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The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy

The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy
By Strobe Talbott
480 pp, Random House, 2002
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Throughout his time in government, Strobe Talbott was rumored to go to bed as soon as duty permitted and rise as early as possible to write about his experience as President Bill Clinton's principal Russia adviser, and later as deputy secretary of state. That diligence may explain why Talbott is now the first senior Clinton administration official to publish his account of the president's foreign policy legacy. The result, The Russia Hand, looks closely behind the scenes of U.S.-Russian relations in the 1990s. Like the works of another Russia hand, George Kennan, this book is the best sort of political memoir, putting us in the room as the negotiations happened and world history was made.

Talbott places the focus clearly on Clinton. The president's voice comes through loud and clear, urging his aides to "think bigger" on Russia. We can feel his outsized personality and his warmth as he throws his arm around Talbott's shoulder or drops by his house to eat ice cream from the carton, feet up on the couch. Occasionally we see glimpses of the president's sloppiness and infamous lack of personal discipline. But Talbott also provides an invaluable portrait of Clinton as the architect of U.S. policy toward Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It turns out that Clinton, not Talbott, was the principal "Russia hand" in the U.S. government.

It also turns out that the role of personalities in world politics is far more important than many think. Often underappreciated by scholars of international relations and typically beyond the scope of journalists, the significance of personality is illuminated in this book, which makes for an excellent case study. A central tenet of Talbott's is that "government-to-government relations often succeeded or failed on the basis of personal relations." Nowhere was this truer than in Clinton's close relationship with President Boris Yeltsin -- which Talbott hints may have prevented Washington from pursuing a tougher policy toward Moscow in such sensitive areas as human rights abuses in Chechnya and Russia's shaky democratic transition.

Along with his rich descriptions of Clinton and Yeltsin, Talbott provides beautifully painted portraits of other leading officials. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin comes across as an entirely reasonable and self-sacrificing character. Current President Vladimir Putin also makes an appearance, even though Talbott's encounters with him were rarer. Talbott cannot overlook Putin's KGB past, and he sizes up the Russian as a "suave cop" who always let his visitors know that he knew plenty about them. If Yeltsin was in the habit of saying no and then pursuing a dialogue, Putin was a dissembler, saying yes when he meant no.

Talbott, with his gentlemanly sense of privacy, is more guarded when it comes to revealing what makes himself tick. For example, he holds back when describing what was surely one of his lowest moments, in August 1998, during the twin dramas of the economic meltdown in Russia and his boss's public confessions of sexual indiscretions. Talbott generally keeps the book's focus on U.S.-Russian relations and the personal relationships that underpin them. The most intriguing of these is between Yeltsin and Clinton, which gets much attention. But another relationship stands out as well: the somewhat unlikely friendship between Talbott and his Russian counterpart, Yuri Mamedov. Whether relaxing over lunch in the Italian countryside or stealing away to watch a movie in Washington, Mamedov and Talbott come across as partners trying to ground the U.S.-Russian relationship in sensible policy. Together they observe the ups and downs of their bosses, their countries, and their agendas. Talbott and Mamedov emerge as the steady, long poles in the tent. As the former insulates himself from Clinton's personal situation (which the book spends little time discussing), the latter must deal with a drunk or sick Yeltsin, a panicky or depressed Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Kozyrev, a series of prime ministers, and eventually a remote yet unctuous new president, Putin.

WIN SOME, LOSE SOME

In the 1990s, the U.S.-Russia portfolio, a jumble of conflicting and unresolved questions, fell to Talbott to manage. These items ranged from traditional security issues such as arms control to aid for Russia's economic, political, and social transition. Defense specialists and security analysts will find in the book much about the politics behind NATO enlargement, discussions of arms control, missile defense, Russia's friendliness toward Iran and Iraq, and other critical issues. Among the many stories told, however, two successes stand out.

The first was one of the most underappreciated events of the 1990s: getting Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons, a touch-and-go process until the end. In a world of ever-increasing proliferation, this step represented a reversal that simply would not have happened without the focused work of a few senior officials in the Clinton administration. Their success was part of a distinctly new approach to enhancing security known as "defense by other means," which started with the 1991 Cooperative Threat Reduction Act (otherwise known as "Nunn-Lugar") and was greatly expanded during the Clinton years. Still ongoing in the Bush administration, this government program funds private contractors to enlist hundreds of American and Russian scientists and engineers working to dismantle and eliminate weapons of mass destruction in countries of the former Soviet Union. If anyone is looking for a foreign policy legacy from the Clinton administration, they need look no further.

The other triumph got even less attention: the laborious but ultimately groundbreaking work to get Russians and Americans serving together in Bosnia as peacekeepers after the Dayton peace accord was signed in 1995. True, the reality of that deployment today does not read quite like a NATO promotional brochure. (Americans have reported the experience of serving with the Russians as a "drunk fest.") But it is hard to exaggerate the importance of the 1995 agreement between Secretary of Defense William Perry and Minister

of Defense Pavel Grachev, which was later operationalized under U.S. General George Joulwan and Russian General Leonty Shevtsov. The work was remarkable, and the relationships that these men developed point to the enormous potential for solving problems on a face-to-face basis.

Mixed with the successes, of course, were more disappointing episodes. Some policies were tried but failed, others remained unfinished, and still others showed the limits of engagement. Each of these dynamics played a role when the United States tried to influence the internal politics of Russia. Clinton, a self-described "tomorrow guy," was gripped by the potential inherent in Russia's transition and convinced that he could make a difference there. But Talbott's assessment, like Russia's current condition, is mixed. Some readers will see enormous hubris in Clinton's thinking that U.S. policy could keep Russia from "going bad," whereas others will admire him for it. Talbott clearly falls into the latter category, but he is critical of the means Clinton chose.

THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL

Clinton's main strategy for keeping Russia "on track" was to lend as much support to Yeltsin as possible. Almost as soon as he settled on that strategy, it became fashionable in certain circles to trash Clinton's bear hug of "Ol' Boris," as Clinton nicknamed him. Part buffoon, often thoroughly soaked in Scotch or wine, Yeltsin seemed not only unstable (whether manic, depressed, sick, or drunk) but a dubious "democrat" for Clinton to support. After all, Yeltsin turned tanks on his own White House and waged war against Russian citizens in Chechnya. What is striking is that Talbott himself seems to join in the criticism. Instead of embracing the vision of Yeltsin as "a real democrat and a real reformer," Talbott presents him as "an erratic, desperate and selfish old man." Many people wondered silently what Clinton ever saw in Yeltsin. They did not know that Talbott, and other advisers, were asking the same question.

A main reason for Talbott's reservations about Yeltsin seems to be his drinking, which figures centrally in the book. There was a lot of it, which will shock no one. But it is one thing to know that the president of Russia is an alcoholic and quite another to be exposed to it chapter after chapter. One gets to see Yeltsin slamming down several drinks at various summits, or hanging up on the president of the United States in a drunken stupor. Yeltsin's condition clearly bothered his own staff, and it appalled many in the Clinton administration.

Clinton might have been expected to be especially allergic to such drinking, given his stepfather's alcoholism. Instead, he was extremely tolerant, commenting once, "At least Yeltsin's not a mean drunk." Talbott finds Clinton covering for him and being excessively lenient of what Talbott considers "grotesque indiscipline." Clinton countered that a drunk Yeltsin was better than the sober alternative. But Talbott believes that Clinton also saw in Yeltsin a part of himself -- and was thus inclined to forgive. Describing Yeltsin but referring indirectly to Clinton, the author writes, "He was both a very big man and a very bad boy, a natural leader and an incurable screw-up."

RUSSIA WITHOUT THE RUSSIANS

In Talbott's account, Clinton's interaction with Russia was startlingly devoid of Russians other than "Ol' Boris." Although not unusual for the world of foreign policy, this narrow approach was at odds with Clinton's own style as a populist politician. On the one hand, he was clearly absorbed by Russian politics. On the other hand, he paid attention only to a highly sanitized version of events and saw Russia mainly through the prism of Yeltsin. As long as Russia held elections, he believed, it was on the right track -- as if elections were definitive proof that the country's main political players accepted democratic rules of the game.

Clinton was by no means alone in holding this view. The international community, as well as other U.S. officials (including Talbott), also applauded Russia's elections as signs of that country's commitment to democracy, despite numerous serious irregularities. This policy had unintended negative consequences. To Russian activists on the ground, it seemed that the Americans ignored the enormous problems with the electoral process. To Kremlin officials, it must have been clear that the Americans were generally interested in Russia but not concerned by the details; both sides seemed to silently agree that it was better to have Yeltsin elected by whatever means necessary than to have someone else, particularly Gennady Zyuganov, the communist candidate. This selective attention ironically undermined the international efforts, funded by the West, to build democratic institutions. As a result, the U.S. commitment to democracy in Russia appeared hollow, and Russian decision-makers learned precisely what the international community would accept as passable democracy.

CRIME BUT NO PUNISHMENT

There was, in short, a central inconsistency in the Clinton administration's approach to Russia. Washington's tolerance for Russian noncompliance with democratic values, norms, laws, and treaties was often breathtaking. This was especially true regarding Chechnya. If Clinton and his staff believed (correctly) that Russia's political trajectory affected U.S. national security, why did the death and destruction wrought by Russian federal forces in Chechnya figure so little in their engagement?

The human cost of the Chechen conflict has been horrific, causing deaths in the tens of thousands. The abuses are ongoing and well documented. Highly respected organizations have evidence that Russian federal forces have clearly and repeatedly violated both the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Russian and Western organizations have documented the disproportionate use of force, the indiscriminate targeting of civilians, and the "mop-up" operations that regularly involve looting, ransom, rape, and execution. They have detailed the forced disappearances of up to 2,000 people and noted the "filtration camps" where rebels and civilians are routinely tortured. There is even evidence that human rights monitors are being targeted and killed by federal forces. The scale of abuses is far greater than in Kosovo, where NATO intervened. Moreover, the wars in Chechnya have had a symbiotic and deleterious influence on developments in the Russian media and bear directly on Russia's political transition and Western efforts to support democracy there.

Talbott does not shy away from these details. He recognizes the wars as threats to democracy in Russia; in contrast to some apologists, he also acknowledges that the U.S. Civil War is a poor analogy. He sees critics as justified in charging that the Clinton administration gave "Moscow a pass on the military's continuing rampage in Chechnya." So why did Talbott's misgivings have essentially no effect on the U.S.-Russia relationship?

The book hints at a few reasons, the most prominent being Clinton's reluctance to "pile-on against Yeltsin." According to Talbott, Clinton was "not comfortable about hectoring" the Russians to seek a political solution "when we didn't really know what that meant." He was reluctant to use his personal relationship with Yeltsin to push him hard on the war, and then when Putin came on the scene, there was little chemistry between the two. Putin dismissed the substantial body of evidence of war crimes committed by Russian forces as "alleged, mythical atrocities," and Clinton let it go.

This inaction is regrettable on so many different levels. The second Chechen campaign began after a series of grisly bombings of apartment buildings in September 1999; mysteriously, the crime scenes were cleared within days and, in one case, even hours. A foiled bombing in the city of Ryazan, which seemed to involve the FSB (the KGB's successor), raised serious questions as to precisely who was responsible for the other bombings. But despite the lack of hard evidence, Moscow blamed the attacks on Chechen separatists and used the incidents as the launching pad for the war -- and eventually as an election strategy. What did the Clinton administration make of all this? This book provides few answers.

WITNESS TO MUTINY

In the most gripping chapter, Talbott describes the critical days in June 1999 as the Kosovo war came to a halt. Right before NATO troops went into that battered province, the Russian military had begun rolling its tanks out of Bosnia, across Serbia, and into Kosovo. The Americans and the Russians nearly came to blows at the Pristina airport. Talbott provides an eyewitness account that is part comic, part tragic, and altogether stunning. The drama at the time was played out as one between the United States and Russia. In fact, it was nothing less than the Russian military's operating well outside the confines of civilian control.

Talbott describes a "weird all-nighter" on June 11 at the Ministry of Defense in Moscow, complete with pizza, hot dogs, drinking, and broken furniture. (The Americans consumed the junk food; a two-star Russian general "reeked of alcohol"; and sounds of things being "hurled against the wall" came from the room where the Russian military was conferring.) Throughout that night, Russia's ministers for defense and foreign affairs denied that their troops were rolling toward Pri stina, even as CNN was covering the event live. Lurking in the background, Talbott writes, were two snickering senior Russian military officers: Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov (nicknamed "Evil-shoff" by the U.S. delegation) and Colonel-General Anatoly Kvashnin -- the probable masterminds of the troops' "accidental" deployment (as Minister of Foreign Affairs Igor Ivanov later termed it).

Talbott had been getting hints of this "virtual mutiny" for weeks. As chief negotiator for the American side, he had been working with Chernomyrdin (Yeltsin's personal representative) and President Martti Ahtisaari of Finland in determining the conditions needed to end NATO's air campaign. The results of these efforts were to be presented to Slobodan Milosevic as a united position. Throughout these talks, however, Talbott and other Americans saw Ivashov repeatedly threaten, contradict, disavow, and generally dissociate himself from Chernomyrdin.

As soon as the bombing started, it became clear just how much the Russians hated NATO's actions in Kosovo. Due to the distrust, both the Americans and the Russians failed to institutionalize the gains made in Bosnia. And once again, the potentially destructive role of personalities -- in this case, those of Ivashov and Kvashnin -- drove events. The actions of these senior Russian military officials demonstrated how fragile, if not fleeting, advances in cooperation were. Finally, Talbott's account testifies to the dysfunction in the Russian government. Those two generals were never punished, and Kvashnin even continues to serve as the chief of the armed forces general staff.

LIMITS OF CHEMISTRY

Although the recipe has not always produced success, personalities clearly help drive the U.S.-Russian relationship. Yeltsin benefited greatly from Clinton's loyalty, whereas organizations such as the G-7 and agencies such as the U.S. Treasury Department had no chance of winning an argument that clashed with Clinton's devotion to Yeltsin. When Clinton wanted Russia to be included in the G-7 meetings, for example, he got it done -- despite the fact that Russia was neither a robust market economy nor a liberal democracy.

One comes away from Talbott's book thinking that Clinton's strategy of engaging Yeltsin was perhaps correct. But the approach was also too personal. Somewhere along the way, Yeltsin became the frame for democracy in Russia for Clinton, who in turn ignored the cast of thousands toiling away and building democratic institutions in Russia, often in opposition to Yeltsin. Clinton became convinced that to not support Yeltsin was to not support democracy. This conviction took hold, according to Talbott, despite the best intentions and efforts of his more skeptical aides. Over and over again, his staff tried to get Clinton to focus on concepts and not on the person. But politics was personal for Clinton, and Yeltsin was his man.

Politics seems less personal for George W. Bush, but Putin seems no less his man. After a shaky start, the two presidents have begun to display their own personal chemistry. But Talbott's book leads us to wonder just how much this chemistry can achieve. If presidents cannot tackle the really hard issues when they have a good relationship, what can they do? And what terrible things will happen if no chemistry exists? At some point, one hopes, Bush and Putin will use their relationship to tackle the thorny issues beyond arms control, such as money laundering, terrorism, and human rights. Otherwise, their meetings will look more like press junkets than policymaking, and their relationship will look more superficial than substantive. As Talbott makes clear, neither is good for U.S.-Russian relations.

Sarah E. Mendelson is Senior Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and coeditor of The Power and Limits of NGOs: A Critical Look at Building Democracy in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.

  • Sarah E. Mendelson is Senior Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and coeditor of The Power and Limits of NGOs: A Critical Look at Building Democracy in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
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