Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin Missed Historic Opportunity

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”

This shows that even as Clinton stressed to Yeltsin that he wanted the possibility of NATO membership to be open to Russia (Yeltsin indicated at one point that he was interested), U.S. policy was still to be “organized against Russia” in case it turned rogue.

Yeltsin wasn’t taken in; he knew exactly what was going on, and he stressed to Clinton that he accepted his offers of loose cooperation with NATO only because he had no other choice. His vision of the best-case scenario appeared to be a U.S. security pullout from Europe, which he knew Clinton wouldn’t contemplate. In November 1999 — probably after the sick and fatigued Yeltsin had already decided to resign — he teased the U.S. leader:

YELTSIN: I ask you one thing. Just give Europe to Russia. The U.S. is not in Europe. Europe should be the business of Europeans. Russia is half European and half Asian.
CLINTON: So you want Asia too?
YELTSIN: Sure, sure, Bill. Eventually, we will have to agree on all of this.
CLINTON: I don’t think the Europeans would like this very much.
YELTSIN: Not all. But I am a European. I live in Moscow. Moscow is in Europe and I like it. You can take all the other states and provide security to them. I will take Europe and provide them security. Well, not I. Russia will.

Yeltsin’s joke sounds a lot like Vladimir Putin’s trolling of French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this year (Putin offered to replace the U.S. as guarantor of France’s security). A continuity between Yeltsin and Putin often comes through in the transcripts. When Clinton expressed concern in 1995 about Russia’s military action in secessionist Chechnya and mentioned U.S. criticism of the war, Yeltsin snapped, “Those people who are suggesting sanctions against Russia, let them not forget that Russia is not Yugoslavia. This is not something that can be used to scare us.” Putin says almost the same about Western sanctions.

Yeltsin was aware that his voter base was pro-Western. In one conversation before the 1996 election, he asked Clinton to praise Russia’s transition to democracy, saying the plug would add 10 percent to his support. But on foreign policy, his views often appeared to be close to his eventual successor’s.

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 U.S. leaders decided its opinion could be largely ignored. The Clinton-Yeltsin transcripts largely confirm that interpretation. Putin’s facts are correct in this case, it’s his policies that are based on them that are wrong.

Yeltsin might have been more assertive if he could have relied on the kind of cash and military power Putin can. But I doubt he would have pushed Russia away from the West as radically as Putin has. Rather, he would have been in a better position to promote his grand vision of a Europe that includes a democratic, Westernized Russia and relies on it for resources and, at least partly, for security.

That vision might have had a chance today, as European leaders watch the hostile antics of President Donald Trump with apprehension. Putin made the Russian alternative impossible for Europe by abandoning democracy and attacking neighboring countries. The Clinton transcripts, while confirming Yeltsin’s well-known flaws, still show him as a leader who, unlike Putin, wouldn’t have thrown away Russia’s historic opportunity.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.