When mass protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin erupted in Moscow in December 2011, Putin made clear who he thought was really behind them: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. With the protesters accusing Putin of having rigged recent elections, the Russian leader pointed an angry finger at Clinton, who had issued a statement sharply critical of the voting results. “She said they were dishonest and unfair,” Putin fumed in public remarks, saying that Clinton gave “a signal” to demonstrators working “with the support of the U.S. State Department” to undermine his power. “We need to safeguard ourselves from this interference in our internal affairs,” Putin declared.
Putin may be seeking revenge against Clinton. At least that’s the implication of the view among some cybersecurity experts that Russia was behind the recent hack of the Democratic National Committee’s email server, which has sowed confusion and dissent at the Democratic National Convention and undercut Clinton’s goal of party unity. While Donald Trump’s budding bromance with Vladimir Putin is well known — the two men have exchanged admiring words about each other and called for improved relations between Washington and Moscow — Putin’s hostility towards Clinton draws less attention.
Former U.S. officials who worked on Russia policy with Clinton say that Putin was personally stung by Clinton’s December 2011 condemnation of Russia’s parliamentary elections, and had his anger communicated directly to President Barack Obama. They say Putin and his advisers are also keenly aware that, even as she executed Obama’s “reset” policy with Russia, Clinton took a harder line toward Moscow than others in the administration. And they say Putin sees Clinton as a forceful proponent of “regime change” policies that the Russian leader considers a grave threat to his own survival. “He was very upset [with Clinton] and continued to be for the rest of the time that I was in government,” said Michael McFaul, who served as the top Russia official in Obama’s national security council from 2009 to December 2011 and then was U.S. ambassador to Moscow until early 2014. “One could speculate that this is his moment for payback.” The notion of payback remains speculation. Some experts are unconvinced that Putin’s government engineered the DNC email hack or that it was meant to influence the election in Trump’s favor as opposed to embarrassing DNC officials for any number of reasons. But the Clinton campaign has embraced the theory, with campaign manager Robby Mook seeming to endorse the notion of Russian involvement Sunday on CNN. Clinton aides have been gratified to see the story leap onto television, which had previously given little coverage to Trump’s views about Russia and noted that even Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer on Sunday called the allegation of Russian meddling “troubling” and “plausible.”
And while Clintonites realize that few Americans typically pay close attention to the state of U.S.-Russia relations, there are two important caveats. One is the presence of large Polish, Ukrainian and other eastern European populations in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, where the Clinton campaign plans to flag stories about Trump and Putin for ethnic media outlets. The other is that voters of all stripes will surely pay attention to serious talk of foreign influence in the election. While experts debate whether Putin would actually try to meddle in a U.S. election, there is consensus on the idea that Clinton is unloved within the Kremlin. “I think there is good and credible evidence that there is no love lost in Moscow for Mrs. Clinton,” said Eugene Rumer, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.