Moscow failed to abandon its longing for an empire in the 1990s and integrate into the West.
Transnational relationships often combine the inertia of history, the multifaceted nature of the present and the personal chemistry of leaders. This is particularly evident with major powers, where the course of relationships also has global effects. Due to its geostrategic position, Estonia has repeatedly been the topic of conversation between great powers. Our freedom of choice has often depended on this.
One of the most fascinating periods in the contemporary history of Estonian foreign policy is undoubtedly the decade following the restoration of our independence—the 1990s. This was the time when our own choices and Western dominance in international relations determined Estonia’s successful escape from the grasp of the Russian empire. The fact that it was not self-explanatory is well documented in the notes of the meetings and phone conversations between US president Bill Clinton and Russian president Boris Yeltsin, which the Clinton Archives published in the summer due to pressure from historians.
In July, the Presidential Library managing the Clinton Archives, located in Little Rock, capital of the state of Arkansas, published about 600 pages of verbatim records of 18 meetings and 56 telephone conversations between Clinton and his Russian colleague, held between 23 January 1993 and 31 December 1999.
These documents are essential source material for anyone trying to understand what was happening in the US-Russian relationship after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At times it has been suggested in the West that the US, which was at the height of its power, missed out on its opportunity to positively influence Russia and thereby prevent later confrontations. The narrative of the horrible 1990s has been used in Vladimir Putin’s Russia to demonstrate to the people how harmful a defeatist policy with the West was.
Neither of these views reflects the reality. The Clinton Archives confirm how much time and political capital the US president spent on supporting the Russian head of state and engaging Moscow in addressing all important international issues. Even in the last official telephone conversation, on 31 December 1999—the day Yeltsin resigned from office in favour of Putin—Clinton said: “Boris, I believe that historians will say you were the father of Russian democracy and that you worked to make the world a safer place”.
However, Clinton could be reprimanded because, for the sake of a good relationship with Yeltsin and due to his persistent wish to see Russia as part of the solution on security issues, he condoned the weakening of democratic reforms, the deadly war in Chechnya and the return of the longing for an empire that later ruined Moscow’s relationship with the West. Indeed, Clinton consistently defended the common interests of the West and did not lose his nerve even when Yeltsin proposed to agree secretly on the redivision of Europe.
However much Clinton and other Western leaders wanted to help and support their political friend Boris Yeltsin, Russia, which had gone through a sharp democratic jolt, was simply not ready to accept the loss of the empire. The documents from the Clinton Archives thus confirm how important it was for NATO to persist and expand further.
Andrew Weiss, who served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, later commented on these documents and expressed surprise at how much the US did in order for Russia to be part of the new world order.
Only two days after being sworn into office on 23 January 1993, Bill Clinton made his first call to Boris Yeltsin. In a conversation of slightly over half an hour, Clinton emphasised that the relationship with Russia was a top international priority for him and that he was determined to do whatever they could to help Yeltsin reform Russia.
“Now that I have become President, I want to reemphasize with you my commitment that Russia be a top priority for US foreign policy during my Administration,” said Clinton. He continued: “We will try to make our economic aid as beneficial as possible.” Clinton stressed that appointing his close friend and Russia expert Strobe Talbott to oversee Russian matters indicated that the president wanted to maintain a personal involvement in the relationship with Russia.
In this first phone call, it was Clinton who proposed to consult closely on important foreign-policy issues from then on. Yeltsin agreed, wished Clinton good luck and expressed the hope that in the future he would be able to call him “Bill”.
The ice had been broken and, despite the age difference (Yeltsin was 15 years older than Clinton), there was quite good personal chemistry between the two. Even serious disputes about NATO enlargement and the Kosovo conflict did not stop Yeltsin from saying during their last call in 1999: “I am very glad I was your friend, and I will continue to be your friend”.
Throughout the 1990s a standing subject for the presidents was the situation in Bosnia and Kosovo and in the former Yugoslavia as a whole. As early as 10 February 1993, Clinton reminded Yeltsin of President George H.W. Bush’s warnings to Belgrade that, if it were to spread war to Kosovo, the US could not be a bystander.
“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. 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,” said Clinton in an attempt to gain Yeltsin’s support for the West pressuring the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milošević.
Years later, Kosovo became the most critical question that seriously tested Clinton’s patience with Yeltsin. As soon as Serbia decided to use force to pressure Kosovo, the interests of the US and Russia started to speed along on a collision course. One of the most dramatic phone calls between the two leaders took place on 24 March 1999, the day NATO commissioned airstrikes against Serbia to protect civilians in Kosovo. This had been preceded by multiple unsuccessful attempts by Clinton to get Yeltsin to influence Milošević. For example, during several meetings and calls in the spring and summer of 1998, Clinton emphasised the need to pressure Milošević together with Russia. Yeltsin in turn kept warning NATO about the use of force.
On 24 March 1999, Clinton told Yeltsin how he had always been there for him, working hard to support Russia economically, but that it was not possible to negotiate endlessly with a person who was committing mass killings in Kosovo. Yeltsin asked Clinton to stop the airstrikes in the name of European security, but Clinton remained true to himself. Yeltsin blurted out that the bombs would end their friendship and it would never return. He also said that this would create a bad attitude among Russians in respect of America and NATO.
Yeltsin was not mistaken. The Kosovo War became the great divide in the US–Russian relationship. Despite a slight easing of tension in June 1999, when peace was restored in Kosovo, the relationship between the two major powers has never again reached such a level of trust as there was at the beginning of Clinton and Yeltsin’s communication.
A subject that created, and over the time deepened, the divide was Russia’s desire, stemming from historic inertia, to be a global power without respecting the interests and sovereignty of its immediate neighbours. An analysis of the conversations between the presidents reveals that this was Yeltsin’s position virtually from the first meeting to the last.
Clinton and Yeltsin met face to face for the first time on 3 April 1993 in Vancouver on the west coast of Canada, where the question of Estonia was also touched upon. As Clinton was interested in why the process of pulling troops out of the Baltic states was not moving forward, Yeltsin raised the issue of the Russian minority. The Russian president was thinking out loud how great it would be if all former Soviet republics adopted a law on dual citizenship. “To be a citizen of … Estonia and Russia is okay. But Estonia doesn’t have such a law,” dreamed Yeltsin. Clinton did not respond.
The topic of Estonia was raised again on 10 July 1993 in Tokyo, when the presidents met in the margins of a G7 summit. First, Clinton promised to address the lifting of restrictions from the Cold War era, saying that he hoped to repeal the Jackson–Vanik amendment on trade restrictions as early as Thanksgiving that year. This was merely a reflection of Clinton’s great optimism and will to demonstrate to Russia that the US was ready for new relationships. It became apparent over time that Russia was tightening the possibilities for people who wished to emigrate (primarily those who had had access to state secrets while supplying military technology to Iran and India). Hence, the repeal of the Jackson–Vanik amendment remained merely a hope. In fact, it never came about because the Magnitski Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama, replaced the Jackson–Vanik restrictions with new ones.
Clinton raised the topic of the Baltics at the Tokyo meeting because Yeltsin had drawn attention to this the day before. “You were forthright yesterday on the Baltics and on the problems of the Russians in Estonia,” began the US president. He continued:
We have been pressing Estonia to make them more sensitive to this problem. We believe it is important for them to respect the rights of the Russians but also for you to withdraw your troops. We are willing to do more on the Baltic issue if you have suggestions. If it would help, we will do more.
Clinton’s primary objective was to gain Russia’s consent to withdraw its troops from the Baltics. Yeltsin wanted the US to conduct a legal investigation to show how Estonians discriminated against Russians. “Whatever we tell them about this, they disagree,” complained Yeltsin. Clinton in turn implied that the US would see what could be done.
The withdrawal of troops was brought up again in the phone call of 7 September 1993 when Clinton congratulated Yeltsin on his decision to withdraw troops from Lithuania and followed up with a question on Estonia and Latvia. “Congratulations on your decision to withdraw your troops from Lithuania. I know you face domestic opposition. But the decision you made was courageous and the right thing to do. I was wondering about your plans for Estonia and Latvia?” enquired Clinton. Yeltsin replied that “in Latvia and Estonia it is more difficult because of their failure to comply with the human rights of ethnic Russians living there”. Clinton then asked whether there was anything the US could do to improve the situation. Yeltsin replied
Only in the sense that you can try to exert influence on them so that they can change their legislation, especially in the sense that it affects Russia. We pulled out from Lithuania because their legislation does not adversely affect Russians living there. We would be prepared to pull out from Latvia and Estonia provided there are no discriminatory attitudes toward Russians there.
To finish the subject, Yeltsin hinted flatteringly that the US had been doing good work in the area of protecting the rights of minorities.
The Clinton Archives reveal that that the presidents also discussed the withdrawal of troops from Estonia on 5 July 1994, when it was Yeltsin who wanted to discuss the Baltics. He asked Clinton to address the people of Estonia and Latvia at his Riga meeting with Baltic presidents and say that the US was against any infringement of the rights of the Russian minority. Yeltsin mentioned that, although Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher had been working on this, there had been no results.
“We need a public statement from you …. If you do so, the people in Estonia and Latvia and some officials in their Parliaments will act differently,” said Yeltsin. Clinton promised to raise the issue with the three presidents and expressed the hope that the process of troop withdrawal would be completed by the end of August. Yeltsin complained that Estonia was insisting on sending out all army pensioners under the age of 54 and added: “Bill, if they don’t stop raising the question of Russian language minorities there, we will not be able to pull out our troops by August. … Bill, I’d like you to say this publicly so that world public opinion will know about it. World public opinion will not support their position on this issue.” Clinton promised to do what he could. He wanted to talk to President Lennart Meri separately.
As is known, Russia’s pressure was unsuccessful. Estonia concluded the agreement on army pensioners that month in Moscow and on 31 August 1994 the last occupying troops left Estonia. The foundation of Estonian citizenship remained unchanged.
Another subject in Clinton and Yeltsin’s communication that directly concerned the Baltics was, of course, the enlargement of NATO. Russia never concealed its dislike of the continuation of the Alliance following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. The US was well aware of this and tried to include Russia in the new European security environment. For example, on 27 April 1995, Clinton said in a phone conversation with Yeltsin that, for the future stability of Europe, it was important that Russia be a vital part of the emerging new security structures. Nothing could develop normally unless Russia was involved in the process, believed Clinton, who emphasised three directions with respect to NATO—expansion, but without acceleration, the Partnership for Peace and preparations for the base treaty between Russia and NATO.
On 10 May 1995, the presidents met in Moscow. Yeltsin strongly condemned the US over NATO’s expansion. This could have been brought on to a certain extent by Clinton’s allusions to Russia’s activity in constructing a nuclear plant in Iran. Washington was convinced that Iran wanted to use Russia’s help to build a nuclear weapon.
Yeltsin talked of NATO enlargement as a threat to Russia. “How do you think it looks to us … while the Warsaw Pact has been abolished. It’s a new form of encirclement,” commented Yeltsin, adding: “We need a new structure for Pan-European security … Let’s have no blocs, only one European space that provides for its own security.” Yeltsin also requested that NATO expansion be postponed at least until 2000, which was the end of his term. “But for me to agree to the borders of NATO expanding toward those of Russia—that would constitute a betrayal on my part of the Russian people,” said Yeltsin. He proposed that Russia would be prepared to give every country that wanted to join NATO a guarantee that Russia would not infringe on its security. “That way they’ll have nothing to fear from the East,” offered Yeltsin.
Clinton stressed that NATO was necessary for keeping North America involved in Europe for security reasons. Yeltsin denied this necessity, but Clinton held his own. He recalled the previous day’s celebrations of the 50th anniversary of victory and the part that the US played in it. Clinton said that the US wanted to see Russia integrated into the new world order, but a lot of this was up to Russia. He stressed that the US did not want to harm Russia’s interests and wanted to keep all the doors open in the future. Clinton considered the Partnership for Peace programme the best way to move forward. Yeltsin paused for a long time and then said that parliamentary and presidential elections were coming up in Russia. “One false move now could ruin everything,” said Yeltsin, referring to the saving of democracy in Russia.
Clinton also played the internal politics card. He mentioned that the Republicans (especially in states such as Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio) were pushing for NATO expansion, wishing to take the majority in Congress again. Clinton stressed that NATO expansion would be gradual, not speeded up or slowed down. He said that Central European countries wanted to be in NATO because they were afraid that Yeltsin’s successor would be someone tougher. Clinton also said that he would not support any change that undermined Russia’s security or divided Europe anew.
NATO expansion was constantly on the presidents’ agenda at least until the spring of 1997, when it reached a boiling point of sorts at the Helsinki Summit. For example, on 26 January 1996 Clinton assured Yeltsin in a telephone conversation: “We have been trying to demilitarize NATO, as you know. We are continuing to reduce troop levels and weapons.”
In March 1997 the presidents went to Helsinki, knowing that the future of the Russia–NATO relationship would be determined there. These were Yeltsin’s opening remarks at the first meeting on the morning of 21 March, adding that “the … summit has got strategic significance … for Europe and the world. It is important so that in the future we will not look back and say we returned to the Cold War days.”
Yeltsin then went through all his talking points, stressing that NATO expansion was a mistake and that, as president, he was prepared to enter into an agreement with NATO not because he wanted to but because he was forced to. Russia wanted the agreement to be legally binding because “[d]ecisions by NATO are not to be taken without taking into account the concerns or opinions of Russia”. Yeltsin added that “nuclear and conventional weapons cannot move eastward into new members to the borders of Russia, thus creating a new cordon sanitaire aimed at Russia”.
Then came the most significant message that carried the spirit of the empire: NATO’s enlargement “should also not embrace the former Soviet republics. I cannot sign any agreement without such language. Especially Ukraine. … Our relations with the CIS and with the Baltic countries should be like yours within NATO.” Yeltsin expressed dissatisfaction with how the Americans were handling relations with Ukraine and demanded “[we] need US restraint in dealing with Ukraine”.
Yeltsin tried to convince Clinton that Russia was “not going out to seize Sevastopol. … We respect Georgia, Moldova and other countries and have no claims on their territory.” In retrospect, this sounds like a reverse prophecy.
As if a student of Stalin, Yeltsin tried to reach a secret oral agreement on the new division of Europe. He proposed a “gentlemen’s agreement” to Clinton that no former Soviet countries would join NATO.
Clinton responded that he believed in the new Russia, which was not interested in annexing other countries. He recalled that he had been working towards a NATO that would not be a threat to Russia but that would permit the US and Canada to stay in Europe and work with Russia to build an undivided Europe.
Clinton said that
[i]f we were to agree that no members of the former Soviet Union could enter NATO, it would be a bad thing for our attempt to build a new NATO, but it would also be a bad thing for your attempt to build a new Russia. I am not naive. I understand you have an interest in who gets into NATO and when.
However, he stressed firmly that “there are no secrets in this world. … [This secret agreement would mean] Russia would be saying, ‘we still have an empire’.”
Yeltsin persisted and asked again. He wanted Clinton to confirm that the former Soviet republics would not become NATO members, at least in the following decade. Clinton didn’t crack and said that he couldn’t make promises on behalf of NATO or veto any country’s wish to join NATO, and least of all allow someone else, Russia included, to do so. “I’m prepared to work with you … to make sure that we take account of Russia’s concerns … . I can’t make the specific commitment you are asking for. It would violate the whole spirit of NATO,” said Clinton.
Yeltsin accepted this but proposed to agree that no former Soviet republics would be in the first wave of enlargement. Clinton did not agree to this either, because he felt that it would make it seem they were the old Russia and old NATO.
This concluded the NATO expansion saga. Clinton successfully defended the common interests of the West and Yeltsin did not miss out on an opportunity to express Russia’s discontent with it all. Add Yeltsin’s previously repeated assurances to Clinton that the reintegration taking place in the CIS space was the free will of the countries and their firm wish to increase well-being by restoring former economic relations, and it becomes clear that Russia wanted to steer the US away from preventing the rebirth of the empire.
This topic and this entire article are best concluded with a recollection from the last official face-to-face meeting, which took place on 19 November 1999 in Istanbul. Yeltsin started off the meeting, which lasted just under an hour, by throwing harsh criticism at the US—it was supporting Turkey in the training, on Turkish territory, of guerrillas who were fighting in Chechnya. Clinton did not respond to this, and a slightly calmer Yeltsin revealed a request that summarised the answer to the question: what did Russia want?
“I ask you one thing. Just give Europe to Russia. The US is not in Europe. Europe should be the business of Europeans. Russia is half European and half Asian.” To this Clinton responded: “So you want Asia too?” and Yeltsin answered: “Sure, sure, Bill. Eventually, we will have to agree on all of this.”
Clinton suggested that the Europeans would not like this very much. Yeltsin, on the other hand, said:
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. … Bill, I’m serious. Give Europe to Europe itself. Europe never felt as close to Russia as it does now. We have no difference of opinion with Europe, except maybe on Afghanistan and Pakistan—which, by the way, is training Chechens. … Russia has the power and intellect to know what to do with Europe.
It is not known how Yeltsin felt during this conversation, but it can be concluded from the verbatim report that his state of mind was confused. He ended the meeting abruptly by standing up while Clinton was talking about Europe’s attitude towards the new war in Chechnya. Clinton asked Yeltsin, who was leaving, who would win the elections. Yeltsin answered: “Putin, of course. … He’s a democrat and he knows the West. … He’s tough.”
Documents from the Clinton Archives, which are available to everyone, could be an example to Estonia to publish its fascinating contemporary history. For example, why couldn’t the Ministry of Foreign Affairs consider publishing documents from the 1990s by subject, and why should we not read the notes from President Lennart Meri’s numerous foreign meetings today? The time is right for this.