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Giving the Russians Their Spinach

1.

Strobe Talbott is a former diplomat who needs no ghostwriters. For most of his professional life, he was, in fact, a working journalist. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the late 1960s, his interest in Russian language and politics, which he’d studied at Yale, landed him a job as the translator of Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs. Because Khrushchev’s book strongly implied criticism of his successor, Leonid Brezhnev, Talbott’s involvement in the project earned him the official anger of the Soviet leadership, and he was subsequently banned from travel to the USSR for many years. (Like many of America’s leading Russian experts, he has never lived in the country.) None-theless he made use of his interest in the region, and in foreign policy in general, during his twenty years as a commentator on international affairs for Time magazine.

But Talbott’s years analyzing arms control agreements and diplomatic dealings probably wouldn’t have gotten him a job at the State Department if his roommate at Oxford had not been Bill Clinton, who even then was making a name for himself with his insatiable appetite for politics. Talbott’s book provides us with a cozy picture of Clinton frying eggs for breakfast in their college lodgings as Talbott reads aloud excerpts from Khrushchev’s memoirs. Clinton and Talbott would maintain their friendship for years to come, and in 1992 the president-elect decided to bring Talbott into his foreign policy team.1 Initially Talbott received the title of ambassador-at-large with special responsibility for Russia and the “newly independent states” of the “former Soviet Union” (both terms have since been declared officially obsolete by the State Department). Later he was promoted to deputy secretary of state, a position he retained until the end of the Clinton administration.

Talbott filled these jobs during a particularly confusing period in the history of Russia’s relations with the West. By virtue of his post, which centered on security and arms control, Talbott had a leading part in American efforts to keep Russia stable and friendly. Yet the “Russia hand” of the title refers not to Talbott but to his boss, Bill Clinton. It is Clinton, Talbott argues, who deserves the credit for what he considers Washington’s successful Russia policy during the decade that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.2 Clinton, he argues, kept his eyes on the “big picture,” relentlessly persisting in his support of Boris Yeltsin as the guarantor of the new freedoms, economic and political, that Russia was trying to achieve and sustain.3 Talbott argues that this intense “personalization” of diplomacy—augmented by the efforts of Vice President Al Gore, who was paired in a working group, for most of the period, with Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin—was a huge success all around, yielding “half a dozen major understandings that either resolved or alleviated disputes over Russia’s role in the post–cold war world.”

Specifically, Talbott cites agreements to

halt the sale of Russian rocket parts to India; remove Soviet nuclear-era missiles from Ukraine in exchange for Russian assurances of Ukraine’s sovereignty and security; withdraw Russian troops from the Baltic states; institutionalize cooperation between Russia and an expanding NATO; lay the ground for the Baltic states to join the alliance; and ensure the participation of the Russian military in Balkan peacekeeping and of Russian diplomacy in the settlement of NATO’s air war against Serbia.

It is an impressive list. But like all lists in politics, it is also interesting for what it leaves out.

2.

As Talbott’s narrative vividly illustrates, for the White House to place all its bets on Boris Yeltsin was not always an easy choice. The events described here were unfolding, after all, at a time when the United States had just emerged from the cold war in a position of matchless strength, the unchallenged economic and military superpower. Russia, by contrast, entered the 1990s humbled—if not downright humiliated—by an imploding economy, a startling diminution of international prestige, and a dramatic loss of geographical reach.4 For many Russians, their newly gained freedoms compensated for these losses—at least at first. But as the decade wore on and the general euphoria over the experiment with freedom began to fade, the “big picture” grew blurred.

For the United States to support Yeltsin against a hard-line attempt to revive the Soviet system in the summer of 1991 was a natural choice. Supporting Yeltsin in October 1993, when he sent in the tanks against his own parliament, was much trickier. To be sure, the Supreme Soviet consisted largely of unrepentant reactionaries. Still, it had been elected according to the rules of the constitution that remained in effect—not to mention the fact that Yeltsin had done much to provoke the parliament.

In his account of the 1993 crisis Talbott claims to have warned Clinton against backing Yeltsin too strongly, arguing that the United States should support “constitutional rule” as well as Yeltsin himself. Nonetheless, Talbott notes, “Clinton was not going to let himself be talked into anything that sounded like equivocation,” and decided to give Yeltsin a strong personal endorsement—ignoring the risk that such unqualified support might undermine the moral standing of the US as a professed supporter of democratic principles within Russia. This episode was typical of the risks that would face Clinton’s policy of carte blanche support for the Russian president as the Yeltsin era blundered through an obstacle course of misrule, corruption, and economic chaos.

Not to mention erratic leadership. Ironically enough, one of the major obstacles to the Clinton “personalization of diplomacy” was Yeltsin himself. His drinking problem was famous. None-theless, it will surprise many to know that Yeltsin routinely conducted business with the US president in a drunken state. As Talbott wryly notes, keeping “count of Yeltsin’s intake was to become a standard practice of summiteering….” During one long-distance call between the two leaders, Clinton was delivering his opening statement on NATO enlargement when Yeltsin simply hung up the phone.

What was going on?” Talbott asked. Then Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev “shrugged, gave me a knowing look and used a Russian phrase (byvaet) that roughly translates as ‘these things happen.’ I understood, since I knew what so often happened with Yeltsin, especially toward the end of the day.”

Needless to say, the vagaries of Yeltsin’s behavior had broader implications. His reliance on dubious cronies—like bodyguard-turned-confidante Aleksandr Korzhakov and ex-journalist Valentin Yumashev—caused violent lurches in Russian policy. A prime example was the war in Chechnya, which Yeltsin himself seems to have set off; his decision seems to have been a boozy whim of the moment, based on some bad advice from blustering advisers. And, as Yeltsin’s health deteriorated, the White House policy of personalizing diplomacy risked the poss- ibility that the man in whom US diplomats had invested so much political capital might one day simply step off the stage. But Clinton was determined to overlook these foibles, never wavering in his belief that Yeltsin was the only game in town.

Even his own advisers—Talbott among them—often found Clinton’s forbearance astounding. It was based, of course, on cold-blooded political calculations, but Clinton himself admitted that personal factors played a role, too. “‘I’ve seen a little of this problem in my time,’ he said, referring to his experience growing up with an alcoholic stepfather,” Talbott writes. “‘At least Yeltsin’s not a mean drunk.’” Talbott has many intriguing things to say about the underlying similarities and sympathies between the two men; Talbott speaks of a pattern of “genius and indiscipline” common to both. “Phone calls and letters, as we’d seen all too often, weren’t enough,” Talbott notes. In fact, “they could be detrimental if Yeltsin wasn’t in what [Yeltsin security adviser] Kokoshin called delicately ‘the right mood,’ or if he was under the influence of ‘people who don’t want to see this problem solved.’”

Yeltsin and Clinton are not the only sharply drawn characters in Talbott’s book. Where he really excels is in his evocation of the daily work of diplomacy in the age of globalization: the half-eaten pizzas and the boxes of Chinese takeout littering conference tables, the airport lounges and austere ministerial conference rooms, “the baggy suits of the old-school Soviet diplomats and the sleek, blow-dried look of the young hot shots” in the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The dominant tone is one of bemused black comedy. One of my favorite episodes involves Talbott’s efforts to find out what was going on in Moscow the night that the Russians staged their notorious “dash to Pris-tina” in 1999. Irked by what they viewed as NATO reluctance to assign them a peacekeeping sector in Kosovo following the Western bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosevic, members of the Russian military decided to beat NATO forces to the punch by sending a force of Bosnia-based Russian paratroopers to occupy the key airport outside the Kosovar capital. During the night, which Talbott spent mostly in the Russian Defense Ministry, it gradually became apparent (or at least about as apparent as anything can be in Russia) that a group of renegade generals were duping their own defense minister and most of the Russian government. At one point the defense minister and his disobedient subordinates retired to a back room: “This time they were gone for nearly an hour, and it sounded as though there was a riot under way down the hall. I heard the thump and crash of articles being hurled against the wall.”

A drunken two-star general made a brief appearance at one point, then “toddled off, never to be seen again.” Finally, the visibly embarrassed Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov reappeared to tell Talbott that Russian troops had crossed the border into Kosovo: “The minister of defense and I regret this development.” It is a stark illustration of how Russia’s government had lost control over itself.

3.

Talbott’s book is a fascinating mem-oir of a weirdly unpredictable world. As political apologia, however, it is strangely evasive. Talbott is often quite candid in his account, especially when he’s writing about his Russian counterparts, but there are also many moments when his candor fails dramatically. The most noticeable omission in this respect is the problem of “corruption”—a Latinate word that seems elegant and abstract compared with the brutal and elemental reality of the venal system in post-Soviet Russia. Yeltsin, in his time, was the center of that system. He did indeed make many moves in the direction of liberal democracy and a market economy. He also presided over the transformation of Russia into a state of a type unique in modern history, a system in which organized crime and big business fused seamlessly with a Communist-era government apparatus that just happened to command an immense arsenal of nuclear weapons. When future historians look back on the 1990s, they may well find that tracing the criminalization of state institutions offers a more effective approach to understanding events in Russia than analy- sis based on the country’s progress toward democracy or market reforms.5

  1. 1

    The story that Talbott gives us provides an interesting case study of the ad hoc and at times distinctly dilettantish approach to policy in the Clinton White House. “Out of the blue,” writes Talbott, “Clinton asked me if I was available to go to Moscow as his ambassador.” Talbott declined, saying that he wanted to keep his family in Washington, and suggested that the job go to Condoleezza Rice. Warren Christopher, the incoming secretary of state, argued for a “seasoned professional diplomat” (something that Talbott, of course, could not have claimed to be). In the end the job went to Thomas Pickering.

  2. 2

    The terms in office of Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin roughly overlapped. Yeltsin became president of Russia in the summer of 1991, and at the end of that year, when the USSR formally concluded its existence, he became the leader of a new, stand-alone Russian Federation that would be recognized as the legal successor to the USSR. Clinton won election to the White House in the fall of 1992. Yeltsin left office on New Year’s Eve 1999, and Clinton followed in January 2001.

  3. 3

    As Talbott notes, Clinton and Yeltsin met a total of eighteen times—”almost as many meetings,” Talbott notes, “as Clinton’s nine predecessors combined had held with the seven Communist Party chiefs who ruled the Soviet Union over a period of forty-six years….”

  4. 4

    Before it parted ways with the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, Russia had always defined itself (sometimes overtly, sometimes not) in imperial terms—so the separation of Ukraine, which seemed a natural enough development to Ukrainian nationalists, was viewed by many Russians as the loss of a territory that had been integral to Russia for hundreds of years. In some cases, moreover, regrets about the breakup of the USSR were motivated not purely by imperialist nostalgia, but also by dismay over the sudden divisions—international borders, customs regimes, increased fares for train and airplane tickets—erected between people who once lived in the same country.

  5. 5

    A forthcoming book sums up the problem in its title: Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State, by David Satter (Yale University Press, 2003).

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