Taming the bear

Strobe Talbott says Clinton deserves much credit for Russia's warming to the West -- and recalls a drunken Yeltsin calling for pizza in his underpants.

Published May 30, 2002 4:50PM (EDT)

Two days ago, the 19 member nations of NATO formally accepted Russia as a junior partner in an organization created to contain Soviet power just 50 years ago. Given the still sometimes contentious relationship between Russia and the West, the new NATO-Russia Council has Russian and United States leaders congratulating themselves and each other for achieving what once seemed impossible.

This alliance became conceivable in 1997, when presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin formed the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, a similar attempt to ease Russia into the organization. That historic step, however, was soon followed by Russian outrage over NATO's bombing campaign in Kosovo and the West's expansion of power.

Therefore, it's no surprise that even after this week's agreement, big questions and fears still loom large on both sides. Can Russia westernize? Will Bush pressure President Vladimir Putin on issues like Chechnya, weapons inspections and the sales of nuclear technology to Iran? Can the Russians overcome their resentment of NATO power? Is the Cold War really over?

Obviously, the outcome of many of these issues has to do with Putin, who, as many U.S. officials have noted, is a different leader than they thought he would be. One of those skeptics was Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state for the Clinton administration and the architect of Clinton's Russian foreign policy. In his new memoir, "The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy," Talbott, a roommate of Clinton's when they were both Rhodes scholars at Oxford, warmly recalls Clinton's concern for Russia's fate and his complicated relationship with the unpredictable Yeltsin. He also devotes a chapter to the transfer of power from Yeltsin to Putin. "It was no mystery what Putin's game was," Talbott writes after an account of a chilly Clinton-Putin meeting in June 2000. "He was waiting for Clinton's successor to be elected in five months before deciding how to cope with the United States and all its power, its demands and its reproaches."

But to Talbott, the events unfolding just this week owe much to the inroads made by Clinton and Yeltsin, something he fears will be forgotten during what has turned out to be a Bush-Putin love fest. In a recent phone interview, he made it clear that he hopes that accounts of Clinton's presidency (including his own, of course) will help set the record straight. Many readers will recognize "The Russia Hand" as the story according to an unabashed Clinton partisan, but they will also relish Talbott's intimate portraits of the two leaders, down to the challenging task of maneuvering around Yeltsin's flagrant alcoholism.

Do you think that it took Sept. 11 for both Bush and Putin to realize that they could manage a new type of partnership? Was it a turning point or were the conditions already in place?

Emphatically the latter. Sept. 11 was not a turning point because a turning point suggests a change in direction. It was an acceleration point, a consolidation point largely because of the way that Putin seized upon it and exploited it. He used it as a kind of impulse to speed up something that had been going on since the late '80s and had advanced particularly during the '90s, but that does not mean that there was a turn. It means that he was able to throttle the thing forward.

When considering Clinton's accomplishments with Russia, which do you think have specifically led to the current warm relations between Bush and Putin?

In many ways, the accomplishment that Bill Clinton can be proud of is apparent in what's going on this past week. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, a series of meetings went on between a Russian president and an American president who are consolidating what was really one of the goals and achievements of the Clinton presidency -- to put U.S.-Russian relations on a footing of partnership as opposed to competition. I want to be clear: that didn't begin with Bill Clinton. It started in many ways at the end of the Reagan presidency with the Reagan-Gorbachev relationship and continued in the Bush-Gorbachev and then Bush-Yeltsin relationships. But it both went further and was subjected to more tests in the Clinton presidency. So if you look at the goals of the summit that's going on right now, and if you look at what both Bush and Putin hope will come out of this summit, it derives directly from what Clinton was trying to do and did do with Boris Yeltsin.

Were you surprised that Bush, after pulling out of the ABM treaty and taking a more hard-line stance in the first months of his presidency, also wanted to take on a position of partnership?

I wasn't astonished. I was relieved. As a candidate for the presidency, George W. Bush not only tried to lambaste Clinton on every conceivable issue but he suggested that his own presidency would take a different course. But I didn't think it would last and the reasons for that were basically two. One has to do with Bush and the other has to do with life itself. I don't know President Bush very well, even though we were classmates in college, but he's always, from what I know about him, at the pragmatic end of the spectrum as opposed to the hard-edged, ideological end. He's got some people around him who are pretty ideological and sucking him in the other direction, but I suspected that when he actually got into the presidency, saw what the opportunities and the dangers were, he would move back toward the center, and into a position of more continuity with Clinton.

There is so much talk about this summit liquidating the legacy of the Cold War. But people have said many times that the Cold War is over. Is it?

I hear those claims and I roll my eyes and shake my head and smile wearily. My version of the slogan is "the Cold War is over again" or "the Cold War is still over." The liquidation of the Cold War and its legacy has been going since Reagan-Gorbachev in their meeting in Reykjavik in 1986. It continued in the first Bush administration. It was one of the major themes of the Clinton administration. Bush and Putin are continuing. Good on them. If it makes them feel better or more inclined to do it to claim that they have reinvented the wheel or discovered the New World for the first time, let them do it. The issue is what's the substance of the policies. While I have some criticisms of some of what they're doing, the overall direction is a lot closer to what we were trying to do and therefore, it won't surprise you to hear me say, better.

Clinton regrets that he didn't do more for Russia's economy. What other regrets do you have?

I think that the West should have done a lot more and done it sooner with regard to massive economic assistance. That goes before the Clinton administration comes into office. You'll remember the episode in the first chapter when the first Bush administration was slow off the mark in helping Russia and the other former Soviet republics through the G-7. Clinton as a candidate, along with Richard Nixon, was pushing him to do more and he didn't.

You were dealing with great leaders with great weaknesses. How much did Yeltsin's alcoholism affect working with him?

You just had to live with it. The president was exposed to it in their first phone call when Yeltsin called him on Inauguration Day in 1993 to say congratulations. He was drunk. And he got pretty roaring during the first summit meeting they had in Vancouver and when I went to meet him at the airport in September 1994. He could barely get off the plane. That was the night that he was staggering around in his underpants shouting for pizza. It was a huge problem and we did our best not to add to the public embarrassment.

In private, we tried to time our calls so we'd be more likely to get him sober. That was hard because there was a nine-hour time difference between Washington and Moscow and Bill Clinton's not exactly an early riser, to put it mildly. He's a late-night guy. So to get him on the phone with President Yeltsin even at 8 in the morning was hard. It was a big boulder in the road.

But would his decision-making vary depending on his degrees of sobriety?

Not really. Sometimes they were just wacko. There was one point during the Kosovo bombing when Yeltsin, who was clearly in his cups, suggested that he and Clinton had to get together on an emergency basis, and perhaps they should meet on a submarine. That was not an idea we picked up. But, no, he didn't ever take positions that were in substance wildly different. They were just wildly expressed. But he's a smart guy. One of the successes was that he got his own guy made president of Russia. That was an incredible coup for the most unpopular politician in Russia to be able to have his own heir designate prevail in the electoral process that ensued. One of Yeltsin's calculations there was that if he was going to pick his own guy, he was going to have to be very different from himself, including sober. He wasn't blind to his own weaknesses. He just wasn't good at handling all of them.

In 1997, Clinton and Yeltsin entered into what seemed to be a historic turning point for NATO and Russia. And then a lot of things happened. That partnership seemed to fall apart. How can that moment be compared to this week's summit, and what can we learn from the situation in 1997?

Actually, I don't think things fell apart after 1997. The way I put it is this: In 1997, Clinton and Yeltsin reached an historic agreement that allowed NATO to bring in new members without blowing up Russia or the U.S.-Russian relationship and simultaneously to have the enlargement of NATO and the establishment of cooperative mechanisms between NATO and Russia. That was a huge deal, a wheel that is now being reinvented. If you listen to some of the stuff being said about the summit going on now, and the Prague summit coming up later in the year and the Rome summit next week, you would think that all of a sudden, Eureka! George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin realized it be a good idea, if we're going to expand NATO, to also have a NATO-Russia council. That's a very good idea indeed, which is exactly why we did it in 1997.

So what happened?

Why didn't the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council, as we called it, do better after 1997? Partly because it was new. The Russians approached it in a very tentative, holding-their-nose fashion. They put an ambassador in Brussels to work on NATO-Russia who was kind of determined to make problems rather than solutions.

But the really big problem was Kosovo. We had an intervening war. But I would not agree that the Kosovo war ruined or blew up NATO-Russia cooperation. In fact, quite the contrary; I think it's an extraordinarily positive thing that the NATO-Russia cooperative relationship survived the Kosovo war and it survived it in two important respects. One, even though the Russians in general, and Yeltsin in particular, hated the 78-day-long bombing campaign and railed against it and rattled their sabers and said they were either going to blow our brains out or blow their own brains out if we didn't stop --

Was that ever a real scenario? Did Russia and the United States really come close to war just three years ago?

I'll come back to that in a second. My point is, at the end, the Russians said, "OK, there's only one way to end this thing and that is we're going to have to join the Europeans and the United States in getting Milosevic to say uncle." And they did. My own belief is that the war ended in no small measure because of what [Russian special envoy] Viktor Chernomyrdin did with Martti Ahtisaari [the president of Finland and a European Union envoy], with me working around in the background.

There you had a case of Russia operating cooperatively with the West and indeed with NATO. You had essentially Milosevic throwing in the towel because he not only had NATO against him, he also had the European Union in the person of Ahtisaari and Russia in the person of Chernomyrdin. Then the Russians agreed to participate in a NATO-led peacekeeping operation in the Balkans. That too led to a hairy moment; you may recall the scene where the Russians kind of accidentally invaded Kosovo and we almost ended up in a confrontation. But we got through that and diffused it.

So my point here: In 1997, the United States and Russia worked out a deal that basically laid the basis for what is now happening in bringing in new NATO members and improving upon the NATO-Russia cooperative mechanism. Both of those arrangements survived the crisis of Kosovo and I think in the long run will prove to be stronger as a result.

How close did we come [to war] in 1999? I don't think we came anywhere near the brink of nuclear war. I do think we came quite close to an armed clash of some kind, either in the air or on the ground in connection with the Russians' preemptive seizure of Krajina airport in their attempt, or at least their contemplation of reinforcing those troops there. Had that confrontation taken place, it could have led to bloodshed; it would not have led to general war. But the bloodshed would have been bad enough because it would have ruined the chances of repairing the damage later, or at least it would have taken many years to do so.

What direct effects did Russia have on our involvement, our decisions to intervene in Kosovo?

I was probably the person in the administration who both ex officio and by inclination was most sensitive to Russian concerns. And I can tell you what effect Russia's vehement opposition to the bombing of Kosovo had on me and that is -- I understood it and I thought it was too bad, I thought it was wrong and I thought it had to be managed.

What did you understand? It might help to explain the Russians' typical relationship with NATO.

The Russians had multiple reasons for being aghast at the spectacle of NATO bombing Serbs. First of all, they were afraid of NATO. NATO had come into existence as an alliance directed against them as they saw it. They didn't like it that it was staying in business with the Cold War over, their own alliance, the Warsaw Pact, having been passed onto the ash heap of history. They didn't like that it was taking in new members and especially members that used to be allies of the Soviet Union -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

They even more didn't like the fact that we were insisting on keeping open the possibility of taking in new members that used to be part of the USSR itself, which of course is going to happen later this year. I suspect all three Baltic states -- Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia -- are going to come into NATO. So they had multiple reasons for not liking the continued existence of NATO or the enlargement of NATO.

On top of that they have a feeling of historical, cultural and political affinity to the Serbs. Here, you not only had NATO staying in business, you had NATO going to war against people that many Russians regarded as cousins or clients of themselves. Then, there was a final factor, which had to do with Chechnya. They'd already had one outbreak of war in Chechnya in 1994 and they would have another in the future.

What was Chechnya? It was a Muslim majority enclave inside Russia proper that was seeking to break free of Russia, directly analogous to Kosovo, a Muslim majority enclave inside of Yugoslavia that was seeking to break free from Yugoslavia. And here comes NATO bombing Belgrade on behalf of the Kosovars. That's the way the Russians saw it and they said, "Oh my God, we're next. We can easily close our eyes and imagine NATO bombing Moscow on behalf of the Chechens." You put all that together and you have one unhappy bunch of Russians.

Given that this was just three years ago, the Russians are still very fearful of and angry at NATO. How can we expect them to react to these negotiations? Do they have the will to make this work?

It won't be a sudden change of heart. It will take time and it will take the passing of a generation. But the Russians now have a president who's more confident and more realistic. Putin doesn't like losing causes. He's not going to throw his body in front of a Mack truck or a tank and get rolled over. In the final analysis, Yeltsin didn't particularly relish that experience either and he picked himself up off the middle of the road and climbed aboard the Mack truck, saying "partnership, partnership." Putin learned a lesson from Yeltsin's experience and decided not to go through the charade or the temper tantrum, but to acquiesce and advance so that it didn't look as much like he was making a major concession.

Putin himself is resigned to NATO enlargement. He hopes that through the new NATO-Russian council, Russia will be able to participate more in the decision-making process of NATO and make it harder for NATO to do things that Russia doesn't want in the future. But bringing his people and his political and military elite along with him is going to take some time.

I wanted to talk about Chechnya. Nobody has been able to affect the Russians' actions there. It seems as though Bush will not push for much change there either. Why is this such a difficult and untouchable conflict?

There are three reasons. First of all, Chechnya is part of Russia. Nobody disputes Russia's claim to sovereignty over Chechnya. So it's not like Russia muscling Georgia, which is an independent country. Second, Chechnya is a murderous mess. Nobody can claim that the Chechens are bucolic, peaceful mountain people if only the Russians would just leave them alone. It's a massively corrupt, criminalized, violent non-country. That makes it a lot harder to defend the Chechens when the Russians get tough with them, though I think we should.

And third, there's Sept. 11. There's no question that there's a lot of world-class terrorists, including the Saudis and others, operating inside of Chechnya. They've been there for a long time. There's no question that there are elements in Chechnya that are closely associated with al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. The corollary to that is that when President Bush declares a global war on terrorism and Putin says, "I'm with you, pal. I'll support you against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, you gotta support me against the others in Chechnya who are committing terrorist acts against Russia," President Bush basically says, "OK. I get it."

The flip side of that is that Chechnya is a mess largely because Moscow's made it a mess, going back 150 years, but certainly over the recent decades. Moscow's brutal tactics have radicalized the republic and somehow the vicious cycle has to be broken and reversed. It's largely up to Moscow to do that.

So Bush doesn't make a distinction between the war in Afghanistan and the war in Chechnya?

Not so far. He's basically given Putin a pass on this. Our administration didn't succeed in getting the Russians to greatly ameliorate what they were doing in Chechnya. We had a little bit of success; we got them to cooperate more with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and at least open Chechnya provisionally to some international monitoring and that kind of thing. But I can't sit here and claim to you that we solved that problem any more than we solved the problem of Russian technology going to Iran. But we had something going in the right direction. When the Bush administration came in, even though they criticized us during the campaign for letting the Russians get away with murder in Chechnya, they then immediately let the Russians get away with murder in Chechnya.

Would it completely jeopardize our relationship with Russia if we exerted real pressure on them?

No, it would not and that goes to my view of Putin. I reacted quite skeptically to him in my own first encounters, but Putin's turned out to be a lot better than many of us expected. One way that I think Putin has a good chance of succeeding is that he really is determined to modernize Russia and do so in a way that aligns Russia more with the West and puts Russia in the mainstream of international life as defined by the G-8 and the community of nations that the United States is part of.

But that means that he's got to accept certain standards before admission to that circle. We're the keeper of those standards. If we make more of an issue out of his treatment of ethnic minorities and religious minorities in Russia, it will have some effect on him because he really wants the membership. But if we're going to give him a pass on all that stuff, he will be very grateful and won't feel under any pressure to change.

Is this true for his treatment of the press, too?

The same is true with regard to his treatment of the free media, which is not as free as it used to be. He's been closing down independent outlets, intimidating journalists and using his own considerable levers of power to move newspapers and television stations in from the category of independent media into state-controlled media.

How much is Putin slipping away from democracy in general? Could he move more toward a dictatorship?

Whether dictatorship is the word, at least in the Russian-Soviet context or a more authoritarian form of governance, we're saying the same thing, and the answer is yes, there is a danger. But we can minimize that danger if we make an issue out of it. Part of the problem with the Bush administration is that they have taken a kind of traditionally realpolitik attitude towards Russia and indeed other countries as well.

To them, real men, or in the case of Condi, real women, don't do internal politics of other countries. They worry about international behavior of countries, they worry about the disposition of weaponry, particularly nuclear weaponry. It's only squishy-soft liberals and Democrats who make a big deal out of human rights and minority rights and free media and that kind of thing. I'm oversimplifying, obviously, but there is definitely a tilt in that direction and it partly explains, at least in my mind, why the Bush administration has left largely unattended the domestic agenda in Russia.

How will we monitor Russia's reduction of weapons?

Both in the area of strategic nuclear weaponry and also chemical and biological, the United States will continue to rely on verification. The issue there is to what extent does the United States want there to be treaties to regulate these things. The answer is not anywhere near the same extent now that George Bush is in the White House. His administration has shown a basic bias against legally binding, ratified, verifiable treaties with other countries -- the Kyoto climate change convention, the International Criminal Court, land mines, the ABM treaty, chemical and biological weapons conventions. The list goes on and on. They've kind of made an exception with regard to START and they've done so largely to accommodate Putin.

How dangerous is this? Will anyone pressure Bush on this?

I hope so. START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] is the exception to the rule at the moment.

What about Russia's relationship with Iran? Will that be a major issue between them?

It has been, is now and will continue to be. It was a big theme in our administration. There were some moments when we thought we'd finally gotten a handle on the problem of Russian nuclear and ballistic technology going to Iran. And then there would be an upheaval of Russian politics and we'd lose our partner, whether it was Viktor Chernomyrdin or Andrei Kokoshin or anybody else. At the end of the administration, we basically passed this along to our successors as unfinished business, and the Bush administration has not had much success there.

And it's really stupid on Russia's part. For them to be hastening the day when Iran is going to be a nuclear armed ballistic missile country is the height of strategic foolishness because Iran is much closer to Russia than it is to the United States, it's closer to Russia than it is to Israel. It could well be a hotbed of Islamic extremism for a very long time to come. Russia has its own indigenous problem with Islamic extremism. This is just mind-boggling.

Why do you think it continues?

A combination of things, including filthy lucre, which is to say money. People in Russia, particularly in the old military industrial complex, are making out like bandits. There's some simpleminded old thing going on about the Great Game: Russia believes it can buy goodwill -- if not the friendship then at least the susceptibility to Russian influence -- by arming the Iranians and therefore hedging against the day when Iran and the United States make up. Again, I'm not making apologies for it; quite the contrary, I'm trying to point out that it's very shortsighted.

It seems remarkable that Putin has been conciliatory about our expansion of military power in Asia and Georgia since Sept. 11, but how much do the Russians still resent us for our status as the world's sole superpower? Have they recovered psychologically from their fall from the role of a major superpower?

Much as we may tell them and much as some of them believe that they, the Russians, were victors in the Cold War and helped bring the system that had oppressed them more than anybody else, there's still a widespread and understandable sentiment that 15 years ago they were a superpower sharing mastery of the universe with the United States of America and now they're just a great big messy country that's got a GDP behind South Korea's and Portugal's.

Do you believe that Putin wants Russia to be a superpower?

No, I don't. I think he's realistic enough to know that that's defining the problem in a way that guarantees failure. He wants Russia to be a normal, modern country that has as much influence as its giant size -- the fact that it strides two continents -- indicates it should have. It should be a major regional power, with some global interest, but that doesn't attempt to compete with the United States on a global basis.

Do you believe that Putin is Western-minded? We hear that a lot. Given the problems that Russia has had with Western institutions in the past, how will he manage?

Only over a very long haul. His rhetoric is more pro-Western even than Yeltsin's. But his instincts are emphatically not. One example: We say rule of law and he says dictatorship of laws. I think he still has a lot of the old commandant mentality in his software.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

MORE FROM Suzy Hansen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Author Interviews Books Russia