At noon on Monday, June 5, 2000, Bill Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged from the Czar's Entrance of the Grand Kremlin Palace. At this moment, which brought to an end the official portion of Clinton's fifth and final visit to Moscow as president, the nuances were all in the body language: the burly Clinton looming over the welterweight Putin, the ultimate extrovert still trying to connect with the coolest of customers who just wasn't buying.
As they shook hands one last time, I hustled down the steps to take my place on a jump seat in the rear of the armored Cadillac that had been flown in from Washington for the summit. Once Clinton had settled into place, he looked out at Putin through the thick bulletproof window, put on his widest grin and gave a jaunty wave. We then headed toward the western outskirts of Moscow, where former Russian president Boris Yeltsin was now living in retirement.
When we arrived, Yeltsin was waiting at the front door, his wife, Naina, on one side and, on the other, Tatyana
Dyachenko, his younger daughter. As the car slowed to a stop, Clinton remarked that Yeltsin's face was puffy, his complexion sallow; he looked stiff and propped up.
Over the eight years they had known each other, Clinton and Yeltsin often bantered about the advantage of both being 6 foot 2: It was easier for them to look each other in the eye. Now, as the limousine rolled to a stop and Clinton scrutinized his host through the window, he noted that Yeltsin seemed to have lost an inch or two since they had last been together, seven months before, when Yeltsin had still been in office.
After Clinton got out of the car, he and Yeltsin embraced silently for a full minute. Yeltsin kept saying, in a low, choked voice, "Moi drug, moi drug" -- my friend, my friend. Then, clasping Clinton's hand, he led the way through a foyer into a living room bright with sunlight pouring through a picture window that looked out on a manicured lawn and a stand of birches. They sat in gilt oval-backed chairs next to a sky-blue tile stove while Naina bustled about, serving tea and generous helpings of a rich multi-layered cake that she proudly said she'd been up half the night baking.
Clinton settled in for what he expected would be a relaxed exchange of memories and courtesies, but Yeltsin had work to do first. Turning severe, he announced that he had just had a phone call from Putin, who wanted him to underscore that Russia would pursue its interests by its own lights: It would resist pressure to acquiesce in any American policy that constituted a threat to Russian security. Clinton, after three days of listening to Putin politely fend him off on the U.S. plan to build an antimissile system, was now getting the blunt-instrument treatment.
Yeltsin's face was stern, his posture tense, both fists clenched, each sentence a proclamation. He seemed to relish the assignment Putin had given him. It allowed him to demonstrate that, far from being a feeble pensioner, he was still plugged in to the power of the Kremlin, still a forceful spokesman for Russian interests and still able to stand up to the United States when it was throwing its weight around.
Clinton took the browbeating patiently, even good-naturedly. He had seen Yeltsin in all his roles -- snarling bear and papa bear, bully and sentimentalist, spoiler and dealmaker. He knew from experience that a session with Yeltsin almost always involved some roughing up before the two of them could get down to real business.
When Yeltsin finally wound down, Clinton gently took control. He, too, had one piece of business to do. He wasn't sure, he said, how "this new guy of yours" defined strength, either for himself or for the nation. Putin seemed to have the capability to take Russia in the right direction, but did he have the values, instincts and convictions to make good on that capability? Why, Clinton wondered aloud, was Putin so ready to make common cause with the Communists, "those people you, Boris, did so much to beat back and bring down"? Why was Putin putting the squeeze on the free press, "which, as you know, Boris, is the lifeblood of an open and modern society"?
Yeltsin nodded solemnly, but he didn't answer. All the pugnacity, swagger and certainty had gone out of him.
"Boris," Clinton continued, "you've got democracy in your heart. You've got the trust of the people in your bones. You've got the fire in your belly of a real democrat and a real reformer. I'm not sure Putin has that. Maybe he does. I don't know. You'll have to keep an eye on him and use your influence to make sure that he stays on the right path. Putin needs you. Whether he knows it or not, he really needs you, Boris. Russia needs you. You really changed this country, Boris. Not every leader can say that about the country he's led. You changed Russia. Russia was lucky to have you. The world was lucky you were where you were. I was lucky to have you. We did a lot of stuff together, you and I. We got through some tough times. We never let it all come apart. We did some good things. They'll last. It took guts on your part. A lot of that stuff was harder for you than it was for me. I know that."
Yeltsin was now clutching Clinton by the hand, leaning into him.
"Thank you, Bill," he said. "I understand."
We were running late. There was a quick group photo on the veranda, some hurried goodbyes and another bear hug.
"Bill," said Yeltsin, "I really do understand what you said. I'll think about it."
"I know you will, Boris," said Clinton, "because I know what you have in here." Clinton tapped Yeltsin on his chest, right above his ailing heart.
Back in the car, Clinton was somber for several minutes. He looked out the window at the birch trees glinting in the sunshine along the country road leading back to the highway.
"That may be the last time I see ol' Boris," he said finally. "I think we're going to miss him."
It all began far differently, in 1993. The Soviet Union had been disbanded, thanks in large part to Yeltsin, and the Russians were undergoing a tumultuous change from a totalitarian system to a democracy, from a multinational empire to a nation-state, from a state-controlled economy to a market one. For every move Yeltsin made, he was challenged by a Communist-led parliament that was determined to impeach him. It was in this atmosphere that Clinton and Yeltsin met as presidents for the first time.
The summit in Vancouver began on Saturday, April 3, with a meeting between the presidents with just a few aides and interpreters present. The purpose was to break the ice, begin to establish a personal bond and give the two leaders a chance to sound each other out on the agenda before a more formal encounter between the delegations over dinner that evening and a full plenary session the next day.
Clinton tried to win Yeltsin over at the outset by proclaiming his admiration for what Yeltsin was trying to accomplish against heavy odds. "I know this is not an easy time in your country," Clinton began.
Yeltsin listened with obvious impatience as Clinton began to unwrap the contents of a proposed assistance package, then interrupted. Yeltsin didn't like the implication that the United States was coming to his rescue. Yes, he needed outside help, but not too much, since a "dramatic increase" in American aid would bring him "under fire from the opposition: They will say Russia is under the U.S.'s thumb." He was looking for a "modest" boost in U.S. assistance as a demonstration that the outside world stood ready to help Russia in its transition.
There was one area, however, where Yeltsin said he needed as much help as possible and as soon as possible, and that was in emergency funds to build housing for the Russian army officers whom Yeltsin had promised to withdraw from the Baltic states in 1994. In our own program, we had set aside $6 million for this purpose. When Clinton mentioned that figure, Yeltsin said he needed much more, adding that he could raise this request only in private, since it was embarrassing for him to talk about the wretched conditions in which the once-proud Russian army was living.
Yeltsin stayed on the offensive -- jabbing, wheedling, even trying to mousetrap Clinton into approving public statements that would be interpreted as American concessions. None of this seemed to bother Clinton. When the time came to thank Yeltsin for a good first meeting, he seemed to mean it.
He instructed communications director George Stephanopoulos to tell the press that he'd found Yeltsin "full of piss and vinegar, a real fighter," and then added -- not for the press -- "I do my best when I'm under the gun, and so does this guy. He's not deterred by long odds, and now he's at the top of his form."
That could hardly be said when the two delegations joined the presidents for a boat ride around Vancouver harbor that afternoon. We were barely away from the dock before Yeltsin had downed three scotches. At dinner that evening, he knocked back four glasses of wine and ate barely a bite. Secretary of State Warren Christopher passed Stephanopoulos a note: "No food, bad sign. Boat ride was liquid." Keeping count of Yeltsin's intake was to become a standard practice of summiteering.
Yeltsin's speech grew sloshy, his message sappy ("Beeell, we're not rivals -- we're friends!"). His aides eyed him ever more nervously as the evening went on. They tried to shoo off waiters with drinks, only to be countermanded by their president.
Our own president was unfazed. He seemed rather to enjoy Yeltsin's antics.
That evening, back in the presidential hotel suite, Secretary Christopher, national security adviser Tony Lake and I lamented the prospect of having to conduct high-stakes diplomacy under the conditions we'd witnessed during the day. Clinton told us to relax. "I've seen a little of this problem in my time," he said, referring to his experience growing up with an alcoholic stepfather. "At least Yeltsin's not a mean drunk."
Russia's economic well-being and rocky transition to a market economy were not the only issues to dominate the agenda of the Clinton-Yeltsin relationship. The West's desire to enlarge NATO to include former Soviet bloc countries swiftly emerged as one of the toughest problems and one that continually strained relations
between the two presidents. When Yeltsin flew to Washington in September 1994, Clinton was determined to show him that NATO enlargement did not have to threaten Russia and would be a sign that the Cold War really was over.
As Yeltsin emerged from the plane at Andrews Air Force Base and made his way down the mobile stairs, he was gripping the railing and concentrating on each step. His handlers did their best to block the view of the cameras recording his descent. He slipped on the last step and had to grab his wife's arm. That night at Blair House, Yeltsin was roaring drunk, lurching from room to room in his undershorts. At one point, he stumbled downstairs and accosted a Secret Service agent, who managed to persuade him to go back upstairs and return to the care of his own bodyguards. Yeltsin reappeared briefly on the landing, demanding, "Pizza! Pizza!" Finally, his security agents took him firmly by the arms and marched him briskly around in an effort to calm him down.
In the first formal meeting at the White House the next day, with the delegations facing each other across a long table, Yeltsin was sober but supercharged. He galloped through a list of half-baked or overcooked proposals. "Come on, Bill, let's just agree!" he kept saying, barely waiting for a reply, which was just as well, since the reply was always the same: "We'll have our people talk about that, Boris."
It was only when the two presidents met alone that Yeltsin dispensed with the posturing and Clinton could go to work on him. That chance came over a private lunch in the family dining room in the East Wing on September 27. Clinton asked me to sit in on the lunch, in part because I could listen to Yeltsin's answers twice, in Russian and then as interpreted.
We expected Yeltsin to raise the future of NATO, but he didn't. As the lunch progressed, the two presidents covered what seemed to me every issue on the face of the earth except the future of NATO. I began to wonder whether Clinton, too, wanted to avoid the subject.
Finally, as coffee was served, Clinton put his hand on Yeltsin's arm, leaned toward him and said, "Boris, on NATO, I want to make sure you've noted that I've never said we shouldn't consider Russia for membership or a special relationship with NATO. So when we talk about NATO expanding, we're emphasizing inclusion, not exclusion. My objective is to work with you and others to maximize the chances of a truly united, undivided, integrated Europe. There will be an expansion of NATO, but there's no timetable yet. If we started tomorrow to include the countries that want to come in, it would still take several years until they qualified and others said 'yes.' The issue is about psychological security and a sense of importance to these countries. They're afraid of being left in a gray area or a purgatory. So we're going to move forward on this. But I'd never spring it on you. I want to work closely with you so we get through it together."
Yeltsin was listening intently. "I understand," he said when Clinton was done. "I thank you for what you've said. If you're asked about this at the press conference, I'd suggest you say while the U.S. is for the expansion of NATO, the process will be gradual and lengthy. If you're asked if you'd exclude Russia from NATO, your answer should be 'no.' That's all."
Clinton promised that U.S. policy would be guided by "three no's": no surprises, no rush and no exclusion.
That afternoon, Yeltsin and Clinton gave a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House. Yeltsin was in a state that deputy national security adviser Sandy Berger described as "high jabberwocky" -- joking, jabbing the air with his fist, hamming it up, talking a mile a minute, ticking off all the good things that he and his friend Bill were going to do together. The State Department interpreter, Peter Afanasenko, was not just translating, but impersonating with great flair. Clinton was doubled over with laughter. He wanted to make sure that the audience took it all in a generous spirit. Several colleagues who knew about Yeltsin's wild first night at Blair House gave me inquiring looks. I knew what they suspected. I gave a slight shake of my head: I'd monitored Yeltsin's alcohol intake at lunch and it hadn't been enough to explain this manic exuberance.
A pattern was developing in Yeltsin's handling of these meetings: In the plenary sessions, with a large audience on both sides of the table, he played the decisive, even peremptory leader who knew what he wanted and insisted on getting it; in the private meetings, he switched from assertive to receptive, becoming susceptible to Clinton's blandishments and suasion; then, in the wrap-up press conference, he went over the top in a way designed, in his own mind, to project self-confidence and to disguise how pliant he had been behind closed doors.
In October 1995, Yeltsin flew to New York for an appearance before the General Assembly of the United Nations. There he gave a fire-and-brimstone speech excoriating NATO for the bombing of Serb targets in Bosnia and warning that NATO enlargement would mean a "new era of confrontation." Yeltsin and Clinton were scheduled to meet at FDR's former estate in Hyde Park, N.Y., for what was shaping up to be a high-stakes and high-tension meeting on a variety of contentious foreign policy issues. After discussing Bosnia, the two presidents turned their attention to the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE).
Yeltsin was flying high. In a small, private meeting, he was more than ready to get into the details of CFE that had hung up our negotiators for months. Yeltsin had indeed come to Hyde Park to cut a deal, but not in front of subordinates. He sent his foreign policy adviser to fetch a map related to the CFE dispute. While the aide dutifully headed out of the room, Clinton reached over and grabbed Yeltsin's arm.
"Look, Boris," he said, "it's not the details that matter -- it's the main idea. That's what you and I should concern ourselves with. You and I aren't going to get into the weeds of this thing."
Yeltsin frowned and looked uncertainly at the door through which his foreign policy adviser Dmitri Ryurikov had just exited.
Clinton leaned even closer and squeezed his arm. "Boris, look at me! Do you understand what I'm saying? Never mind your guy. This is just between the two of us. I believe you should have some relief on the map, and I've worked to get it for you. But we need to get this done quickly. We don't need more haggling. Agreed? Okay?"
"Yes," said Yeltsin, suddenly deflated, "okay."
A waiter appeared with glasses of dessert wine. Yeltsin, who had already polished off most of a bottle of Russian River wine over lunch, tasted it, rejected it as too sweet and asked for a cognac. Clinton, as the host, felt he had to oblige. It therefore fell to me to see if there was any brandy on the premises. I didn't try very hard. I returned empty-handed just as the aide was scurrying back into the room with a load of papers, including, I'm sure, a Russian counterproposal of some kind. However, by then, the conversation between the two leaders had moved on to other subjects.
Yeltsin wanted to talk for a minute about their public line with the press. He reprised his opening appeal for closer and more regular contact, only with a new burst of maudlin zeal: "Bill, I want to say that our partnership remains strong and reliable. Even on tough problems, like Bosnia, we'll find solutions. Our partnership is the most valuable thing to us. Not only do we need it, but the whole world needs it. You and I might leave the scene, but what we have accomplished together will survive as our legacy. This is the main theme that we must develop between us. It's you and me, Bill and Boris."
As they stood up to go out and face the press, Clinton presented Yeltsin with a pair of hand-tooled cowboy boots that would fit him better than the ones George Bush had given him at Camp David in February 1992. Clinton asked Yeltsin to take off one of his shoes so that they could compare sizes. The two exchanged right shoes, and the fit was fairly close -- allowing Clinton to remark, as he almost always did, how similar they were in build. This was a point that always seemed to please Yeltsin. Yeltsin said perhaps they should wear each other's shoes to the press conference, but his protocol chief, Vladimir Shevchenko, now on the edge of panic, persuaded Yeltsin not to do it. "Boris Nikolayevich," he whispered, "the media will make something unflattering of this!"
At the press conference Yeltsin gave the reporters just the sort of Boris Show they were counting on. He mocked the press for having predicted that U.S. and Russian differences over Bosnia would turn the summit into a disaster. Pointing directly at the cameras, Yeltsin bellowed, "Now, for the first time, I can tell you that you're a disaster!"
Yeltsin always practiced diplomacy as performance art, and when he was drunk, the performance was burlesque: This was the worst incident so far. Clinton, however, doubled over in laughter, slapped Boris on the back and had to wipe tears from his eyes. When he came to the microphone, he said, "Just make sure you get the attribution right!" then continued to laugh -- a little too hard to be convincing.
I sensed that Clinton was trying to cover for Yeltsin. Perhaps he figured that if both presidents seemed to be clowning around, there would be less of a focus in the news stories on Yeltsin's inebriation.
Whatever Clinton's motive, the whole scene sent a familiar shudder through the American entourage. Going back to their first summit in Vancouver, Clinton's lenience toward Yeltsin was sometimes a source of consternation for those of us who worked for him. What we found appalling in Yeltsin's conduct Clinton found amusing.
Shortly afterward, as I took a seat next to him aboard the helicopter for the ride back to New York, Clinton, still chuckling, remarked, "That was quite a show down there, wasn't it?" He was, I suspected, looking for praise of his handling of a perilous moment.
I couldn't bring myself to applaud, but I didn't have the heart, or the guts, to criticize him either. So I simply said, "Well, what went on between the two of you in private was all very positive and helpful. You really brought him along on the substance. I just hope the press conference doesn't do any damage."
Clinton got it, and gave me a long look. Then he said, "You know, we've got to remember that Yeltsin's got his problems, but he's a good man. He's trying to do his best in the face of a lot of problems back home. I think we're going to get this Bosnia deal done, and it's harder for him than it is for me. I've got problems, but nothing like his. We can't ever forget that Yeltsin drunk is better than most of the alternatives sober."
I'd heard that refrain before, but this time it had an edge to it. Clinton felt I was not only being too tough on Yeltsin -- I should ease up a bit on Clinton himself.
I was beginning to figure out something about my boss and his seemingly infinite capacity to put up with, and laugh off, Yeltsin's antics. Part of it wasn't even personal to Yeltsin -- it was a function of our support for the general direction in which Russia was moving. The country, like Yeltsin, was a bit of a mess.
But Clinton's indulgence of Yeltsin's misbehavior seemed to go deeper still. The key, as I saw it, might be that Yeltsin combined prodigious determination and fortitude with grotesque indiscipline and a kind of genius for self-abasement. He was both a very big man and a very bad boy, a natural leader and an incurable screw-up. All this Clinton recognized, found easy to forgive and wanted others to join him in forgiving.
Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state, will become president of the Brookings Institution in July. This article is adapted from The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy by Strobe Talbott, published this month by Random House. Copyright 2002 by the author.