Watch Fareed Zakaria’s documentary on Vladimir Putin, “The Most Powerful Man in the World,” on Monday at 9 p.m. ET.
Why would Russia have interfered in America’s 2016 elections? More to the point, in a country where little happens without the nod from President Vladimir Putin, what could have driven Putin to authorize cyberattacks that US intelligence agencies assess Moscow carried out against the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton – hacks that many believe contributed to Clinton’s November 2016 defeat?
CNN’s Fareed Zakaria examines that question in “The Most Powerful Man in the World,” airing Monday at 9 p.m. One important point he makes in his answer: “In order to understand why Putin likes (President Donald) Trump, the key to it is not that he loves Trump. It’s that he hates Hillary Clinton.”
CNN Politics sat down to talk with Zakaria about that enmity and other aspects of Putin’s worldview. An edited version of the conversation follows.
There’s a lot of energy being directed to finding out what Russia has done – in terms of interfering with the US election and possibly wielding some influence over our president. Why is it important for Americans to consider why Putin might have done this?
Ever since the end of the Cold War, we’ve lived in a world where we’ve had a lot of international problems, but they’ve been problems that came out of small dysfunctional countries, collapsing countries, terrorist groups – and those things tend to be, on the scale of history, relatively small problems.
We are now in an increasingly adversarial relationship with a huge world power, with a country that has thousands of nuclear weapons, that has a veto in the UN Security Council, that spans 11 time zones, that borders on the Middle East, East Asia and Europe. So we need to understand what is happening. What is this new world in which we have a major world power that seems to be directing a lot of energy, attention to influencing events within the United States? Why is it doing it and how can we respond?
Your documentary looks at the historical forces that have shaped Putin. There’s a harrowing event he lived through in East Germany as a young KGB officer followed by his experience of the end of the USSR – how did those events affect him and shape the way he approaches the world today?
It’s a great question. Everything you need to know about Putin at some level you can understand by understanding where he was when the Berlin Wall came down. This moment that for most of the world is seen as this historic, heroic new birth of liberty was not viewed as such by Vladimir Putin.
He was a KGB officer in Dresden, East Germany, one of the least reform-minded satellites of the Soviet Union – and then the Wall comes down. Suddenly there are all these demonstrations and people start crowding around the KGB offices because they know this is where the KGB is, and they essentially start threatening to break in.
He at that point starts destroying all the documents he has because they are documents about KGB operations, secrets, things like that. The crowd starts getting louder and louder and he calls Moscow and says: What should I do?
And he basically gets the response: “Moscow is silent. We have no support to offer you.” So he’s out there on his own.
So he makes a decision at that point that he’s going to go out there and bluff. He tells the crowd there are guards inside with guns and they’re going to shoot: “Disperse!” And the bluff works.
I think that what this tells you is that for him, as he has admitted, the death of the Soviet Union was a terrible tragedy, not just because it upended his world, but because it created a situation for him personally that he has then tried to deal with as president.
What do I mean by that? The end of the Soviet Union left outside the Soviet sphere of influence millions and millions of Russian-speakers who think of themselves as Russian, who identified as Russian, in Ukraine, in Belarus, in the Baltics. Even in places like Poland, Putin clearly thinks about those people because in a sense he was one. He was this Russian guy stuck in East Germany when the wall came down, totally unprotected, exposed, vulnerable.
So part of what he’s been doing is extending the influence of Russia to, in his mind, take care of all those Russians all over. But the second piece, of course, is that he saw what crowds can do, how they can upend a system, how they can destroy order, how they can create chaos. And when he comes back to Russia, he comes back to a Russia that’s in total chaos: Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, with its gangster capitalism.
He looks at that and says, “Crowds are bad, popular uprisings are bad, order is good.” And that’s what he’s really set out to do as president – restore order, restore stability in Russia.
And then it looks like history might repeat itself almost 20 years later when the Arab Spring is sweeping the Middle East, unrest begins to percolate in Russia and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighs in on the Russian elections in late 2011 – saying there are problems and that the Russian people should be heard.
In order to understand why Putin likes Trump, the key to it is not that he loves Trump. It’s that he hates Hillary Clinton.
You have to go back to early 2011, the start of the Arab Spring. Imagine you’re in Moscow watching and all of a sudden you see these uprisings, these popular uprisings, people coming out into the streets as they did in Dresden, Germany, and all of a sudden these regimes that have been in power for decades – Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, Assad’s regime in Syria, Qaddafi’s regime in Libya – start teetering. And then you see that there are demonstrations beginning in Russia. It’s a very peculiar moment in Putin’s history. He’s prime minister, doesn’t have quite all the control he’s used to (as president), he’s watching these demonstrations, and at that moment Hillary Clinton steps out and supports the demonstrators and says Russia needs real democracy and real elections. To him this was like a dagger, like a thrust, an attempt to do regime change in Russia, to do what – in his view – the West was doing in Libya, in Egypt and now in Russia: to dislodge the current regime.
You argue that is the genesis of his desire to exact revenge on Clinton.
Exactly, and I think the way he would probably look at it is: “You tried to mess with my election, my ascension to power. I will mess with yours. But I’ll be successful.”
He actually managed to beat back the demonstrations obviously, in large part because of the use of very powerful repressive measures, but I think he also decided he wanted to settle scores, to take revenge. And the election of last November was his opportunity to do that.
Clinton had been publicly tough on Putin for a long time. In the course of your research, did you learn why she was skeptical of Putin for so long? He didn’t seem to have much love for her either, even before 2011. What was at the root of that mutual hostility?
I think that the fairest thing to say is that Hillary has always been something of a foreign policy hawk. Her views on foreign policy are closer to John McCain’s than to Barack Obama’s. When Obama became president she, of course, followed his lead as secretary of state. But her own instincts are hawkish, if you look at the people who advise her, the people she talks to, the stuff she reads.
It’s fair to say she was always skeptical of Putin’s Russia and felt that you had to be tough with these guys. And Putin, I think, sensed that. And so even before 2011 – when there was this personal grudge, which is really at the heart of the election interference – I think that he always regarded her as somebody who was hostile to Russia and Russian interests.
You touch on Trump’s affinity for Putin and – for a while – Russia’s admiration for Trump. What’s that about?
The puzzle about Trump is, either there are very strange coincidences about his whole attitude toward Russia, where this is the one country he doesn’t think is screwing the United States, is always taking advantage of us, is always beating us, is always hostile to us – a view he holds about the Japanese, the Chinese, the Europeans, the Middle Eastern states – so either there’s this one exception, or there’s some kind of affinity relationship, there’s something going on.
It’s a little too weird that there’s just this one country about which Trump has always said nice things. I don’t pretend to know what the answer is, but it’s difficult to come up with a philosophy or foreign policy strategy that regards Germany, Japan and Britain with suspicion and Russia with equanimity.
Well, there is a philosophy, and it’s the Russian one.
Yes, exactly! There’s a Russian strategy you can imagine, but not an American one.
Putin comes from a chess culture, a game in which there’s never just one move. Is Putin’s interference in the US election a prelude for other moves? If so, what’s next?
It’s a very good question because it gets at a fundamental, which is, what is Russia’s strategy here? What is it trying to do?
With Putin, you have somebody who is a very clever player. The chess player idea is right because he doesn’t have unlimited ambitions. He’s not trying to conquer the world, or even make Russia a superpower again. He understands the limitations of Russian power. I think what he’s trying to do is control his environment, make sure that surrounding him there’s a ring of compliant or friendly countries –
The “near abroad,” the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union, the countries that many Russians still think of as within their sphere of influence.
The near abroad, yes. That’s why Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova are so important. This is something deep in Russian strategy – and Russian DNA, one might even say.
But then I also think that it’s very important that Russia be treated with respect, that Russia be treated as one of the great powers of the world.
We have this line in the documentary that struck me as very important. His first words, when he became president, he said to the Russian people: “We live in a competitive world and Russia is not one of its leaders.” That is what he was trying to restore.
So I think he wants a situation where nobody messes with Russia. He’s messing with the EU and Washington to say, “Guys, you have to take us seriously, you have to pay attention. No believing you can just waltz in here and spread democracy, no believing you can expand NATO to our borders.” I think there’s an attitude of “treat us with respect – hands off.”
It’s probably fair to say that there is a kind of limit to what the Russians are trying to do, but they have found this very successful strategy of cyberattacks that I think we have not seen the last of – the cyberattacks and the propaganda, these social news sites and fake news outfits, that combination of what the intelligence community in America calls the “full spectrum hybrid war.”
I think that sometimes we don’t recognize it even as it’s happening.
It’s partly so brilliant because it understands the vulnerabilities of open societies. Because these things are difficult to detect and they play into internal divisions and discord, there’s a way it plays into the openness and divisions of a free society so that it becomes very difficult to figure out what exactly is going on here and how should we respond.