Putin's Revenge

Daniel Hautzinger
Vladimir Putin. Photo: REUTERS/ Sergei Karpukhin
Photo: REUTERS/ Sergei Karpukhin

Frontline: Putin’s Revenge airs and is available to stream.

“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.” That is the conclusion of a declassified report released by the office of the Director of National Intelligence on January 6, 2017, two weeks before the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as President.

“That’s the question I started with: Why would Vladimir Putin want to step into an American election?” Michael Kirk says of his upcoming, two-part Frontline program, Putin’s Revenge, which investigates Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election and what drove Putin to order it. “We came to the general, but I think very powerful, conclusion that he has had a lifetime of grievances building up about the US, and the sense of resentment just keeps building and building and building. That led him to say, ‘I’m going to create disruption and chaos in a democracy that will reveal exactly what a mess it is.’”

Michael Kirk of FrontlineMichael Kirk According to Kirk, Putin’s interest in destabilizing democracy is not motivated by ideology – “the ideology of Putin right now is survival of Putin, and of course survival of Russia,” he says – but rather to demonstrate that the West and the democracy it espouses is corrupt and ineffective. In this way, Putin would preserve the power of Russia and himself and satisfy his resentment towards the US.

It is, however, unclear what exactly Putin thought he would achieve by ordering interference in the election through the spread of misinformation and the hacking and leaking of email accounts. “The initial response among Russians seems to be, ‘We’re not capable enough to disrupt the American election,’” Kirk says. “But when it became clear that Putin had, there was a great deal of pride that this man had re-established their place as a world power. I think a lot of people in Russia feel that that is to their advantage.”

Like most people in the US, Russians did not predict a Trump victory. “I don’t think he thought Hilary Clinton would lose, I think he figured he would just mess around a bit,” Kirk says. “When Trump wins, the people in Russia think, ‘we have done something phenomenal.’And to many people who are supporters of Putin this proves his power and invincibility in lots of ways.”

But the effects of the Russian influence campaign were not entirely positive for Putin. The American backlash and ongoing investigations into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians have already further soured the relationship between the US and Russia. “Trump, surrounded as he has been by the ongoing investigations, has limited his ability to cut deals with Russia, if he ever intended to,” Kirk says. “Certainly the way Congress has reacted to the apparent role of Russia in our election – the vote for sanctions against Russia in the Senate was 98 to 2 – cannot look good for Vladimir Putin in the near term.”

Despite those setbacks, however, Kirk says people in Washington are still concerned about continuing Russian influence in upcoming elections. “There was amazing fear in the Obama White House and the intelligence services that the Russians had figured out a way to crack into the actual technical voting machine, the electoral rolls,” he says. “The Russians apparently probed and pushed very hard in twenty-one states, where they maybe did or maybe didn’t do anything. There continues to be great trepidation in the cyber world about what we should do.

“Did the Russians try to interfere in the practical aspects of the election? Absolutely. Have they stopped trying to do it? I don’t know. Everyone in Washington in this business, this is the thing they’re most concerned about for 2018 and 2020, leaving aside the impact of fake news and all the other things that have happened in this election. The real question a lot of people have is, ‘Is the Trump administration ready to do whatever is necessary to fight this cyber war, this disinformation war, with Russia and China and others over our democratic processes?”