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'We're In This With You': Declassified Clinton Memos Show A Path For Russian Relations That Wasn't To Be


Former U.S. President Bill Clinton (left) and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin shake hands at the close of the Helsinki Summit on March 21, 1997.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton (left) and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin shake hands at the close of the Helsinki Summit on March 21, 1997.

One day after Russians voted in a national referendum that served as a vote of confidence in President Boris Yeltsin's wobbly presidency, his U.S. counterpart gave him a call.

Bill Clinton's April 26, 1993, conversation with Yeltsin, one of several direct chats and meetings the two leaders had in the early months of Clinton's presidency, was chummy, supportive, and upbeat.

"I want you know that we're in this with you for the long haul," Clinton said, according to a newly declassified memorandum detailing the call.

"I'm really grateful for your wise policy," Yeltsin responded. "I thank you for the call. It is very important for my spirits. I thank you not only for me and my wife, but for all the Russian people."

The memorandum is the latest in a series of declassified documents published by the U.S. National Security Archive. The documents offer another glimpse into the early, optimistic years of the U.S.-Russian relationship and provide another historical thought exercise on how and when the relationship went sour -- in particular under Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin.

A nongovernmental organization housed at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., the National Security Archive has published other declassified documents detailing internal deliberations among past presidential administrations.

Clinton, Yeltsin, and Ukraine's president at the time, Leonid Kravchuk, pose after signing the Trilateral Statement in Moscow on January 14, 1994.
Clinton, Yeltsin, and Ukraine's president at the time, Leonid Kravchuk, pose after signing the Trilateral Statement in Moscow on January 14, 1994.

Along with other files that have been released by former White House advisers, the documents offer pieces of the puzzle of how U.S. policy evolved, and in some cases how and where U.S. administrations erred in approaching Moscow.

"You have sense of a real missed opportunity on the part of the current Russian leadership," said Jonathan Elkind, who was the Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian director on the U.S. National Security Council in the later years of the Clinton presidency.

"I'd be the last person to claim that anybody is beyond reproach, any party, but the simple fact is that the accumulation of grievances that seem to motivate Putin's policies ignore the fact that there was a very concerted effort by President Clinton and his administration to build a better, more peaceful, more stable relationship between the United States and Russia," said Elkind, who is now a scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

"It was absolutely worth the effort that was made by the Clinton administration," he said. "The success of that venture was anything but assured, and you can see in some of those documents the uncertainty that attended the whole process: How does one carefully protect U.S. interests and also find a different and better way with Russia?"

Yugoslav Wars

Yeltsin was elected president in June 1991, when Russia was still part of the Soviet Union. In December that year, when the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist, he became president of the newly independent Russia.

U.S. officials -- including Clinton's predecessor, George Bush --embraced Yeltsin as a democratic reformer capable of steering Russia away from communism and securing the country's vast nuclear arsenal.

Clinton and Yeltsin take a walk during the Vancouver Summit on April 3, 1993.
Clinton and Yeltsin take a walk during the Vancouver Summit on April 3, 1993.

Elected in November 1992, Clinton was the second U.S. president Yeltsin interacted with -- and one with whom he developed an unusually cordial relationship.

Clinton and Yeltsin held a phone call on February 10, 1993, about three weeks after the U.S. president's inauguration.

The spiraling crisis in the former Yugoslavia was foremost on Clinton's agenda, which he brought up immediately, including the danger of war spreading further. Russia's historic ally, Serbia, was a central player in the war.

"I know this is a very difficult problem for you; I appreciate Russia's historic ties with Serbia and don't want to cause trouble for you at home," Clinton said, according to the declassified memo. "But if ethnic cleansing is seen as a successful way to deal with minority problems, then ethnic Russians outside Russia could be at risk too."

"I want to thank you for your kind words and for your wishes of cooperation between our two countries and for giving priority to your relations with Russia," Yeltsin responded, before endorsing a U.S.-European Union proposal aimed at forestalling outright war in Bosnia.

"Let me say again -- we will do our best to use our influence to convince the Serbs," Yeltsin said. "I just want to promise to do our best to bring pressure on the Serbs, especially [Serbian leader Slobodan] Milosevic."

'No Longer Any Sin On Our Soul'

The Russian leader saw U.S. support as important as he undertook "shock therapy," a lurch away from the Soviet centrally planned economy toward a market economy. The policies abolished price controls and industrial subsidies but also led to the collapse of the ruble, hyperinflation, the loss of pensions savings, and, for millions of Russians, misery and resentment.

That led to deep unpopularity for Yeltsin, and in March 1993 the Russian lower house of parliament narrowly failed to impeach him.

Less than a week later, Yeltsin traveled to Vancouver to meet with Clinton, their first face-to-face meeting since Clinton's election.

Yeltsin gestures as he talks with Clinton during their first bilateral meeting in Vancouver on April 3, 1993.
Yeltsin gestures as he talks with Clinton during their first bilateral meeting in Vancouver on April 3, 1993.

Ahead of the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote a memo preparing Clinton for the meeting. According to the declassified memo, he warned Clinton that "the toughest and most important foreign policy problem of your presidency" was "the ongoing transformation of Russia and its implications for the national security of the United States."

The Bosnia crisis was a "politically sensitive issue" that Clinton should focus on, Christopher wrote. And he cited as another concern "exports of missile technology" and "the behavior of [Russian] forces in some of the new independent states of the former Soviet Union."

Western officials feared that the Soviet breakup, and Russian instability, would lead nuclear technologies being smuggled out or stolen. The United States and other allies also worried about conflicts breaking out in places like Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and Transdniester -- and the roles Russian forces might play.

"The Russian political crisis is certain to limit Yeltsin's ability to reach new agreements, even when they would clearly be to Russia's benefit," Christopher wrote.

At their first meeting in Vancouver, a working dinner on April 3, 1993, the cordial relations between the two presidents were on display, as well as optimism, as Yeltsin urged U.S. assistance to improve Russia's oil infrastructure and pipelines.

If that were to happen, Yeltsin said, "I am certain that, in five years, we will be competing in the arts, in jazz, in oil, and we will catch up with you. I'm sorry about jazz -- actually I am not certain about that."

Clinton and Yeltsin share a laugh during a press conference after a meeting in New York on October 23, 1995.
Clinton and Yeltsin share a laugh during a press conference after a meeting in New York on October 23, 1995.

"Maybe not in jazz," Clinton, an avid amateur jazz saxophonist, responded. "But we need to catch up with you in your rich culture."

The next day, the two presidents and their advisers met for nearly three hours, discussing dozens of topics: Soviet-era immigration laws, the dangers of proliferating nuclear and biological weapons technologies, the aftermath of the 1991 Iraq War, tensions in the South Caucasus, and nuclear testing, among others.

Yeltsin gladly welcomed U.S. inspectors, and he proposed a joint effort to build a missile-defense system.

"Please come and look whenever you want, without invitations," he said, according to the memorandum. "We accept your committee any time and in any town. You can inspect. There is no longer any sin on our soul."

Clinton and his advisers also pressed Yeltsin to continue his economic reforms, despite the growing problems, and proposed more than $1 billion in U.S. aid to help with various initiatives including privatizing state-owned property.

"You need to put your central bank in order. It is an absolute imperative that you get control of your currency," Clinton's treasury secretary, Lloyd Bentsen, told Yeltsin.

Yeltsin, Clinton, then-President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma, and British Prime Minister John Major sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty during the CSCE summit in Budapest on December 5, 1994.
Yeltsin, Clinton, then-President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma, and British Prime Minister John Major sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty during the CSCE summit in Budapest on December 5, 1994.

"We hope you have a big win in the referendum," Bentsen said, according to another memo.

The next month, Yeltsin organized a national referendum that served as a vote of confidence in his administration and its policies. It passed with a solid, albeit narrow, majority.

The day after the April 25 vote, Clinton and Yeltsin spoke on the phone. Clinton congratulated the Russian leader and hailed the Vancouver summit as a success.

"I'm really grateful for your wise policy," Yeltsin said, according to the declassified document. "Indeed it is a policy of a very wise man. You know it is really tough to get a victory like this under these conditions."

"I want you to know that all the Russian people were pleased with our meeting in Vancouver," he added. "They really understood your sincerity. The people of Russia felt close to you as the president of the United States, the most powerful nation in the world."

"I felt close to the Russian people too. The referendum showed that the Russian people understood what was at stake," Clinton replied. "I'm going to do all I can to work with you to make this world a safer place for our children."

Downward Spiral

Long before the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, relations with the West had been spiraling downward. Spy scandals, election meddling, Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, and Western sanctions had poisoned ties for years.

Noting the optimism of the Clinton-Yeltsin relationship, historians, foreign policy experts, policy makers, and others have struggled to pinpoint exactly when the bilateral ties turned toxic.

Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchange signed agreements on the establishment of a joint warning center for the exchange of information on missile launches on June 4, 2000.
Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchange signed agreements on the establishment of a joint warning center for the exchange of information on missile launches on June 4, 2000.

Putin, who succeeded Yeltsin in 2000, presided over a period of economic stabilization and the emergence of a middle class, a boom fueled in large part by Russian oil and gas exports.

But as his years in power unfolded, Putin's policies became increasingly authoritarian: Political competition, independent media, and civil society were repressed, drawing opprobrium from the West.

Putin has justified the Ukraine invasion partly as a response to the expansion of NATO, which began taking in former Warsaw Pact members and former Soviet republics in 1999, the final year of Yeltsin's presidency.

Clinton and former U.S. President George H.W. Bush attend Yeltsin's funeral with Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, in Moscow on April 25, 2007.
Clinton and former U.S. President George H.W. Bush attend Yeltsin's funeral with Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, in Moscow on April 25, 2007.

Yeltsin himself complained to Clinton about NATO's expansion, and Putin has accused the West of deceiving the Kremlin. Some historians have argued that the United States and NATO allies broke promises made in the waning days of the Soviet Union and after, though others say there were never any explicit assurances.

"When Putin was installed as president, my own sense was that this period of dynamism and opportunity for a very different Russia seems to me to have receded," Elkind told RFE/RL.

Putin's arrival "didn't inspire optimism or confidence" that Russia would continue "to engage in the outside world going forward," he added.

"I don't know how much to attribute the subsequent change in relations…to a former KGB officer or whether to attribute it to the political laws of gravity, or to something else," he said. "My sense is that Mr. Putin has benefited from being able to have an external enemy to blame, and that's played as big or a bigger role than any other factor out there."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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