Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin, and U.S.-Russian Relations

Upon his inauguration in January 1993, President Bill Clinton became the first president since Franklin Roosevelt who did not need a strategy for the Cold War—and the first since William Howard Taft who did not need a policy for the Soviet Union. In his inaugural address, Clinton saluted the service of his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, in the peaceful resolution of the conflict between the superpowers. He also acknowledged that, even without the Soviet Union, the world was still threatened by “ancient hatreds and new plagues.” Planning to focus on domestic affairs, Clinton intended to leave the day-to-day management of foreign policy—including dealing with the “ancient hatreds and new plagues” of the former Soviet sphere of influence—to senior members of his national security team. He also recruited Strobe Talbott, a journalist and Russian expert, to assume a portfolio for the region, first as Ambassador-at-Large and then, from February 1994, as Deputy Secretary of State. By appointing Talbott, a close friend since both had served as Rhodes scholars in the late 1960s, Clinton wanted to demonstrate his personal commitment to Russia in the emerging post-Cold War world. Such calculations were soon overtaken by events, however, as the challenges of managing relations between two former adversaries proved too much for his subordinates to handle on their own. “By the spring of his first year in office,” Talbott later recalled, “Clinton had become the U.S. government’s principal Russia hand, and so he remained for the duration of his presidency.”

Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton, October 23, 1995, during the summit meeting at Hyde Park, New York. (William J. Clinton Presidential Library)

Like many of his predecessors, Bill Clinton tended to view relations with other countries through the prism of personality. In this case, Russia was personified by its President, Boris Yeltsin. Clinton was strongly inclined not only to like Yeltsin but also to support his policies, in particular, his commitment to Russian democracy. During the seven years both were in office, “Bill and Boris” met eighteen times, nearly as often as their predecessors had met throughout the entire Cold War. For his first trip abroad, Clinton met Yeltsin in Vancouver in April 1993. At the time, and periodically throughout his term in office, Yeltsin faced growing opposition at home to his efforts to liberalize the economy and enact democratic reforms in Russia. At Vancouver, Clinton promised Yeltsin strong support in the form of financial assistance to promote various programs, including funds to stabilize the economy, to house decommissioned military officers, and to employ nuclear scientists. The U.S. Congress—including broad, bipartisan majority in the Senate—approved the program in September. Although not always able to deliver such assistance, Clinton also supported Yeltsin and his position on economic and political matters by other means. At Clinton’s behest, and at a meeting he hosted in Denver in June 1997, for instance, Russia became a member of the so-called G–8, the group of leaders representing eight of the world’s leading economies, thus ensuring that Russian interests would be considered at this important annual forum.

Clinton and Yeltsin also continued the bilateral cooperation, begun by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, to manage the most tangible, and terrifying, relics of the Cold War. The control of nuclear weapons had always been one of the most difficult issues for the two superpowers to negotiate. The task in the 1990s, however, was greatly complicated by the fact that Russia did not maintain control over the entire Soviet inventory; some strategic (long-range) and theater (intermediate range) nuclear weapons were also still based on the territory of at least Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. In terms of international law, and as a matter of foreign policy, the United States urged the four former Soviet republics to assume Soviet obligations under three arms control agreements: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) of 1987, and the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks Treaty of 1991 (START I). Under the Lisbon Protocol of May 1992, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan agreed not only to abide by the NPT and START I, but also to destroy or transfer to Russia all remaining nuclear weapons at their disposal. The Clinton administration soon discovered, however, that political concerns in Kiev and Almaty—in particular, fears of political interference from Moscow—impeded further progress not only in negotiating additional but also in implementing existing agreements. Clinton and Yeltsin managed to address such concerns through a combination of security assurances and economic assistance. In November 1994, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan finally agreed to adhere to INF; then, the following month, the four countries formally ratified START I. After nearly two years of negotiations, the United States thus succeeded in transferring Soviet treaty obligations to reduce or eliminate nuclear weapons to post-Soviet successor states, who, in turn, agreed to transfer the weapons to Russia. Under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, established by the Nunn-Lugar Act of 1991, the United States—in an unprecedented partnership with the four countries—also became directly involved in the “dirty work” of fulfilling these commitments, providing financial assistance and technical expertise in securing and dismantling the Soviet nuclear arsenal.

Throughout the Clinton administration, U.S.-Russian relations were embroiled over how to address the challenges of European security. During the Cold War, the two sides organized on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain: in 1949, the United States and its Western European allies established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); and in 1955, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies established the Warsaw Treaty Organization. When the Warsaw Pact formally disbanded in February 1991, NATO began to debate in earnest how to adapt the alliance to the realities of post-Cold War Europe, including a proposal to expand membership to include countries in the former Soviet sphere of influence. The debate became more urgent with the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia, in particular, Bosnia-Herzegovina in April 1992. In an effort to address concerns in Warsaw, Prague, and other capitals—without at the same time unduly raising concerns in Moscow—NATO formally agreed in January 1994 to establish the Partnership for Peace, which in effect created a pathway toward membership for nations joining the organization, without extending the security commitment of the alliance. Russia joined the Partnership in June 1994. Despite this agreement on paper, events on the ground increasingly threatened to undermine bilateral relations. Clinton objected to Russian military intervention in the autonomous region of Chechnya, including the siege of Grozny, which began in January 1995; and Yeltsin objected to U.S. military intervention in Bosnia, including NATO airstrikes in September. The Dayton Agreement, which ended the Bosnian War in December, and the Khasavyurt Accord, which ended the First Chechen War in August 1996, did not resolve growing tensions between the two countries. At its meeting in Madrid, July 1997, NATO formally invited three former Soviet satellites—Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic—to join the alliance; and in March 1999, less than two weeks after their membership became effective, NATO began to bomb Serbia, Russia’s ally, in an effort to end its military operations in Kosovo. Yeltsin denounced but could not deflect either development. Likewise, Clinton could do little but protest five months later as Russia began a massive bombing campaign in the Second Chechen War. When Yeltsin suddenly resigned from office in December, however, Clinton praised his counterpart for helping to achieve “genuine progress” in U.S.-Russian relations. “Of course, we have also had our differences,” Clinton observed, “but the starting point for our relationship has always been how Russia and America can work together to advance our common interests.”