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FRONTLINE. Putin and the Presidents

“Putin and the Presidents” examines Russian President Vladimir Putin’s clashes with American presidents as he’s tried to rebuild the Russian empire.
President Barack Obama: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza; President Joe Biden: Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz; President Donald Trump: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead; President George W. Bush: Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library; Russian President Vladimir Putin: REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool; President Bill Clinton: REUTERS/Larry Downing.
“Putin and the Presidents” examines Russian President Vladimir Putin’s clashes with American presidents as he’s tried to rebuild the Russian empire.

Encore Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023 at 9 p.m. on KPBS 2 / Watch now with the PBS App

As Russia’s war on Ukraine approaches the one-year mark, FRONTLINE presents a documentary investigating Russian President Vladimir Putin’s clashes with five American presidents as he’s tried to rebuild the Russian empire. Drawing on in-depth conversations with insiders from five U.S. presidential administrations, former U.S. intelligence leaders, diplomats, Russian politicians, authors and journalists, the documentary reveals how the miscalculations and missteps of multiple American presidents over two decades paved the way for Putin’s attack on Ukraine — as seen through the eyes of people who were in the room.

“Vladimir Putin is as clear-eyed and cold blooded as any foreign leader I have ever seen,” former national security adviser John Bolton says in the documentary. “He knows exactly what he thinks Russia’s national interest is and he pursues it unrelentingly.”


From acclaimed FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk and his award-winning team, including producers Mike Wiser and Vanessa Fica, “Putin and the Presidents” traces how, prior to launching the war on Ukraine, Putin tested the waters by provoking and defying American presidents for 20 years — cyberattacking Estonia, invading Georgia, seizing Crimea, and interfering in a U.S. presidential election.

FRONTLINE: Putin and the Presidents

RELATED: Where Are Russian Critics of Putin Featured in “Putin and the Presidents” Now?

The documentary provides unique insight into the icy relationship between Putin and current U.S. President Joe Biden, both of whom were shaped by the Cold War and whose current faceoff was years in the making, and into the evolution of Putin’s grievances with the U.S. and the West.

“Vladimir Putin needs to somehow justify the horrific sacrifices that Russians are making on his orders by broadening the aperture, making this about something bigger, into some kind of conflict with United States, with the West, with NATO — take your pick,” current U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tells FRONTLINE in an in-depth interview. It’s part of a battle the Russian president, a former KGB agent, has been waging for years.

“Putin sees American talk of human rights, democracy, freedom as a cynical fig-leaf, something that the U.S. uses to cover itself as it cynically pursues its interests across the globe, as it pushes its agenda across the globe,” journalist Julia Ioffe, Puck News Founding Partner and Washington Correspondent, says in the documentary.


Offering inside analysis from Washington, D.C., to Moscow, Putin and the Presidents features revealing new interviews with Blinken, Bolton, Ioffe, former U.S. Ambassadors to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and William Taylor, and journalist Yevgenia Albats, in addition to interviews with insiders including current CIA Director William Burns and former CIA Director John Brennan that were originally conducted for 2022’s "Putin’s Road to War" and 2017’s "Putin’s Revenge."

As the war on Ukraine — and Putin’s conflict with the U.S. and the West — continues, “Putin and the Presidents” gives essential context for this historic moment.

“I think it's a very dangerous moment,” says Marie Yovanovitch. “It's a dangerous moment for Ukraine. I think it's a dangerous moment for Russia, because it's hard to see what the pathway forward is. It's a dangerous time.”

RELATED: ‘Children of the Cold War’: Inside Biden and Putin’s Years-in-the-Making Clash Over Ukraine:

Biden & Putin’s Years-in-the-Making Faceoff Over Ukraine | Putin and the Presidents | FRONTLINE

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“Putin and the Presidents” is available to watch in full at, in the PBS App and on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel starting Jan. 24, 2023.

In tandem with this broadcast premiere, FRONTLINE will publish eight new extended interviews from the making of the documentary as part of the FRONTLINE Transparency Project.


A FRONTLINE production with the Kirk Documentary Group. The director is Michael Kirk. The producers are Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser and Vanessa Fica. The writers are Michael Kirk and Mike Wiser. The reporter is Vanessa Fica. The editor-in-chief and executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.