It was a strange friendship; and regardless of the individuals involved, it would have been a strange diplomatic relationship. Post-Soviet Russia needed America’s financial help to reenergize its ruined economy. But that did not give America total leverage over its old enemy. As Russian officials knew, it would not be in America’s interest to see Russia decline uncontrollably. The risks of chaos in a nuclear power were too great, and even a poor country can still be a geopolitical menace (witness North Korea). So Russia’s leaders could pressure the West by presenting their own policies as the only alternative to an even worse scenario: either uncontrollable anarchy or a slide towards Pyongyang-style autarky. “You wouldn’t want us to implode and make a mess of your nice, peaceful world,” was Russia’s implied message to the West.
Faced with this challenge, and the inherent risk of any approach that bets heavily on one highly vulnerable and unpredictable person, Clinton took a huge gamble, effectively staking his own career on Yeltsin’s survival. He used his extraordinary personal and psychological skills to keep their relationship alive.
Whenever the two men met, back-slapped, and bear-hugged, they would wax sentimental about how much they had in common: Were they not giants surrounded by pygmies, men of vision who could do “great things together” if only their bungling aides would allow them? In reality, of course, vast differences lay between them. Clinton had been to the best schools and could lap up the minutiae of any subject; Yeltsin was poorly educated, inarticulate in his own language, and utterly bored by routine and detail.
Yet the affection they developed for one another as they co-managed the consequences of the Soviet collapse was not entirely feigned. Their fates were strangely intertwined. In a sense, each man had it in his power to make or break the other’s political career. Clinton might have failed in his re-election bid if he’d appeared to have “lost Russia” by allowing a return to confrontation and insecurity. Yeltsin, fighting in a much tougher corner, needed American money and respect to have any hope of convincing his opponents that there was something to be gained from kowtowing to the West.
The Russia Hand is billed as a memoir by Strobe Talbott, the onetime journalist who was Clinton’s point man on the former Soviet Union. It is not, in fact, very illuminating about Talbott, but it throws an intriguing new light on the psychological devices that his old college friend, Bill Clinton, brought to bear in handling Russia’s mercurial leader.
Few westerners understood Yeltsin, but Clinton did. Compared with Mikhail Gorbachev, who won adulation in the capitalist world even as his reputation plunged at home, the politician who finally destroyed the Soviet Union seemed boorish, erratic, an embarrassment in Washington or London.
But Clinton understood–better than the vast majority of westerners (including the professional Russia hands, like Talbott) and better even than many politically savvy Russians. He could sense Yeltsin’s deep personal insecurities and the outbursts of irrational rage they prompted. He could empathize with Yeltsin’s sense of being surrounded by devious foes. Most important, he understood Yeltsin’s passionate determination to claw his way back from seemingly hopeless situations.
Talbott is too much of a British-educated gentleman to give away very much about his own feelings as he watched the Bill-Boris duet at close quarters. He resists the temptation to take retrospective swipes at his administration colleagues, save a momentary wince over the Lewinsky affair. But by the standards of Washingtonian memoirs, there are very few references to personal matters. (The book would be spicier, but perhaps less useful for historians, were he not so polite and patrician.)
If there is a revelation in Talbott’s book, it is that Yeltsin’s alcoholism was even more serious, from an even earlier stage, than most observers had realized. When Clinton, shortly after his inauguration, telephoned Yeltsin to assure him that Russia ranked high on his list of priorities, the voice on the other end of the line was slurred. “A candidate for tough love, if ever I heard one,” was Clinton’s revealing, half-jocular, comment to his aides.
In view of Yeltsin’s personal foibles, was Clinton’s gamble a sensible one? Was it really prudent to bet the future of Russia–and by extension the peace of the world–on the ability of an enfeebled alcoholic to remain alive and sober some of the time? Clinton’s thinking, as he confided to Talbott, was that “Yeltsin drunk was better than most of the alternatives sober.” Having made that determination, he cultivated the relationship with deftness and subtlety.
One of the main things that Russia wanted from America was simply diplomatic time, and enough fanfare to make the point that even as the remnants of the Soviet economy collapsed, Russia still mattered. Clinton sensed this and acted accordingly.
So when the Russian president threw tantrums at international meetings, Clinton reacted stoically, knowing that the loudness of Yeltsin’s bark served to distract from the toothlessness of his bite. In early 1995, conventional wisdom–Russian, as well as Western–had written off Yeltsin’s chances of re-election. But Clinton believed otherwise. His own political instincts told him that the election was winnable with enough political consultancy and a dreadful enough alternative (which the communists were obliging enough to provide in Gennady Zyuganov).
Days after winning a second term, Yeltsin collapsed again, into a seemingly irreversible decline. For the remainder of his second term he was effective only in bursts–but crucially, from America’s point of view, he was capable of riding out the 1998 financial crash and limiting the diplomatic damage from the American-led bombing of Serbia in 1999. In what seemed to be a final favor to his western friends, Yeltsin skillfully engineered the election of his successor, a hitherto obscure KGB officer who was pragmatic in his attitude to the West.
The very fact that catastrophe was averted–both in Russia itself and hence in Russian-Western relations–could be deemed an endorsement of Clinton’s judgment. His decision to bet on Yeltsin was not only artfully implemented, it was blessed by luck.
What The Russia Hand does not discuss is whether the right goals were pursued. Was it worth expending so much of the West’s political capital on inducing Russia to accept the expansion of NATO? Did the U.S. pay sufficient attention, early enough, to the problem of Russian military transfers to Iran? What tradeoffs were made to secure the primary (but largely unspoken) goal of American policy towards Russia in the early post-Soviet years, the safety of the strategic nuclear arsenal and the transfer to Russia of rockets and warheads previously deployed in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan?
Talbott provides vital raw material for anyone asking these questions. But he tells us relatively little about the fundamental calculations that went into America’s Russia policy. What were America’s worst fears, and fondest dreams, for Russia? Talbott provides clues, but no clear answers.