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The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy
By Strobe Talbott
THE HEDGEHOG AND THE BEAR
TRINCULO: A howling monster; a drunken monster!
At noon on Monday, June 5, 2000, Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin emerged from the Czar’s Entrance of the Grand Kremlin Palace. While they paused for a moment in the sunshine, I hovered behind them, trying to catch anything of significance that passed between them as they said good-bye. But 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 pocketed my notebook and 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. John Podesta, Clinton’s chief of staff, and Sandy Berger, his national security adviser, were already on the seat behind me, crammed together to leave plenty of room for the president. Once Clinton had settled into place, he looked out at Putin through the thick bullet-proof window, put on his widest grin and gave a jaunty wave.
As the limousine pulled away from the curb and sped across the cobblestone courtyard, Clinton slumped back and a pensive look came over his face. Usually he found these events, including the ceremonial sendoffs, exhilarating. Not this time. The talks over the past three days had been inconclusive, not so much because the two leaders had been unable to agree as because Putin had not even tried. Clinton had come to Moscow hoping to make progress toward a number of objectives: reconciling a new American missile-defense program with long-standing arms control treaties; coordinating U.S. and Russian diplomacy in the Balkans; ending Russian military assistance to Iran. Clinton had also registered concern over Putin’s domestic policies, especially the crackdown he’d launched against the leading independent television network, the deals he was cutting with the communists at the expense of reformist parties and the war he was waging in Chechnya.
On all these issues, Putin had given Clinton what was calculated to seem a respectful hearing, but Clinton knew a brush-off when he saw one. Missile defense was a complex problem, Putin had said with a mildness of tone that belied the firmness of his message: precipitous American deployment would jeopardize Russia’s interests and provoke a new round of the arms race. As for the targets of his get-tough policy, they were criminals, not champions of democracy and free speech. And Chechnya was a nest of terrorists; America’s own international Public Enemy Number One, Osama bin Laden, had contributed to the infestation there, so the U.S. should be supporting Russia’s campaign against a common enemy. On all these subjects, Putin urged Clinton to rethink American policy and the assumptions on which it was based.
Clinton felt patronized. It was no mystery what Putin’s game was: 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. Putin had, in his own studied, cordial and oblique way, put U.S.-Russian relations on hold until Clinton, like Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, had passed from the scene. Realizing that, Clinton had even more to think about as he headed toward the western outskirts of Moscow, where Yeltsin was now living in retirement.
The Cadillac barreled out of the Kremlin through the Borovitsky Gate and took a sharp right turn. The rest of the motorcade, including several vans full of press, tried to follow but was stopped by Russian security police and diverted directly to Vnukovo Airport, south of Moscow, where Air Force One was waiting.
With a motorcycle escort, Clinton’s limousine hurtled down the center of the eight-lane artery out of the city he’d first visited thirty years before. Clinton remarked on various landmarks as we sped past: the massive Russian State Library, once named after Lenin, where the presiding presence was now a statue of Dostoyevksy; the glitzy nightclubs, casinos and designer boutiques of the New Arbat, Yeltsin’s biggest restoration project when he was running the city in the late eighties; the Russian White House, which had been, at different times, the scene of Yeltsin’s greatest triumph, the command center of his most implacable enemies and the scene of a spasm of bloodletting from which neither he nor his country had recovered nearly seven years later. As we crossed the river and headed out of the city along Kutuzovsky Prospect, Clinton recalled that it had been the route Napoleon used to march into Moscow with the Grande Armée in 1812. That set him to musing in three directions at once: about Russia’s vulnerability to invasion, its close but complex ties to the West and its preoccupation with its own history.
I’d heard riffs like this from Clinton over the years, going back to when I’d first known him in the late sixties. Russia had always been a subject that stirred him when, for one reason or another, it came to his attention. But that had happened only episodically. As a governor in the seventies and eighties, he’d had more reason to think about Japan as a source of foreign investment and as a market for Arkansas rice. He’d brought me into his administration to think full-time about Russia and the former Soviet Union while he went about being president, which he expected would mean concentrating on the American economy.
Then, almost immediately, events in Moscow and the importuning of the man shakily in charge there thrust upon Clinton the portfolio he’d hoped I’d handle for him. It became apparent that being president meant, much more than he’d anticipated, doing the heavy lifting in the management of relations with a giant nation that was reinventing itself and, in doing so, reinventing international politics and requiring us to reinvent American foreign policy.
By the spring of his first year in office, Clinton had become the U.S. government’s principal Russia hand, and so he remained for the duration of his presidency.
Within twenty minutes after leaving the Kremlin, we reached the capital’s high-rent exurbia, where modern redbrick cottages had sprouted amid leftovers of the old power structure—sprawling VIP dachas, rest homes and clinics behind stucco walls or high green wooden fences. After slowing down to navigate a narrow potholed road, we arrived at Gorky-9, a heavily guarded complex where Yeltsin had been living since his last years in office, largely because it was near the Barvikha sanatorium that cared for him during his numerous and prolonged illnesses.
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 six foot two: 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 anti-missile 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 U.S. 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 the chance came, Clinton steered the discussion toward the subject of where Russia was heading under Putin. But Yeltsin wasn’t yet ready to yield the floor. He had more to say about the past.
I was on a couch, across from the two men, listening intently as they talked. Seated next to me was Tatyana, whom I had seen in passing only once in more trips to Moscow than I could count. When Yeltsin launched into a self-congratulatory account of how he had maneuvered Putin from obscurity into the presidency over fierce resistance, Tatyana looked at me and nodded solemnly. She leaned toward me and whispered, “It really was very hard, getting Putin into the job—one of the hardest things we ever pulled off.”
I noticed the “we.” I was meant to. She wanted me to know it was true what they said: even though she had kept out of the public eye, including during state visits, she really had been one of Yeltsin’s most influential confidants. It was as though she had decided to make her first appearance onstage in a curtain call.
As Naina plied her husband and his guests with more tea and cake, Yeltsin rambled on, but the refrain was simple: Putin was “a young man and a strong man.” Yeltsin kept returning to these two attributes—youth and strength—as though they were the essence both of what Russia needed and of what he, by promoting Putin, had hoped to preserve as his own legacy.
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 good-byes 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, for several minutes, even more somber than during the ride out. He looked out the window at the birch trees glinting in the sunshine that lined 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.”