The transcripts of calls and personal conversations between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, published by the Clinton Presidential Library, reveal a complex relationship. They also pose tantalizing questions about what the world could have been like had the relationship been more equal.
American Russia experts who are listed among the note-takers of the presidential conversations said the freshly declassified documents refute the Kremlin’s narrative of a humiliated, cheated Russia whose assertive comeback under President Vladimir Putin was overdue. For Russian readers, they add substance to the story of victimization.
“Reading these documents, it’s easy to see how the various grievances and narratives, real and imagined, that dominate current Kremlin thinking took hold,” tweeted Andrew Weiss, a Clinton administration veteran who is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment. “But for all the Kremlin’s mythmaking, there’s little indication of any US desire to humiliate and marginalize Russia.” Stephen Sestanovich and James Goldgeier, who also served under Clinton and are now prominent academics, had a similar interpretation.
They aren’t necessarily wrong. The transcripts reveal a warm relationship, spiced up with banter and based on a clear similarity between two talented populist politicians. Perhaps a more surprising discovery is that the US president initiated more of the conversations, seeking to engage with Yeltsin on every important international matter of the day.
One of the few times Yeltsin called Clinton in a rage was on March 24, 1999, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization began bombing Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war without warning Russia. “Of course, we are going to talk to each other, you and me,” Yeltsin said. “But there will not be such a great drive and such friendship that we had before. That will not be there again.”
The friendship survived, despite this and other tense exchanges. At another point during the Kosovo conflict, an enraged Clinton called Yeltsin after Russian troops occupied the airport of Pristina. But the leaders were talking about giving each other bear hugs soon afterward.
Throughout their documented relationship, Clinton shows consideration for Yeltsin. When they have differences, most notably about NATO’s eastward expansion, the US president is never dismissive, always at pains to explain how he sees things. When Yeltsin proposed a “verbal gentlemen’s agreement” that no post-Soviet country would ever join NATO, Clinton argues earnestly that the deal would be bad for Russia. “The message,” he said, “would be, ‘we’re still organized against Russia — but there’s a line across which we won’t go.’ In other words, instead of creating a new NATO that helps move toward an integrated, undivided Europe, we’d have a larger NATO waiting for Russia to do something bad.”
Clinton clearly tried to convey to Yeltsin a message of partnership rather than contempt. But the problem wasn’t with Clinton’s rhetoric or his sincere sympathy for his Russian counterpart. It was with the power dynamics.
The US president set the agenda for most of the conversations. The most frequent Yeltsin line in the transcripts is “I agree.” It’s not just that the younger, healthier, better-educated Clinton had a greater command of the issues: He knew, and so did Yeltsin, who was in charge.
At two critical junctures, Yeltsin openly begged the US president for money.
In early 1996. Yeltsin had to fight off a robust challenge from Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. The contest was especially hard because the Russian government owed huge arrears on salaries and pensions. On Feb. 21, Yeltsin asked Clinton to use US influence at the International Monetary Fund to bump up a proposed loan package to Russia to $13 billion from $9 billion. And when the three-year loan came through (at $10.1 billion, the biggest such facility the IMF had ever approved), Yeltsin pleaded with Clinton to speed up disbursement, making no secret of why he needed it. “Please understand me correctly,” he told the US president on May 7, 1996. “Bill, for my election campaign, I urgently need for Russia a loan of $2.5 billion … The problem is I need money to pay pensions and wages.”
It’s unclear whether Clinton intervened, but Russia did receive $3.8 billion from the IMF in 1996, and the arrears were largely gone by election day.
The other time Yeltsin asked for help with the IMF was in 1998, during Russia’s debt and currency crisis. The fund ended up disbursing $6.2 billion to Russia in 1998, more than in any other year; it did little good, but Yeltsin couldn’t fault Clinton for being unhelpful.
The dependence on Western loans, which Yeltsin thought could be expedited by Clinton even when Russia didn’t meet the IMF’s conditions, meant that the Russian president had to accept that the Americans could act as they pleased. Clinton would bomb Yugoslavia and Iraq, no matter how uncomfortable it made his friend Boris. Throughout the 1990s, Yeltsin argued against NATO expansion, but by 1996 he could only beg Clinton to postpone the admission of new members until 2000, or at least until the Russian election was over.
Clinton’s explanation why he wouldn’t promise to keep certain countries out of NATO sounded friendly, but was likely disingenuous. Declassified documents published earlier by the Clinton Library reveal what he was telling eastern European leaders while he was talking to Yeltsin. In January 1994, Clinton told Czech President Vaclav Havel, according to a paraphrased record of the conversation, that he didn’t consider Russia an immediate threat to its neighbors “because of what happened to the Russian military and economy.” But, he added, “if historical trends do reassert themselves, we will have organized ourselves so that we could move quickly not only to NATO membership but other security relations that can serve as a deterrent.”
Putin didn’t engage in “mythmaking” when he said in a particularly belligerent speech that during the Yeltsin era, Russia was so deeply in debt and so weak militarily that US leaders decided its opinion could be largely ignored. The Clinton-Yeltsin transcripts largely confirm that interpretation.
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