Russia’s cyber assault on the U.S. has become a politically charged topic, with President Vladimir Putin practically cast by his critics in the role of Bond villain. Leave it to PBS’ Frontline to dissect the deeper motivations and roots of his animosity, lending welcome context to “Putin’s Revenge,” a documentary dish served over two parts.
Far from just resentment toward Hillary Clinton and efforts to destabilize a geopolitical foe, Putin has nursed “a lifetime of grievances” against America, the narrator intones during the latest soberly impressive production from director Michael Kirk and his team.
“Putin’s Revenge” goes on to detail the Russian leader’s history as a KGB officer when the Berlin Wall fell, and the psychic scars left by those events before he succeeded reformer Boris Yeltsin in 2000.
Foremost, Putin saw democratic movements rising around the globe in recent years, as well as dissent within Russia, as being fomented by the U.S. according to experts interviewed by Frontline. The Russian strongman – described as being “obsessed with TV” – was especially struck and alarmed by images of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi being beaten and killed by an angry mob.
Meddling in the American election thus served not only as a means of undermining a rival but an equalizer, even if the cyber campaign’s architects didn’t expect it to actually sway the outcome.
“They just thought they were going to bloody Clinton’s nose,” explains The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe, as video plays of Russians triumphantly exulting over Donald Trump’s election.
Putin is also portrayed as a master manipulator. It’s explained, for example, that he leveraged knowledge about President George W. Bush’s religious convictions to bond with him in their private meeting, prompting Bush’s comment – eliciting grimaces from aides – that he was “able to get a sense of his soul.”
Kirk incorporates clips that provide reminders of Trump’s shifting stories about his interactions with Putin as a private citizen, as well how Obama’s team, including then-Secretary of State Clinton, fed Putin’s apprehensions that the U.S. was encouraging Russian opposition, threatening his hold on power.
Putin, in other words, wasn’t strictly lashing out at America in some inexplicable reprise of the Cold War but rather saw a degree of self-preservation in his maneuvers, to go with the paranoia and payback.
The documentary also crisply recounts the bizarre confluence of events that occurred weeks prior to the election, with the Obama administration’s measured warning about Russian interference eclipsed by the “Access Hollywood” tape, exposing Trump’s comments about women; and the orchestrated release of data by WikiLeaks, stoking discord among the Democrats.
James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, describes the hacking operation as “the most aggressive and the most direct” the Russians ever mounted – a new frontier, the narration notes, which allowed Putin to “strike at the heart of American democracy.”
The long-term severity of that wound remains to be seen. But “Putin’s Revenge” makes clear that it worked beyond even its mastermind’s wildest dreams.
Frontline’s “Putin’s Revenge” will air Oct. 25 and Nov. 1 at 10 p.m. on PBS.