Programming note: CNN’s Fareed Zakaria examines the rise, reign, and aims of Vladimir Putin: Watch CNN’s “The Most Powerful Man in the World” Monday, March 13, at 9p ET.
You’ve heard the allegations. And, if the US spy community is right, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the world’s most powerful person is Vladimir Putin.
Did he alter the 2016 US presidential election through devious hacking? This month, the House Intelligence Committee will begin investigating if those allegations – which the Kremlin steadfastly denies – are true.
No one is suggesting that hackers manipulated votes or ballots: It’s a lot more complicated than that. The question is whether the Russian government hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s computer system during the 2016 election and accessed sensitive documents, releasing them through WikiLeaks to smear the Democratic Party and its candidate, Hillary Clinton.
In October, the US intelligence community concluded that Putin personally ordered the hacks as part of a campaign to influence the election, most likely “because (Putin) holds a grudge” against Clinton.
Putin has repeatedly denied it.
So what would motivate the leader or Russia to want to help elect Donald Trump to the US presidency? Experts say it was less about his support of Trump, but more about deep-rooted animosity toward Clinton.
Putin’s rise to power
Putin got a taste of power and manipulation on a rainy night in Dresden, East Germany, as the Iron Curtain began to collapse.
Stationed at the local Russian intelligence headquarters in Dresden, the 37-year-old junior KGB agent found himself in charge as an angry crowd closed in on December 5, 1989.
“The Berlin Wall had come down, power was pretty much up for grabs,” explained Edward Lucas, senior editor at The Economist, where he was the Moscow bureau chief from 1998 to 2002.
Putin phoned Moscow for help. The answer: you’re on your own.
“It felt like a deep betrayal,” explained Russian-American journalist and author Masha Gessen.
As the crowd grew and surrounded the building, Putin fired up the furnace and torched thousands of secret KGB files as a precaution.
Then, he went outside and bluffed: he warned the mob of people that armed guards inside the building were prepared to open fire into the crowd.
And it worked. The mob dispersed.
This incident, according to The New Yorker editor David Remnick, created a fear that would stay with Putin for the rest of his life: a fear of a popular uprising.
Since that moment, Putin has been on a path to quell that fear through absolute power, Gessen said.
“To lead is to control … that’s exactly the wording that Putin would use,” she said. “He has control of his country.”
‘He hated Hillary Clinton’
Putin quickly rose through the political ranks after his KGB career, becoming the Russian Federation’s second democratically elected President in 2000 after Boris Yeltsin.
That same year, George W. Bush won the US presidency and attempted to forge a close relationship with the newly elected Russian leader.
“I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country,” Bush said about Putin, after their 2001 visit.
A few years into Putin’s presidency, the Bush administration changed its tune, voicing concerns about his commitment to democratic values.
Yet it was Clinton’s harsh words for Putin when she was running for president in 2008 and again in 2011 amid worldwide pro-democracy protests that analysts say set the stage for Putin’s alleged interference in the most recent US election.
On the campaign trail in 2008, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton joked that Bush couldn’t have gotten a sense of Putin’s soul, as he had claimed, because the Russian president is a former KGB agent and that means “by definition he doesn’t have a soul.”
Then, in 2011 – as Putin sought his third term as president – Secretary of State Clinton sided with Russian protesters who staged the largest demonstrations in Moscow since the fall of the Soviet Union.
She called the disputed parliamentary elections “neither free nor fair,” adding that “the Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right … to have their voices heard and their votes counted.”
Putin saw that as an attack on him, and turned the tables – accusing Clinton of inciting protests with her complaints about the election and meddling in Russia’s affairs.
“She set the tone for some public figures in our country, gave them a signal,” Putin said at the time. “They heard this signal and launched active work with the US State Department’s support.”
Putin’s move to seek a third term came at a very pivotal time in Russia and the rest of the world. Remember, 2011 was the year when democratic uprisings threatened strongmen across the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of Arab Spring.
And, even as Prime Minister, Putin was Russia’s strongman. Yes, he had stepped down as President in 2008, but many analysts say he continued to call all the shots while his close ally Dmitry Medvedev served as President until he returned to office in 2012.
Putin could potentially rule Russia until 2024, longer than anyone since Josef Stalin.
And, when Clinton set her sights on the US presidency once again in 2016, Remnick said there’s no doubt who the Russian leader would support.
“Of course Putin wanted Hillary Clinton to lose,” she said. “He hated Hillary Clinton.”
Accusations of meddling
So, did Putin resolve to interfere with the 2016 US election because he hated Clinton and believed she had interfered with Russian elections?
“I think that’s the line of thinking that led him to the intervention,” former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “I’m totally convinced that Russians were meddling and intervening covertly.”
There’s likely more to it than simply a hatred of one politician. After witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin made it his mission to restore Russia to greatness through strong economic and nationalist policies. And that has earned him an approval rating as high as 86% in recent years.
“Putin reflects the middle statistical opinion of the average Russian,” explained Russian sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya.
That has often put him at odds with the West over issues such as the expansion of NATO.
Any perception that Russia could outsmart the United States would only benefit the Russian leader because it plays on what Kryshtanovskaya called “one of the pillars of our country’s ideology.
“It was formed a long time ago and was carefully instilled in people by the Soviet leaders. Why are there problems? ‘It’s those people, the evil Americans, who are at fault, who make things worse for us.’ It’s an ideological cliché,” she said.
“When Putin thinks of how he can justify his policies, it’s faster to recall this old enemy than to create a new one.”
Putin has laughed off the accusations that he was responsible for meddling in the US election, telling the Bloomberg News he didn’t know anything about it.
“You know how many hackers there are today, and they act so delicately and precisely,” he said in September, in the wake of the allegations that Russia was behind the hack on the DNC.
“It’s an extremely difficult thing to check.”
And that, experts say, is exactly why Putin ordered a cyber-attack. It was cheap, it took advantage of a known weakness in America’s election infrastructure, and it would be nearly impossible to pin the blame on anyone.
Republican presidential candidate Trump certainly didn’t mind the leaked emails that embarrassed his adversary.
“Russia, if you are listening, I hope you are able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said.
Whether Trump simply benefited from the alleged Russian hack – or actually colluded with the Russians – is the center of numerous investigations: the FBI is looking into a computer server connection between a Russian bank and the Trump Organization and Congress is starting its investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
And getting to the bottom of those questions has far-reaching consequences.
“If Donald Trump is in some way compromised, if the Russian government has something … on him in terms of leverage, that’s a very serious thing,” Remnick said. “I don’t suggest for a second that I have the answer to this question, but we can’t just let this matter drop.”
Fareed Zakaria’s “The Most Powerful Man in the World” premieres Monday, March 13, at 9p ET on CNN and CNN International. Russian analyst Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.