In December 2011, Vladimir Putin came closer than he's ever been to losing his hold on power. His decision that year to run for a third term as Russia’s President had inspired a massive protest movement against him. Demonstrations calling for him to resign were attracting hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Some of his closest allies had defected to the opposition, causing a split in the Kremlin elites, and Russian state media had begun to warn of a revolution in the making.
At a crisis meeting with his advisers on Dec. 8 of that year, the Russian leader chose to lay the blame on one meddling foreign diplomat: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"She set the tone for certain actors inside the country; she gave the signal," Putin said of Clinton at the time, accusing her of ordering the opposition movement into action like some kind of revolutionary sleeper cell. "They heard this signal and, with the support of the U.S. State Department, started actively doing their work."
Five years later, the U.S. presidential elections may have given Putin his chance for getting even. According to Clinton’s campaign staff and a number of cyber-security experts, Russian hackers in the service of the Kremlin were behind last week’s leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee. The hacked messages appeared to show DNC officials, who are meant to remain neutral during the Democratic Party’s primary race, favoring Clinton over her then-rival, Senator Bernie Sanders.
Reactions to the leak so far, including from Clinton’s campaign managers, have focused on what Russia would have to gain from helping Donald Trump win the Presidency. Trump’s flattering remarks about Putin in the past, as well as his recent equivocating about whether the U.S. should defend NATO allies in case of a Russian attack, would seem to support the notion that Trump is Russia’s favored candidate.
If the Kremlin has indeed begun interfering in the presidential race on Trump’s behalf, the bad blood between Putin and Clinton would seem like enough of a motivation. Putin’s list of grievances goes back a lot further than Clinton’s alleged support for the Russian protest movement.
In 2009, soon after President Obama took office, his newly appointed Secretary of State initiated what the White House called a “reset” in relations with Russia. At the time, Putin had already positioned himself as an adversary to the U.S., or at least a check on American influence in the world, and he showed no inclination for making friends with Obama. But constitutional term limits had forced Putin to switch to the less powerful role of Prime Minister the previous year, and his younger protégé, Dmitri Medvedev, then took over the presidency. In sharp contrast to his mentor, Medvedev began to cast himself as a liberal Westernizer with a particular affection for high-tech American gadgets.
That presented Washington an opportunity and, in the first year of Obama's presidency, the U.S. tried to sidestep Putin and build better relations with Russia through Medvedev. As Secretary of State, Clinton oversaw these efforts, which saw the two Presidents visit each other’s countries—Obama in 2009, Medvedev in 2010—and establish a range of bilateral commissions to cooperate on everything from counter-terrorism to the tech economy.
But among Kremlin hardliners, who have since come to dominate Russian politics, Clinton’s efforts to flatter and befriend Medvedev all seemed like part of a scheme to undermine Putin and subvert his role as a counterweight to U.S. dominance in world affairs. One incident in particular drove home that perception.
In the spring of 2011, the U.S. and its allies began pushing for a military intervention in Libya to prevent the regime of Muammar Ghaddafi from massacring rebel forces and their civilian supporters. But without Russia’s acquiescence, the West could not pass a resolution in the U.N. that would provide a legal basis for the intervention. So Clinton and Obama began pressuring Medvedev to play along, and he ultimately agreed not to veto the resolution in the U.N. Security Council.
Putin was furious. The resolution, he said, resembled "the medieval calls for a Christian crusade,” one that Clinton, as the top U.S. diplomat at the time, helped to orchestrate. Later that same year, when Russia’s flawed parliamentary elections set off a season of street protests, Clinton spoke up in support of the demonstrations. "The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted," Clinton said. "And that means they deserve free, fair, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them."
It was a fairly tame statement of support for the Russian opposition movement. But Putin took it as a personal affront against his leadership, as well as a sign that Clinton was intent on manipulating the Russian presidential elections that were then just a few months away.
With a campaign based on Cold War rhetoric against the conniving West, Putin won that vote handily, and it is easy to see how he would relish the chance to manipulate the U.S. presidential elections in return.
At least in his public statements, he has tried not to take sides between Clinton and Trump too overtly. Asked during a panel discussion in June about his statements that Trump is a “colorful” politician, Putin said that Russia “never interferes in the internal political processes of other countries, especially the United States.”
Regardless of whom the U.S. electorate chooses as its leader in November, Putin said, Russia would work with the new American President in the hope of restoring constructive ties. “The world needs a strong country like the U.S., and we need it, too," he said. "What we don’t need is for them to constantly interfere in our business and tell us how to live.” Considering his experience with Clinton’s supposed meddling in Russian affairs, it seems clear which candidate he would trust not to interfere in the Kremlin's business.