For Putin, the last way Hillary Clinton stoked resentments about the end of the Cold War might have been the most important. Clinton’s “reset” policy briefly improved relations between Washington and Moscow. But Putin was still resentful about Bush-era U.S. political influence in Ukraine, Georgia, and other former Soviet republics. Putin saw steadily rising American funding for civil society and democracy programs in Europe, Central Asia and Russia itself as a form of subversion.
As secretary of state, Clinton liked to talk about those kinds of “soft power” programs as a way to bolster American influence. The Kremlin also saw her as a fellow traveler of neoconservatives, who believe that America’s has a global calling to push a foreign policy guided by democracy and human rights promotion.
But it wasn’t until December 2011 that Putin came to see Hillary Clinton as a direct threat to his power. That was when unusually large protests appeared in the frigid streets of Moscow. Though sparked by allegedly rigged parliamentary elections, the demonstrations morphed into something more, with shouts of “Putin is a thief!” and “Russia without Putin.” Putin had seen nothing like it since first coming to power more than a decade earlier. For an autocrat and former spy who U.S. officials call both paranoid and rightfully conscious that a sudden loss of power could land him in jail or worse, it was a dire threat.
And in Putin’s view, Clinton piled on. She offered supportive words about the protests, expressing “concerns” about the parliamentary elections and saying the U.S. “supports the rights and aspirations of the Russian people.” To Western ears, it was boilerplate pro-democracy talk, not exactly a call to arms against the government in Moscow. But Putin treated it that way. He fumed that Clinton had “sent a signal” to the protesters and accused the U.S. of backing election observers who, he said, had a subversive agenda. “We need to safeguard ourselves from this interference in our internal affairs and defend our sovereignty,” Putin said.