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In Moscow, Vladimir Putin was watching events in the Middle East during Clinton’s tenure at the State Department. As Medvedev’s tenure was coming to a close, he encouraged Putin to run for the presidency again in March, 2012 and Putin readily took him up on the suggestion. But first, there were the December 2011 parliamentary elections.
Protests broke out after the 2011 legislative elections. In the run up to the elections, Clinton had noted the need for free and fair elections. After Putin’s party took 238 of 450 seats in the Duma, some were crying foul considering they took less than 50% of the popular vote, but 52% of the seats. Some called for investigations into voting irregularities and Clinton followed and called for the investigations also. In return, Putin accused Clinton of fomenting the protests and financing them. Previous to these criticisms, Putin had been decrying the popular uprisings rocking the Arab world and blaming the United States (correctly) for starting the unrest.
When the protests started the week after the Duma elections, Putin said that the protesters had heard a signal from Clinton’s State Department. This did not deter Clinton from continuing to speak out about the legitimacy of the elections.
In March 2012 when Putin predictably won the presidential election, some in the State Department, including Clinton, wanted to denounce the results, but the White House overruled them. While the Syrian civil war was waging in February with the bombing of the city of Homs, the US wanted a UN Security Council resolution that would have asked Assad to step down, but it was vetoed by China and Russia. At a subsequent meeting in Tunis, she allegedly referred to China and Russia as “despicable” for their veto of the resolution. It was believed that this veto convinced Clinton to formulate a plan with CIA Director David Petreaus to covertly arm Syrian rebels against the Russian-backed Syrian regime.
In the election, Putin quickly claimed victory even though only 20% of the vote had been counted. The opposition had filmed many cases of election fraud and uploaded them to social media like YouTube, Twitter and LiveJournal blogs allowing the indignation to go viral. As Putin declared victory, Nashi- a pro-Putin youth group formed in the aftermath of revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine- rallied outside the Kremlin and cheered on Putin.
Tensions were running high in anticipation of more protests and Putin, ever vigilant, saw the same trends he saw elsewhere. The protests were being organized using social media. About 30,000 protesters announced their intention to join via Facebook alone. Several NGOs were citing multiple examples of electoral fraud.
The main protest was scheduled for Moscow’s Revolutionary Square near the Kremlin and more were organized in 80 Russian cities. Officials became concerned and 50,000 police and 2,000 FSB officers were brought in along with water canons and helicopters. Putin warned against chaos as he did the week before the actual vote. He did not want a repeat of events in nearby Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. In the week leading up to voting, Putin had attacked one election monitor, an organization called Golos, who received grants from foreign governments. Moscow granted a permit for the rally but limited it to only 300 people while the mayor of Moscow talked with protest leaders trying to get them to change the location of the rally. The Thursday before the protests, President Medvedev warned against violence while on a visit to Prague. The government requested that VKontakte- the Russian version of Facebook- take down the sites of protest organizers, but they declined. And while Putin was defending the results, he was also trying to distance himself from the party- United Russia- by rebranding the party as the Popular Front.
Most observers point to Clinton’s reaction to the parliamentary elections in 2011 as a pivotal moment in Putin’s view of the Secretary of State. We can step forward in time to 2015 and understand why Russia would want to hack the computers of the DNC, Clinton and her associates like John Podesta. Putin had a vendetta against Clinton. The alleged hacking began in early 2015. If their efforts helped Trump, so be it as long as it was not Clinton. The hacks and any information gleaned from them could work to the advantage of anyone other than Hillary Clinton in Putin’s mind, even Bernie Sanders, her main Democrat rival in 2016. It is also widely known that Obama was made aware of these hacks or attempted hacks and while the intelligence community connected them to Russia, he did nothing since he was engaged in sensitive negotiations with parties, including Russia, over the Syrian civil war.
Later, the CIA would say that the Russian efforts were designed to specifically benefit Trump, although, according to an NBC News report, several within the FBI had pushed back against the theory. In fact, the CIA assertion made no sense since the hacking began before Trump was a candidate. Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, bluntly stated that Putin had a personal vendetta against Clinton, although he (Putin) likely appreciated the talk about Russia coming from Trump once he became a candidate. However, even if he could take down Clinton (no matter who she ran against), his actions would have, to Russia, a desirable side effect- discrediting American democracy. According to McFaul, the main motivation for Putin was not a love of Trump; it was a burning hatred of Clinton.
Putin is often characterized as ruthless with good reason, but he is also equally vain. When Hillary Clinton attacked the parliamentary elections and later his election, the criticisms crossed the line from political to personal. It is obvious that he would carry a grudge against a woman who questioned whether he had a soul and who she once compared Putin to Hitler. That latter remark by Clinton in 2014 in relation to the annexation of Crimea simply put an exclamation point on his dislike of Clinton. And there is no doubt that Russia- whether Putin or Medvedev was at the helm- was a close watcher of US politics. While a Senator, Clinton was often critical of Putin. In 2008, she made some headlines when she publicly doubted Bush getting a sense of Putin’s soul since she believed Putin was soulless. That not only attacked Putin, but it attacked Mother Russia in Putin’s mind.
Next: Hillary Clinton and Ukraine: seeds of a coup