Understanding Putin and the 2016 Election from the Opposite Angle

He’s a monster who slaughters political enemies, the LGBT community and crushes protest within Russia, or he’s a strong leader who hasn’t allowed the erosion of Russian culture, unlike other leaders. Regardless of what view of Vladimir Putin you want to take in America, it’s a “2-D” drawing of a character who is both far more complicated and leads a far more complicated nation than we give it credit for. That Putin interfered in our 2016 American Presidential Election should both be stunning to you, but also completely expected.

Putin’s Russian story is one of pride, brute strength and a willingness to win by whatever means are necessary. He came up as a Soviet KGB agent, entered national Russian politics after Communism had fallen, and rose to power after a humiliating decade for a proud country. In Putin’s ruling style, they are always looking to the future, but the optics they are playing to are always mindful of the past. His leadership in Russia is grounded very much in restoring the honor and prestige that had seemed to disappear from Russia before he took office.

Russia is a country with a history of strength. The Tsars were political strongmen who ruled a vast nation. When they were toppled, Lenin took over the new Soviet Union and stretched it’s rule across Eastern Europe. Stalin succeeded him and the Russians played a key role by withstanding the Nazis at St. Petersburg, then pushing them back and joining the other allies in toppling Berlin. Stalin of course then became famous as the ultimate strongman of strongmen in Russia, crushing all enemies, killing what the best estimates say are millions ruling the Soviet Union with an iron fist. Soviet leaders were major world leaders, and stood toe-to-toe with American Presidents and all of the Western powers. Russia was a strong nation. This is their history.

Then came the invasion of Afghanistan, the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev, Glasnost and Perestroika, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Eastern Europe and finally the fall of the Soviet Union. The 1980’s and early-1990’s brought about a weakened Russia, and that Russia elected Boris Yeltsin as their new President. Yeltsin’s tenure in power saw constitutional crises within their government, economic collapses and wild inflation, NATO expand into Eastern Europe and Chechnya turned into a separatist war-zone. On December 31st, Yeltsin resigned as President and was succeeded by then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The overriding point of Putin’s Presidency has been to restore Russian greatness. He has brutally fought the Chechen rebels, invaded former Soviet republics, slaughtered political opponents in the streets and cracked down on LGBT people and other groups he deems as inferior. He has pushed back against NATO expansion, to the point of invading the Ukraine, and has actively sought to sabotage the democratic rights of both Eastern and Western European nations. Yes, he even sought to influence the 2016 American Election.

When Putin took over as President of Russia, he set out to begin rolling back the humiliation of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years for Russia. He rebuilt the economy around a system of oligarchy, funded by a petro-based economy. He cracked down on rebellions in places like Chechnya. He silenced political dissent and took command of the Duma. None of this should come as a complete shock though. Putin took power at the tail-end of the Bill Clinton Presidency, a Presidency that saw the U.S. take the lead in formerly Soviet controlled Eastern Europe. Countries like Poland sought the help and support of America, something Putin saw as a slight and insult. Clinton came and went, and his wife eventually became the Secretary of State in the U.S., and she also sought to expand American influence further into the former “Eastern Bloc,” even going so far as to stand with Putin’s political opponents in statements decrying his denial of their political rights. Putin hates the Clintons. He eventually had to strike back against Hillary. While Putin had rocky relations with the previous three U.S. Presidents who had served in his reign, he could not tolerate a Clinton Presidency, at least not one with Hillary.

For Putin, I’m not sure he cared that much if Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump defeated Clinton, as the Senate Intelligence Committee has seemingly determined. In the end, Trump simply became the useful vehicle, perhaps one that served some higher purpose due to being compromised (either financially or by personal faults that the Russians had on him), but also perhaps not. That Trump seems to admire Putin’s “strongman” rule may be a key in how this came to pass, or just a helpful detail. For Putin, defeating Hillary Clinton was a key piece in his narrative of rolling back the humiliations of the 80’s and 90’s at the hands of America- he re-established “strong” rule domestically out of the Kremlin, he is expanding Russian influence back into places like the Ukraine, he re-built the Russian economy, at least for the oligarchs and now he has knocked down the American First Family that expanded NATO and Western power into former the former Russian sphere of influence. I don’t doubt that he conspired and colluded with Clinton enemies in the U.S., or that he played an active role, though I would be careful about calling Russia the “main” factor in the result. Given Putin’s world view and record of “righting past wrongs” though, I’m fairly certain that he is enjoying his success against Clinton far more than he lets on in public.

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