THE BLOG
07/30/2016 11:59 pm ET Updated Aug 01, 2016

Why The Russians Hold A Sword Of Damocles Over Hillary (And Bill) Clinton

Hillary Clinton and the Democrats largely recovered from the destabilized opening of their national convention. Yet it is clear that there is a sword of Damocles, the imminent peril of ancient myth, hanging over the Clintons as they go forward into both the fall campaign, and a hoped-for presidency. And holding that sword, by most all accounts but their own, is Russian intelligence.

It is, in its way, a delicious though very troubling prospect. Russian intelligence apparently used Wikileaks as a conduit for the e-mail dump that destabilized the Democratic National Convention and caused the ouster of a national party chair. Indeed, further reports indicate that Russian intelligence operations also targeted the Democrats' congressional campaign committee and the Clinton for President campaign, the latter of which denies a successful Russian intrusion. It's an absolutely spectacular set of developments, if true. The New York Times and many others certainly think so. Russia officially denies it all, but then they would.

But even the few media efforts to explain the underlying reason for the Russian move miss the real motivation, which goes back far longer than US media reports suggest. While it's a very audacious move, like firing a missile across the bow of a ship that "accidentally" strikes a non-critical part of the vessel, the meddling, which seems unprecedented, probably doesn't have too much downside for Russia. All the operation has done is reveal some inconvenient truths, in this case, truths we essentially already knew. Revealing that leaders of the Democratic National Committee tried assiduously to help party establishment fave Hillary and hurt insurgent Senator Bernie Sanders -- playing fast and loose with special interest fundraising and lying to the public all the while -- is not exactly an act of war.

Rather than the electric power grid being brought down by Fancy Bear (GRU: Russian military intelligence) and Cozy Bear (FSB: formerly headed by Vladimir Putin himself and successor to Putin's old outfit, the KGB), contradictions were brought out. In classic Leninist fashion. Embarrassing stuff for the Clintons and the American Democratic establishment, making them look like the cheaters they say, well, Putin is, but not politically lethal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and former US President Bill Clinton, who engineered what Putin and Russian leaders consider the NATO encirclement of Russia, held a low-profile meeting last year in Moscow.

If some very suggestible Bernie Sanders diehards were manipulated by the dramatic convention eve document dump into disrupting the hard-won peace between the Sanders and Clinton camps, and seriously disrupting, at least for a time, longtime Russian bete noire Hillary's plans, so much the better.

Yes, that is longtime Russian bete noire Hillary. You don't get that from US media reports, which tend to stick to the surface drama and suggest as explanation for why something so bold would be set in motion, that it's all about a potential de facto alliance between Putin and his would-be celebrity crush, the dictator-loving Donald Trump.

Even the few attempts in any depth to explain bad blood between high-level Russians like Putin and the Clintons, notably from Politico and CNN, look only at recent events. While Hillary questioning the legitimacy of Putin's re-election is certainly a factor, as is Putin's pique at the US using a UN Security Council mandate to prevent a massacre in Libya as evolving justification for the death of old Russian friend Moammar Gaddafi, the animosity is much deeper and far more longstanding than that. It also extends to a longtime Clinton aide meddling directly in Ukraine's regime change.

This problem goes back to 1993. Then first-term President Bill Clinton received a letter from Boris Yeltsin, the first post-Soviet Russian president, backtracking on earlier acquiescence to NATO expansion toward Russia's borders, reiterating Russia's desire to join NATO itself.

Despite his ballyhooed friendship with the boozy Yeltsin, Clinton -- described by the the late David Halberstam in the essential 'War In a Time of Peace' as breathtakingly unprepared on geopolitics -- went in the opposite direction. NATO would expand towards Russia and would not accept Russia as a member. Thus the alliance formed to counter the Soviet Union in the Cold War seemed, to Russians, to be aimed at Russia even after the fall of Communism and end of the Cold War. This is precisely why all of Yeltsin's military chiefs insisted that the frequently agreeable president back away from his earlier acquiescence to the post-Cold War expansion of NATO by the addition of lands through which the invasion of Russia becomes much more feasible. Which is why the oft-invaded Russians wanted to be part of NATO. (Had German forces not had to make their way through additional buffer territories created by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, Hitler would have taken Moscow in December 1941, which nearly happened anyway, and the history of World War II would have been very different.)

It's interesting to note that Clinton ultimately took this step against the firm advice of his very fine second secretary of defense, William Perry, one of the most experienced national security hands around, and a bipartisan host of non-peacenik security luminaries.

The year after Clinton friend Yeltsin made plain Russia's unyielding opposition to the NATO expansionism that would be championed by Bill and Hillary Clinton, a former senior Yeltsin aide came to California, as part of a State Department program, to spend several weeks with me as part of his study of American electoral politics. He was very smart and eager to learn, if not entirely fluent in English, but I noticed that he spent much of his time at my then office in Governor Pat Brown's LA high-rise suite on the phone back to Moscow.

Over drinks at the late great Harry's Bar in Century City, I learned that his reform liberal friends were being physically attacked. Beneath the benevolent aura and often detached leadership of Yeltsin, Moscow had become a Wild West city. I agreed to keep helping him and his associates in the loose-knit Dem Russia movement.

By the late '90s, with all serious Russian politicians deeply opposed to the Clintons' expansion of NATO amidst the humiliating breakaway of Chechnya and the internal chaos of elite kleptocracy and organized crime, the liberal reformers I tried from time to assist were in big trouble. Even though they had official favor as part of the Yeltsin extended political family. That's when I encountered Putin, then the new director of the FSB security service. Ostensibly something of a Saint Petersburg liberal (part of the former KGB colonel's post-Soviet re-invention), it was clear that his priority was not further liberalization but imposing order amidst the chaos. It was also clear that he and his people were suspicious of Americans and our connections and motivations.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent several minutes dissing the Russian president with CNN's Christiane Amanpour in 2014.

Putin quickly became Yeltsin's national security council chief, prime minister, and then successor as president. In the process, he shut down the liberal reform space he had once seemed aligned with during his post-Soviet rise to power. Though elected democratically, he governed increasingly as an autocrat.

When Barack Obama came in, he hoped to "re-set" relations with Russia, which had been somewhat helpful to the US after 9/11 but bitterly opposed the Iraq War. Obama, who had been a state legislator four years earlier, placed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in charge of the policy.

Hillary proceeded to preside over a joint event with the Russian foreign minister, presenting a symbolic "re-set" button which actually read of "overload." The new policy swiftly became overloaded with the baggage of the past.

Hillary and, to be fair, others in his National Security Council operation, advised Obama to deal almost exclusively with Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's former chief of staff, whom Putin arranged to take over the presidency for four years rather than change the new Russian constitution. Putin ran the ruling United Russia Party, which he naturally founded, and served as prime minister.

That was a big mistake, as I pointed out at the time in "Obama Does Moscow, and Vice Versa," when Obama made his big trip to Moscow seven years ago this summer.

After being largely ignored by Obama and his traveling party, which included Hillary, Putin summoned Obama to his sumptuous dacha outside Moscow, where he lectured the president at length, making Obama late for his own big speech, which Putin pointedly did not attend. He specifically urged Obama to keep his and his NATO allies' hands off neighboring Ukraine, just a few hundred miles from Moscow. (The US and Russia had spent the previous decade helping elect alternating presidents of Ukraine, all of whom have been corrupt, including the new one, now caught up in the Panama Papers scandal.)

By 2014, Putin was back again as president, re-elected amidst criticism from Hillary about electoral bona fides, with Medvedev dutifully switching back again to the prime ministership. As Putin presided over the Sochi Winter Olympics, which he had long viewed as a crowning moment of his career and signifier of Russia's re-emergence as a great power on the world stage, Ukraine underwent a sudden regime change.

At the center of agitating for that change was Hillary's State Department spokesperson, now Assistant Secretary for Europe Victoria Nuland. A top aide to one of the Clintons' oldest friends, then Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, during Bill Clinton's presidency, Nuland rallied in the public square of capital city Kiev for the ouster of Ukraine's democratically-elected, Russia-friendly president. Nulled was later heard in a leaked phone conversation conducting a very detailed discussion about who Ukraine's next leaders should be.

In addition, Hillary pushed for US military intervention in the Syrian civil war, against Putin's decades-long ally. Putting that together with her championing of the ouster of Libyan strong man Moammar Gaddafi, Putin had plenty of things to be angry about.

So it's not at all that surprising that the FSB, Putin's old agency, was reportedly roaming through the DNC computer systems for more than a year before the information was released which disrupted the Democratic National Convention and led to the sacking of the party's national chairwoman.

The operation appears to have begun well before most -- that's most, not all, as longtime readers know -- analysts thought that Trump was a very serious contender for the presidency. I suspect this is more about getting some payback on the Clintons, and delivering a very pointed set of messages, than electing Donald Trump.

Unlike Americans, Russians are not at all ahistorical. And revenge, as the Klingons, those Russian analogues, say, is a dish best served cold.

And yet the temptation to try to push Trump over the top must be there. After all, the Vietnam War chickenhawk draft-dodging bully boy gushes with sycophantic fervor about strong man Putin, a former KGB colonel with several advanced black belts in the martial arts.

And Trump is not is not only sympathetically aware of some Russian concerns, he seems almost slavishly pro-Putin, going so far as to flash a green light on a potential Russian invasion of the tiny Baltic states. I doubt that Russia seriously contemplated that move before. But hey, if President Trump says he would not follow the NATO treaty on mutual defense and protect the Baltics, well, maybe that's now a live option.

Putin, of course, squashed the sort of liberal reformers I was trying to help in the '90s and, while I have a good deal of respect for his acumen and capabilities, he is decidedly not my cup of tea. I do democrats, not autocrats, and have never been a hired gun.

But, though I'm out of the practice of advising Russian politicians, for all the good that did in the day (though absent Putin it might well have), it occurs to me that it really is not in Russia's interest to have Trump as President of the United States. That seems counter-intuitive, since Trump is such an admirer of Putin.

Yet it is because Putin and many in his circle are career intelligence officers that they may decide after all to look ahead to the dangers of having in the White House an erratic personality tethered only to his own ego and id.

How, for example, might Trump lash out if he realizes he is being manipulated and hence disrespected by the object of his striking admiration?

Senator Bernie Sanders sharply disputed Secretary Clinton's contention that Russia is a highest priority security threat to the US during a February debate.

Hillary Clinton is far more predictable and stable. Much if not most of what she apparently wants to do which is against core Russian interests probably can't be accomplished anyway. There continues to be good reason for America and Russia to work together on selected projects, especially in countering the jihadist threat. And it is decidedly unwise for Russia to side with historic non-friend China on its absurd claim to sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, especially since China was just overwhelmingly rejected on the question by the UN-established tribunal on maritime law at The Hague.

In the meantime, the Clintons have largely succeeded in pulling off a successful conclusion to what began as an extremely rocky convention and a decent launch into the post-conventions period of the campaign. While Trump served up a weird yet flavorful "reality" TV show for the Republican convention, the Democrats delivered a much more conventional but impressive infomercial, replete with many strong elements.

For example, Barack Obama impressively passed on the mantle of his still relatively popular leadership to Hillary, who in turn delivered a decent address after Bill Clinton made a carefully defined personal pitch about their history together and her values-oriented approach to public life. And all of it amidst a chorus of messages from General John Allen on security, Governor Jerry Brown on climate change, many mothers of victims of gun violence, and so on.

But Russia has signaled -- through its success in penetrating Democratic Party computer systems, that it has gained knowledge and, as a result, power to be wielded against the Clintons when the Kremlin sees fit to deploy it.

While Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has his own anti-Hillary agenda -- he's stuck in a Latin American embassy in London in fear of being shipped to the US for trial -- he is essentially a cut-out for what very much appears to be his Rssian intelligence sources. Assange, a sometime talk show host on the interesting but Kremlin-controlled Russia Today channel, has issued a rather chilling threat that reads more like a promise. Wikileaks intends to release more embarrassing information on the national Democrats. But if he does not have the material, he can't release it. He is entirely reliant on his sources, which evidently lie in a slightly different time zone than London's.

To be clear, Russia is no superpower. Though a major power in fossil fuel energy, it hasn't the economic clout. California has a much larger and more powerful economy.

Yet it is a great power, and it has substantial expertise and clout in intelligence and military matters. The Russian bear is powerful, and bear baiting remains a sport only for the very swift, as the Clintons now understand.

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