to be called (by Americans) by the euphemism “regime change.” Putin fears Washington will not be satisfied until it brings “regime change” to Russia.

Back in Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin remained in intelligence work and moved up through the ranks of the power structure until Russian President Boris Yeltsin made him prime minister. Then, after Yeltsin’s resignation in relative disgrace, Putin became president.

Still seeing the U.S. as aggressive and expansionist, Putin lost interest in a modus vivendi. Instead, the film says, Putin’s attitude to working with the United States becomes: “We’re giving up on you and we are going to make our own world in which we are the masters.”

When President Barack Obama, in a meeting with Yeltsin, says the United States wants to push a “reset button” and seek a better relationship, Yeltsin replies with a history lesson that heavily features the humiliation and damage Russia has suffered at the hands of U.S. imperialism.

According to “Putin’s Revenge,” when Putin watched what Americans call the “Arab Spring,” which brought about the overthrow of many Mideast governments in the early 2010s (including some that had been Soviet client states), he saw more U.S. expansionism at Russia’s expense.

When Putin saw Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi being torn into pieces by an angry mob, he saw what would happen to himself if the Americans had their way, but (as the film’s narrator says) “Putin was determined that Gadhafi’s fate would not be his own.”

Putin won a third term as president in March of 2012, but the election fraud was so blatant that angry Putin opponents were in the streets chanting “Putin Must Go.” To Putin, this looked like U.S. influence, specifically that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom he neither likes nor trusts.

Julia Ioffe of The Atlantic, one of many journalists who give their views in the film, says, “What Putin sees is: Here’s American regime change, coming for him finally.” In particular, he focused on Hillary Clinton, who publicly criticized the way Putin’s re-election had been managed. Michael Crowley of Politico says that Putin “finds it incredibly provocative that Hillary Clinton feels the need to chime in at this moment of weakness, that it’s a kind of kick in the gut, that he never forgives.”

This, “Frontline” suggests, may have planted a seed that would turn a Russian campaign to undermine Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.

That’s where Part 1 of this two-part Frontline film ends. Part 2 will focus on Russian efforts to undermine Clinton’s candidacy last year. I’ll leave you there, for now, and encourage you next week to watch Part 2.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/25/2017 - 10:33 am.

    My 2¢

    For what little it’s worth, I don’t think Mr. Putin needs to worry about “regime change” being brought to Russia by the United States. Not that the “hawks,” and especially the “chicken hawks,” in Congress and in positions within the current administration wouldn’t like to see that take place, but with the Current Occupant and the Republican right wing busily dismantling whatever approximation of national consensus that might have existed about the kind of society we want, and how we want to relate to our international neighbors, the gradual (or perhaps not so gradual) loss of power and influence that Putin apparently resents in the Russian context, may soon be something with which even inattentive Americans will have to reconcile themselves. My apologies for the length of that sentence.

    We’re spending our national treasure on pointless wars, some big, some small, in various parts of the globe. None are “official” in the sense that Congress has never actually “declared war” against the purported enemies we’re currently fighting, but while we flail ineffectually in the Middle East and elsewhere, the society our troops are risking (and giving) their lives for becomes less egalitarian, less democratic, more authoritarian and more plutocratic almost by the day.

    And much, though not all, of the simmering conflict with Russia could have been avoided if national leaders were not so much in the thrall of the military-defense complex and their own political narrow mindedness when the Soviet Union collapsed. Instead of an updated version of the post-WW2 Marshall Plan to help Russia (and its recently-departed satellite states) make the transition from economic and political dictatorship to a more market-based economy and more genuinely democratic political structure, we continued (and still continue) to treat Russia as a pariah, a rival so dangerous that, instead of the billions of dollars we might have invested in our own crumbling infrastructure, schools, and economy, we kept right on throwing the money away on billion-dollar aircraft carriers, multi-million-dollar fighter jets, and assorted other weapons systems useful primarily against nation-states that pose a genuine threat to our borders and national security. For the most part, those nation-states don’t exist — or didn’t exist until we went out of our way to annoy and harass them.

    The near-nuclear-confrontation with North Korea’s emotionally-disturbed leader could be seen as an exception, or it could be seen simply as one more example of the emotional and intellectual immaturity of the Current Occupant, and the intellectual bankruptcy of his right-wing advisors. Rome fell because of internal corruption as much as from military action by the Goths. I think that’s what the Republican right wing represents in our current regime. I suspect, without having access to any classified information, that Russia likely views Trump as much easier to deal with than Clinton would have been, largely because his inflated ego and insecurities make him easier to manipulate, but also because he has significant financial ties to Russia that Clinton did not, and does not.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/25/2017 - 10:05 pm.

      So Bill Clinton’s getting half a million dollars for Russian speeches and meeting with Putin was nothing to worry about… My wild guess is that Putin actually wanted Clinton in the white house, just weakened… and of course now he enjoys the show of Democrats weakening Trump.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/25/2017 - 02:33 pm.

    Putin’s revenge is the sowing of chaos in democracies of the world.

    Compared to the cost of a new aircraft carrier or missile system, the on-line mastery of propaganda, true “fake news”, and mischief like election-hacking is a bargain and far more effective with great deniability.

    Trump needs to do no more than be his own chaotic self to assist Putin.

  3. Submitted by William Beyer on 10/25/2017 - 07:13 pm.

    PBS = Propaganda BS

    I have indeed heard and read a good bit about alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee, and of alleged Russian interference – I believe the current term-of-art is “meddling” – in the 2016 presidential election.

    However, in my extensive readings, I have yet to find the tiniest shred of evidence that the DNC was hacked by anyone, or that the Russians meddled in anything.

    Here’s what I’ve found:

    – The FBI has still not forensically examined the DNC servers over a year after the fact. If this hacking was a crime, can anyone explain why?

    – The alleged consensus of17 intelligence agencies confirming the alleged DNC hack was exposed as a lie by the New York Times on June 25th, although begrudgingly. You may have missed this, because the Grey Lady did her best to bury the retraction.

    – Only hand-picked analysts of 3 agencies, not 17, were involved in January’s intelligence review, and their specific written conclusions included this statement: “Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact. Assessments are based on collected information, which is often incomplete or fragmentary, as well as logic, argumentation, and precedents.”

    – William Binney, the National Security Agency’s former technical director, says “the NSA would have a record of any overseas exfiltration and could release that data without danger to national security.” Yet the NSA hasn’t. Binney oughtta know: he created the massive information-sucker-upper that the NSA still uses.

    – Claims that the Russians hacked the recent French elections, German elections and influenced the Brexit vote have been publicly debunked by – wait for it – the French, German and British intelligence services.

    I’ll probably watch Frontline tonight for laughs, but I’ve have become alarmed by the extent to which PBS has gone to join the Putin-oia frenzy. Perhaps the documentary will offer some actual evidence, but I suspect it will be a loud re-blowing of used smoke.

    I recommend you read the article linked below before PBS-Propaganda-Part 2 airs:

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/25/2017 - 07:18 pm.

    As usual

    Ray has made most of my points for me.
    On place where I might differ is Kim Jong Un’s mental stability.
    Unlike Trump, his position is inherently precarious, since North Korea’s status as an independent state is questionable (the Korean War never ended; just an armistice).
    A good case can be made that without a creditable nuclear threat, both his own position and the independence of North Korea would be in serious jeopardy, which would make his actions quite rational considering the circumstances.

  5. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/25/2017 - 10:04 pm.

    Putin is a Russian nationalist and he also wants to stay at power – it’s obvious truth. So it is easy to see why Putin wants to do what he is doing but the real question is why he can… And that started with Bush’s looking into Putin’s eyes and then with Obama’s reset and, most importantly, with showing that he (Obama) did not want to interfere in the world. Well, the nature doesn’t like vacuum so here came Putin…

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/27/2017 - 02:59 pm.

      Are you saying that

      we should have invaded Russia and deposed Putin?
      Putin was originally elected in as close to a democratic election as Russia has had since Kerensky (you’ve heard of him, I assume). He was able to continue to hold power after his term in office by making use of Russia’s wide spread corruption. Take a look at the plutocrats that support Putin and some of our domestic equivalents. I’m sure that Trump is studying it closely.
      And by the way, most of nature is a vacuum.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/29/2017 - 09:18 pm.

        Of course, I was not advocating invading Russia, just not trusting Putin. And I think we should pay more attention to how Lenin (I am sure you know who he is) got the power from Kerensky. As for vacuum, I just rephrased the well known “nature abhors vacuum” postulate which is even more correct for the world politics…

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/30/2017 - 03:08 pm.


          The phrase “Nature Abhors A Vacuum” (I’m not sure I’d call it a postulate, more like a basic assumption) is true if your last word in physics is Aristotle.
          As for Lenin and Kerensky, the conditions in Russia in 1917 were very different than what they are in the United States. And Putin is neither Lenin nor Kerensky — someplace in the middle. He did not stage a military counter-revolution ((like Lenin) but originally gained power in an election that was as democratic as Kerensky’s. His ability to maintain power at the expiration of his elected term of office was more due to plutocratic corruption (see Trump, Donald) than to armed insurrection.

          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/30/2017 - 10:04 pm.

            That statement is correct for all practical purposes – that is why if you suck up all air from a bottle, it would be smashed (or quickly filled up again if you allow it).

            The conditions in Russia in 1917 were indeed very different than what they are now in America; but the conditions in Germany in 1933 were also very different than what they are now in America which doesn’t prevent people from bringing fascism and its danger all the time. However, fascist ideology is mostly reliant on hate of others and nowadays it is not a very sellable product which why there are so few of them. Lenin’s ideology of communism and socialism, in addition to hatred for the rich, relied on a positive idea of making everyone happy and that is very appealing now.

            As for plutocracy, I believe Trump is far from being among the richest people and actually his wealth went down recently.

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/27/2017 - 03:31 pm.

    And so …

    the regrets Yeltsin has ?

  7. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/30/2017 - 07:18 pm.

    Is Putin’s Revenge

    anything like Montezumas’s?

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/01/2017 - 09:25 am.

    The whole thing reminds me…

    The whole Putin thing reminds of that “Twilight Zone” episode with Peter Faulk, the one where he’s a revolutionary who take over a South American country and starts killing everyone out of fear that he’ll be betrayed.

    There are two things that are worrisome about Putin: 1) The guy has some control of nuclear weapons. 2) His delusional mentality is unpredictable, and US political and intelligence system may well underestimate the danger.

    Well, there’s a third thing, It’s very very very bizarre that almost everyone in the world from the Canadian’s to the German’s is an enemy of Donald Trump, to be derided, insulted, and attacked… except for Vladimir Putin. Trump’s silence regarding Putin is deafening at a time when he will rail against anyone and anything on the planet at the slightest provocation. As long as Republicans run the table, there is zero chance of meaningful accountability, and as long as THAT’S the case, we are in serious jeopardy.

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