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Bill Clinton In 2000: Putin ‘Could Get Squishy On Democracy’

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his U.S. counterpart Bill Clinton during a Russian-American summit in Moscow in June 2000.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his U.S. counterpart Bill Clinton during a Russian-American summit in Moscow in June 2000.

U.S. President Bill Clinton thought newly installed Russian President Vladimir Putin was “smart and thoughtful,” referred to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a “son of a bitch,” and told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that Washington would not try to assassinate Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Clinton’s private thoughts about those world leaders were revealed when the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on January 7 released some 500 pages of transcripts of telephone conversations between Blair and the former U.S. president that occurred between 1997 and December 2000.

In 2000, the first year of Putin’s presidency, Clinton told Blair that he thought Putin had “enormous potential.”

“I think we can do a lot of good with him,” Clinton said. But in a separate call, he told Blair that Putin might “get squishy on democracy.”

Another time, Clinton asked Blair how his visit with Putin went.

“It was fine; very interesting,” Blair said. “He feels that he is not understood about the problems he is facing there. He was very anxious to impress me. He wanted to see America as a partner, I think.”

Clinton agreed with Blair but seemed to think U.S.-Russian relations would progress more smoothly if Vice President and Democratic Party candidate Al Gore defeated Bush in the upcoming presidential election.

“I think he does [want the U.S. as a partner], depending on who wins our elections; it might take a while to get it going, but the more time you can spend with him the better,” Clinton said.

But he told Blair in a later conversation: “Of course, if [George W.] Bush wins, whatever I do with Putin, they can reverse.”

He told Blair another time: “I think [Putin] is a guy with a lot of ability and ambitions for the Russians. His intentions are generally very honorable and straightforward, but he just hasn’t made up his mind yet.”

“He could get squishy on democracy,” Clinton added, rather prophetically.

The transcripts do not say exactly when that conversation took place.

Boris Yeltsin stepped down and made Putin acting president on December 31, 1999. Elected to his first term in March 2000, Putin swiftly moved to consolidate power by reining in the broadcast media and Russia’s regional leaders, and he went on to take steps seen by political opponents, rights activists, and Western governments as a major rollback of democracy.

In one of the conversations, Clinton told Blair that during a visit to Germany “there might be time to run to Russia. We’re trying to resolve bilateral issues…kind of get this Chechnya thing resolved,” he said, in a reference to the second post-Soviet war between Russian government forces and separatists in the North Caucasus republic.

Kosovo War

Concerns about Moscow’s foreign policy moves were a frequent topic of discussion between Clinton and Blair.

He told the British premier during a phone conversation on August 27, 1998, that he thought Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin wanted to get involved in Yugoslavia during the fighting in Kosovo as the West was contemplating military intervention.

“I do think Chernomyrdin has the bit in his teeth to do something, but whether he can, I don’t know. They are very anxious to play a role in a diplomatic settlement and go in with their troops,” Clinton said. “If it comes to a troop option [for the West to end Yugoslav aggression in Kosovo], what the hell are we going to do with Russia if it leads to the collapse of our relationship?”

Putin and other Russian officials have frequently condemned the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, which reined in Milosevic and led to the end of the Kosovo war.

The conflict in Kosovo was obviously weighing heavily on Blair and Clinton.

The two had discussed the need to collaboratively plan the “ground-force option” for Kosovo and refer to the making of some type of deal with Milosevic to end the fighting.

“If [Milosevic] means we won’t assassinate him or bomb him or extract him from Serbia, I think we can make that commitment,” Clinton told Blair on August 27, 1998. “I don’t think we can make a public commitment on war crimes [charges], because that is an independent body…. I said we’re cooperating with the [war crimes] tribunal, so that is a more difficult issue. He’s looking for some assurance [of not being tried for war crimes], but that’s a pretty dicey thing.”

Concern Over Saddam

The two leaders also spoke frequently about the situation in Iraq at a time when UN weapons inspectors were monitoring the country for weapons of mass destruction.

Clinton -- who was president from 1993-2001 -- told Blair in an undated phone call that he had asked Moroccan King Hassan to tell Saddam Hussein that the United States has “no interest in killing him or hunting him down,” but added that “he’s not fooling with him…I just don’t want his chemical and biological [weapons] program going forward.”

Clinton laments not being able to contact Hussein directly because of the feared public backlash that would come from talking to the dictator.

“If I weren’t constrained by the press I would pick up the phone and call the son of a bitch.”

He warns Blair at one point that Iraq “could become a real nightmare for you.”

Clinton clearly liked Blair, who was in office from 1997-2007, and felt they had a close bond. The two often shared news about their families and Clinton even offered to be a babysitter for Blair’s soon-to-be-born son, Leo.

The two also discussed domestic politics in their respective countries, with Clinton keeping Blair up-to-date on the ongoing presidential campaign of 2000.

He repeatedly told the British Labour leader that he thought Gore had a good chance to defeat Bush, who went on to narrowly win an election marred by a dispute over the vote count.

Clinton called Bush a “skilled politician” who was “really smart” in how he ran his campaign, but added that “he is not ready to be president, maybe not ever, certainly not now.”