Bill and Boris: Yeltin vouched for Putin in a time of warm relations with a U.S. president

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Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

WASHINGTON — On September 8, 1999, just a few weeks after promoting the head of the country’s top intelligence agency to the post of prime minister, Russian President Boris Yeltsin took a phone call from a world leader with whom he had developed an unusually close relationship: U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Yeltsin and Bill Clinton hold what appears to be an animated discussion at the Kremlin in 1998 while U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright looks on. / epa

The new prime minister was largely unknown, having risen to the top of the Federal Security Service only a year earlier. Yeltsin wanted to reassure Clinton that this rising star — Vladimir Putin— was a “solid man.”

“I would like to tell you about him so you will know what kind of man he is,” Yeltsin told Clinton.

“I found out he is a solid man who is kept well abreast of various subjects under his purview. At the same time, he is thorough and strong, very sociable. And he can easily have good relations and contact with people who are his partners. I am sure you will find him to be a highly qualified partner,” he told Clinton.

At a face-to-face meeting two months later, in Istanbul, Clinton returned to the subject of Putin, and Yeltsin made it very clear who he thought would win the election that was scheduled for March 2000.

“Putin, of course. He will be the successor to Boris Yeltsin. He’s a democrat, and he knows the West,” Yeltsin said, speaking of himself in the third person.

Yeltsin went on to resign the next month on New Year’s Eve. Putin won the March election, on his way to becoming Russia’s preeminent leader, and the longest serving leader of the country since Josef Stalin.

The transcript of the conversation between Yeltsin and Clinton was included in hundreds of pages of memos and other documents quietly published online last month by Clinton’s official Presidential Library, in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The declassified documents don’t provide major new revelations into the dynamics between the two countries’ relations after the 1991 Soviet collapse. But they do offer a window into a famously chummy relationship that was dubbed “Bill and Boris” by many observers at the time.

Jarring Contrast

On both a personal level and a bilateral strategic level, the papers stand in jarring contrast to the current state of U.S.-Russian relations, which have plummeted to levels not seen since the Cold War, before either Clinton or Yeltsin was president.

“It’s quaint, in many ways, to read this,” said Andrew Weiss, who served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and whose name appears in some of the memos. “How the U.S. at this time was trying to promote that Russia can be a pillar of the new international order. We’ll be together on important global challenges and the issues of the Cold War are not even visible.”

The nearly 1,000 pages of declassified documents run from 1993 to 1999, during which both presidents won reelection in the same year, 1996.
Both presidents enjoy a lighter moment in New York in 1995.
Both presidents enjoy a lighter moment in New York in 1995.

During that time, the two developed what some observers have said was the closest personal relationship any Russian and U.S. leaders have ever had.

“Reading these…as a narrative record of the seven years of interactions between Clinton and Yeltsin left me feeling rather sad,” Jim Goldgeier, who also worked on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, wrote in an essay published in the Texas National Security Review. “The two leaders certainly accomplished a great deal.”

Nettlesome Issues

The memos document conversations — in-person and by telephone, using interpreters — that the two had in various places, and covering many of the most nettlesome issues of the bilateral relationship at that time: the war in Chechnya, NATO’s bombing of Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo crisis, NATO expansion to the east, and nuclear arms control negotiations

They reveal how Yeltsin, known as a vehement anti-communist, feared that the Communist Party could make a return to power — something that nearly happened during the 1996 presidential campaign.

During a Kremlin luncheon on April 21, 1996, while Clinton was visiting Moscow, the two discussed the upcoming Russian vote, with Yeltsin giving a stark warning.

“There is a U.S. press campaign suggesting that people should not be afraid of the communists; that they are good, honorable and kind people. I warn people not to believe this. More than half of them are fanatics; they would destroy everything. It would mean civil war,” he said.”They would abolish the boundaries between the republics. They want to take back Crimea; they even make claims against Alaska.”

“There are two paths for Russia’s development. I do not need power. But when I felt the threat of communism, I decided that I had to run. We will prevent it,” he added.

Later in the conversation, Clinton responds in support.

“I’m aware that there are some people eager to stir up resentment against the West and against the U.S. in particular. There’s an even bigger feeling that we have had all this ‘partnership’ with the West but what difference has it made?” Clinton said. “So I’ve been trying to find a way to say to the Russian people ‘this election will have consequences,’ and we are clear about what it is we support.”

A Blow To Cooperation

In 1995, the NATO alliance was discussing whether to expand eastward and admit several former Soviet bloc states as members. With their military greatly weakened by the Soviet collapse, the Russians were worried about NATO’s real intentions.

Many Russian officials also began to question informal assurances they said had existed under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, that the alliance would not move eastward. Yeltsin voiced that concern in a May 1995 meeting at the Kremlin.

“I want to get a clear understanding of your idea of NATO expansion because now I see nothing but humiliation for Russia if you proceed,” Yeltsin said. “How do you think it looks to us if one bloc continues to exist while the Warsaw Pact has been abolished? It’s a new form of encirclement…”

Clinton offers several explanations to Yeltsin, and also flatters Russia’s history, but Yeltsin doesn’t appear convinced.

“I’ve made it clear I’ll do nothing to accelerate NATO. I’m trying to give you now, in this conversation, the reassurance you need. But we need to be careful that neither of us appears to capitulate,” Clinton said.

In 1997, the alliance invited Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic to join.

Deepening Mistrust

The mistrust deepened in June 1998, as open fighting erupted between Kosovar Albanians in Kosovo — which at the time was still part of what was left of Yugoslavia — and federal Serbian forces.

Russia remained a stalwart ally of Serbia, and continued to back its strongman leader Slobodan Milosevic. In Washington and other European capitals, fears of another bloodbath, like what happened in the Bosnia wars just a few years earlier, were growing.

Clinton and Yeltsin held a more contentious conversation about how to resolve the crisis.

“Frankly speaking, I can tell you, Bill, I am having a tough talk with Milosevic,” Yeltsin said. “I shall demand that the disproportionate use of force be stopped, but the most important thing is to get his agreement to negotiations.”

“Any use of force by NATO is inadmissible,” he went on. “I think we should work here together in parallel: I will work to bring pressure on Belgrade, while you press the Kosovar Albanian leaders. And, if we both reach our goals and use all our possibilities, then we shall be able to find a solution to these problems as we have several times in the past.”
Yeltsin and Bill Clinton hold what appears to be an animated discussion at the Kremlin in 1998 while U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright looks on.
Yeltsin and Bill Clinton hold what appears to be an animated discussion at the Kremlin in 1998 while U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright looks on.

Clinton, meanwhile, tried to persuade Yeltsin to work jointly on a United Nations resolution condemning the Serbian crackdown, but he also left open the possibility for Western intervention.

“If we are together, I think we can avoid having this situation require any intervention,” Clinton said. “In terms of NATO, I very much hope no NATO action will be necessary.”

In March 1999, however, amid reported ethnic cleansing that drove thousands of Albanians out of Kosovo, NATO intervened and bombed Serb forces in Kosovo and Serbia itself.

The intervention infuriated the Kremlin, and then-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov turned his plane around midair as it flew to the United States for urgent talks on Kosovo after being notified by then-Vice President Al Gore that the bombing was beginning.

The bombardment sent bilateral relations to their nadir. To this day, it remains an open sore for many Russians, who saw it as yet another indication that, despite the warm relationship between the two presidents, Washington had nothing but disrespect for Moscow.

What’s For Lunch?

As his presidency went on, Yeltsin’s health declined noticeably, particularly as his drinking increased. Yeltsin seemed to be drunk at several public events alongside Clinton, including press conferences.

The newly released memos confirm one long-held rumor about Yeltsin’s talks with Clinton: On June 10, 1999, just days after NATO halted the bombing of Kosovo, the two leaders talked on the phone. Yeltsin proposed the two hold a one-on-one meeting on a ship, or even a submarine. According to some U.S. press reports, Yeltsin was audibly drunk on the phone.

During the April 1996 luncheon, Clinton commented on Yeltsin’s health.

“I noticed that you’ve gotten thinner. But you need to eat something,” Clinton said.

“I do not eat a lot in the morning or at night; during the day I eat, certainly,” Yeltsin responded. “I eat about half of (what I’m served). This is roast duck (pointing to what is being served). People thought all grouse had been shot under Khrushchev. This is a small one. They were hunted all over the Soviet Union.”

Besides highlighting the extraordinarily cordial relations between the two presidents, Andrew Weiss said these newly released memos also help to highlight the grievances that many Russians have felt going all the way back to the Soviet collapse — something the former Clinton staffer noted has been encouraged under Putin.

“Over time, the regime has promoted this idea, of Russia being humiliated, Weiss said. “The [Putin] government promotes the idea Russia’s being humiliated or taken advantage of, because it fits into the broader political scheme or goal for legitimating Putin’s rule, and the classical logic of being a besieged fortress, and only by rallying around Putin can we avoid a return to the past.”