Giving the Russians Their Spinach


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.


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.


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

Tellingly, Yeltsin’s own successor, Vladimir Putin, has chosen to proceed with economic reforms while rolling back some of the democratic institutions fitfully set up in the 1990s. The US policy of personal diplomacy meant that, in order to support the leader they considered the embodiment of positive principles, American officials overlooked many of the truly hideous things that he allowed to happen, including the overtly corrupt privatization of most of Russian industry and the war in Chechnya. It is true that there were few palatable or realistic alternatives to Yeltsin. Still, we must face up to the fact that American policy also had the effect of giving US approval to a corrupt and cynical elite, and, as a result, diminishing American credibility, not least among the Russian people at large.6 More importantly, American tolerance of corrupt practices that established themselves under Yeltsin may now be hindering the ability of the US to deal with weapons of mass destruction made in Russia—a threat that has assumed chilling immediacy following September 11.

The extent of Yeltsin’s own personal corruption remains in dispute. What matters more, perhaps, is the atmos-phere and the ethos that his own government promoted and in so many important ways exemplified. Talbott is admirably frank about Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who, he says, “cultivated close personal and business connections with kingpins in Russian crime syndicates.” That’s easy for Talbott to say about Luzhkov, who had few direct dealings with the Clinton White House. But that same description has been applied by other commentators to many members of Yeltsin’s inner circle, such as the oligarch Boris Berezovsky.

Talbott could hardly argue that his job kept him at a safe remove from people who had relations with crime syndicates, since Berezovsky served as the secretary of the Russian National Security Council; their jobs should have brought the two men together. Here, though, Talbott can barely spare Berezovsky a few words. Similarly, when talk turns to the “Family”—the camarilla of advisers and oligarchs that included Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana—Talbott acts as though he barely knew what everyone was talking about. Elsewhere in this book, Talbott is eager to display his knowledge and psychological insight. On topics like these he becomes oddly detached.

One possible reason, of course, is that the decision to ignore the problem of corruption was the most vulnerable part of Clinton’s program of personal diplomacy. Talbott also tiptoes around the scandals linked with Victor Chernomyrdin, the Russian prime minister and former energy magnate who worked closely with Vice President Gore and whose business dealings are said to have inspired, among other things, a CIA memorandum describing his corruption in detail. (Both Gore and Talbott dispute that account.) I suspect, from the offhand way he treats these issues in his book, that Talbott would argue that you can’t really worry about such things when you have the “nation’s business” to do; after all, you can’t pick and choose which officials from a foreign government you’d prefer to work with. And, indeed, his memoir portrays Chernomyrdin as a man who got things done—most notably when he collaborated with the West to help force Slobodan Milosevic into submission at the end of the Kosovo bombing campaign. Still, among former Clinton administration officials, Talbott included, the ostentatious lack of interest in corruption remains startling. You can hardly argue that your actions are working to support democracy and accountability if your support of a regime’s leaders is actually helping to undermine the rule of law.

And that brings us back to Talbott’s view of the administration’s accomplishments. His book contains revealing stories, but does it convince us that Clinton’s personalized diplomacy furthered the cause it was presumably intended to further—namely the creation of a stable, democratic, and economically modernized Russia? Interestingly, Talbott has almost nothing to say about US efforts to promote democratic values in post-Soviet Russia; it could hardly be otherwise, since Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, has squeezed fundamentals of democracy such as press freedom and the separation of powers.7 Talbott also has remarkably little to say about concrete US support for economic reform. On that front, Putin has made some remarkable progress, particularly in cutting taxes and eliminating regulations—but for reasons that, from the evidence in Talbott’s book, have little to do with the efforts of the Clinton administration.

In matters of international security, persuading Russia not to send rocket parts to India was no doubt a useful achievement. At the same time, Talbott’s memoir frankly shows that the Clinton policy failed entirely to prevent an apparently much broader program of proliferation of missile and nuclear technologies to Iran—an issue that continues to frustrate the Bush administration today. The Clinton administration does deserve credit for its efforts to normalize relations between Russia and the other former Soviet republics. Perhaps most successfully of all, the Clinton administration managed to enlarge NATO to include former members of the Warsaw Pact, and it quieted impassioned Russian objections by offering Moscow a collaborative relationship with NATO’s decision-making establishment.

This item on Talbott’s list of successes seems odd when we consider the agonized debate that Clinton’s plans for NATO enlargement excited in the US. The skeptics argued that Russia would never be able to swallow the insult and that admission of Poland, Hungary, and other countries would be disastrous for US–Russian relations. Recently, however, NATO and the Russians have in fact been planning to deepen that cooperation—even as NATO planners are preparing for a new round of members that will very likely include the three Baltic states, once claimed by the USSR as its own. Yet today there is a complete absence of the debate that accompanied the issue in the mid-1990s.

One could argue that the real reason for the latter success has its foundation in a reality much more banal than the complexities described in Talbott’s account. The brutal fact is that Russia in the 1990s was extraordinarily weak, and continues to be so. The reasons for this weakness (and, indeed, of Russia’s endemic corruption) are in many respects older and deeper than Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. They extend far back into the Soviet period, and they will continue to bedevil modern Russia—not to mention the other states of the former USSR—for decades to come. But, truth be told, Russia’s helpless position certainly made life a lot easier for US diplomats who were trying to persuade Moscow to go along with their demands.

Talbott calls those demands “giving the Russians their spinach.” (“You know,” one of Talbott’s diplomatic interlocutors tells him, “it’s bad enough having you people tell us what you’re going to do whether we like it or not. Don’t add insult to injury by also telling us that it’s in our interests to obey your orders.”) Most of Talbott’s working hours seem in this book to have been spent making it clear to the Russians that they had no choice but to do the things that the US government expected them to do, and bearing down until the Russians delivered.

What could Russia have done to actively oppose NATO enlargement? Its military power has been starkly constrained by the accelerating collapse of its nuclear arsenals and its army (which proved incapable, in Chechnya, of coping with an insurgency in a territory the size of Vermont). Diplomatically, the only attempt to come up with any serious alternative to Yeltsin’s pro-Western foreign policy was Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s attempt to persuade China, India, and Iraq to join Russia in forming a “multipolar” counterweight to American influence. It was a policy, however, that never led to anything—mainly because of Russia’s own state of enervation, but also because China and India were already benefiting from their market economies and cultivating good trade relations with the US. That China and India hate each other also played a role.

Putin, for his part, is doing his best to make a virtue of this weakness. He has followed a dramatically different course of rapprochement with the West since September 11, but his reasons for doing so have been frankly and brutally pragmatic. They have little to do with an embrace of common democratic values. He knows that Russia really has no other choice, and that he might be able to gain more from realistic acceptance of US dominance rather than quixotic attempts to oppose it.


In the end, for all of his book’s vir-tues, and for all of Talbott’s dogged diplomacy, I couldn’t help wondering whether perhaps the entire undertaking described in his memoir rests on false premises. The basic assumption of Clinton’s team seemed to be that Russia had set out on a road that must necessarily and inevitably lead toward liberal democracy and a market economy. Washington needed merely to stay the course, keep its nerve, and wait for the energetic younger generation of Russians to wrest control away from the Bolshevik dinosaurs.8 This was a vision that fit poorly with the reality of a country where Communists and ultranationalists kept scoring big electoral successes as the decade wore on. “How many more of these things is it going to take before they stop electing fascists and communists?” Clinton asks Talbott rather plaintively shortly after Russian voters handed a big victory to the ultra-right buffoon Vladimir Zhirinovsky in parliamentary elections in 1993. Talbott’s response is indicative: “‘Lots,’ I said, clinging to the only good news there was. ‘The main thing is that they keep having elections. Eventually they’ll get it right.’”

But elections alone do not make a democracy. Democracy grows out of institutions, traditions, and political will—elements that can be encouraged by well-meaning outsiders (see postwar Germany and Japan) with the help of a clear plan and the realistic means to make it happen. To reduce foreign policy to support for a leader and a politically isolated group of advisers around him can be counterproductive. The rise of Vladimir Putin, and the apparent popularity of his experiment in authoritarianism, raises some serious questions in this respect. It is Putin’s appearance on the scene, toward the end of the book, that forces Talbott to acknowledge the reality of another “younger generation” of Russians who did not necessarily share Yeltsin’s enthusiasm for democracy. “It was,” he writes,

this breed of younger politicians and functionaries, not the ones we’d been rooting for, that seemed to have the institutional base, the organizational and personal discipline and the political appeal to capitalize on the opportunity that came with the coincidence of Russia’s political calendar and Boris Yeltsin’s decrepitude.

In other words, in the cause of democracy we invested most of our political capital in a group of people who had little support among the public at large or the Russian political elite. Russia and its leaders may yet “get it right.” But, if they do, I am inclined to doubt that it will be because American presidents uncritically tolerated the failings of their Russian counterparts and their aides.

One of the obvious problems with personalized diplomacy, for all the hard work it may entail, is its intellectual laziness. It is the eternal fantasy of US foreign policy that leaders can simply get together and talk things over like regular guys. After reading this memoir, I came across the following remark in a new book on the end of World War II, when an ailing FDR was thoroughly hoodwinked by Stalin at Yalta. Roosevelt’s claim, “I can handle Stalin,” was part of what Eisenhower’s political adviser Robert Murphy acknowledged to be “the all-too- prevalent American theory” that individual friendships can determine national policy. “Soviet policy-makers and diplomats never operate on that theory,” he added.9

More recently, George W. Bush ferociously attacked Clinton’s policy of unconditional friendship with Yeltsin—only to embark immediately on a similar course of personal diplomacy with Vladimir Putin. But it remains a strategy ill-suited to deal with the complex calculation of national interest in a situation like the one facing Russia and the West today. It is easy to be friends with a leader if he stands for “democracy” against “communism.” If the choices are actually—as Yeltsin’s privatization chief, Anatoly Chubais, once provocatively proposed10—between “communism” and “bandit capitalism,” the choice becomes tougher.

But what if Russians and their well-wishers abroad find themselves forced to choose between “bandit capitalism” and “soft dictatorship”—the former pluralistic but unstable, the latter effective but abhorrent? I suspect that this is exactly the sort of predicament that could face US policymakers in Russia soon, and it is one that can be faced only by devising a comprehensive and coherent political strategy and then sticking to it consistently. Personal friendships with foreign leaders can be useful. Treating such friendships as a substitute for policy will always be a dangerous course.

  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).

  6. 6

    Recent polls show that many Russians still harbor profound suspicions about US intentions in Central Asia and other regions that were part of the former USSR, despite Putin’s expressed policy of rapprochement with the US.

  7. 7

    Of the $36 billion in US aid granted to Russia since 1992, only $631 million was spent on assistance to improve democratic institutions—less than 2 percent. See Sarah E. Mendelson, “Democracy Assistance and Political Transition in Russia: Between Success and Failure,” International Security, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Spring 2001), pp. 68–106.

  8. 8

    In a speech at Stanford in September 1997, Talbott gave a particularly stark statement of this thinking: “But there is reason for optimism…. It’s generational—or to be even more blunt, biological. The dynamic of what is happening in Russia today is not just Western- izers versus Slavophiles; it is also young versus old—and the young have a certain advantage in at least that dimension of the larger struggle.”

  9. 9

    Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945 (Viking, 2002), pp. 84–85.

  10. 10

    David E. Hoffman, The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia (Public Affairs, 2002), p. 528. See the review by Robert Cottrell, “Big Money in the New Russia,” The New York Review, June 13, 2002.