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He could get a squishy on democracy: the perception of Bill Clintons from Vladimir Putin according to recent public documents


Stephan Kieninger is an independent historian and author of The Diplomacy of Détente: Cooperative Security Policies from Helmut Schmidt to George Shultz (London: Routledge 2018) and Dynamic Détente: The United States and Europe, 1964-1975 (Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham 2016).

NOVODEVICHY CEMETERY, MOSCOW. Funeral ceremony of Boris Yeltsin. CC BY 4.0

"I think he is a guy with a lot of abilities and ambitions for the Russians. His intentions are generally honorable and simple, but he just hasn't made up his mind yet. It could get slimy on democracy ”,(1)Bill Clinton spoke of Vladimir Putin during a telephone conversation in February 2000 with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Who was Putin? they wondered.

Putin was clearly different from his predecessor Boris Yeltsin. Clinton and Yeltsin clicked immediately – there was mutual sympathy. Putin was "commercial", factual and tough – no gossip, no jokes, no spontaneity. Clinton never called him "Vladimir".

The recently released Clinton Presidential Library files provide readers with fascinating new ideas and impressions of the Putin's BMP heritage, manners, style, insight, and manipulation methods. The files are a treasure that are available online and include text transcripts of the six Clinton-Putin meetings between September 1999 and November 2000 as well as recordings of their telephone conversations.

Today, Putin has been in power for 20 years, and recent constitutional changes in Russia indicate his willingness to stay in charge even longer.(2)All this was not predictable when he succeeded Boris Yeltsin as President of Russia on December 31, 1999. At the start of the new millennium, US-Russian relations were increasingly strained after the NATO's military operation against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war. American-Russian friction increased further after the bombing of Chechnya by Russia in September 1999 and the ensuing invasion in October of the same year. Putin used the Chechen war to overtake his national rivals in the campaign to replace sick President Boris Yeltsin, who congratulated him in a telephone conversation with Clinton in September 1999: "I discovered that He is a solid man who is kept well informed on various subjects under his responsibility. At the same time, he is meticulous and strong, very sociable. And he can easily have good relationships and contacts with people who are his partners. "(3)Yeltsin wanted Putin to become his successor.(4)

Clinton's first meeting with Putin took place in Aukland at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting this month. Putin thanked Clinton for his "unwavering support for cooperation with Russia" and was confident about the future of US-Russia relations.(5)The second Clinton-Putin meeting in Oslo in November 1999 was more difficult on both sides. Russian troops have continued to bomb Grozny, the Chechen capital, and there is speculation about an imminent Russian invasion of the whole country. Clinton urged Putin to seek a political solution: "Without a political strategy, you will get the worst of both worlds – people will die and you will not be able to end the conflict."(6)Putin's answer was "no". “In Chechnya, the question is how we can crush this base of terrorism while suffering minimal losses. Well, what will be done will be done. We have a solid military strategy. We will attack areas with terrorists. But how to negotiate with terrorists. The Russian people would never accept it. We need to find those with whom we can deal, ”said Putin.(seven)His remarks were typical of what Clinton would expect of him. Clinton's Russian advisor, Strobe Talbott, recalled: "What struck Clinton the most about Putin in Auckland and Oslo was his vigor. "I'll say that for this guy. (…) He's tough and he's strong and he has a lot of energy and determination, ”said Clinton.(8)

At the same time, Putin has promised to continue the legacy of Yeltsin. He described himself as a "progressive person".(9)Bill Clinton was determined to preserve the American-Russian cooperative relationship from the Yeltsin years. In June 2000, Clinton traveled to Moscow for his first summit meeting with Putin. They signed a joint declaration of principles on strategic stability reaffirming the commitment of the two parties to pursue further reductions in offensive weapons in parallel with discussions on defense systems. Clinton wanted both parties to maintain the anti-ballistic treaty that Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev had entered into in 1972 by trying to avoid a race for anti-ballistic technology.(ten)Clinton reiterated this point during his last meeting with Putin in November 2000: "I think we based our relationship on a win / win principle as opposed to a win / lose framework, allowing us to manage our disagreements. It doesn't concern me anymore, because I won't be here, ”said Clinton. Putin simply avoided deep discussions on the issue. "This is an unexpected topic, and I will have to think about it more," said Putin dryly.(11)Putin wanted to keep his options open. He was concerned that the next US administration would withdraw from the ABM Treaty – which George W. Bush finally did in 2002.

What was the best way to deal with Putin? Bill Clinton and Tony Blair thought that Putin wanted to see America as a partner. Clinton thought "he is very intelligent and thoughtful. I think we can do a lot of good with him. "(12)Time and time again, Clinton searched for ways to cooperate with Russia on global security issues. In 2000, Clinton's Middle East peace initiative and the missile talks with North Korea were examples. "We have a historic opportunity here, but it is the best we can do. I'm going to have to work like crazy to sell this in Israel, "Clinton told Putin during a telephone conversation on December 27, 2000.(13)Putin was keen to participate in the search for a more workable peace in the Middle East, but he turned into a confrontational mood when Clinton raised Russia’s policy towards his neighbors. Putin launched into a fiery monologue when Clinton expressed concern over Russia's economic and political pressures on Georgia. "I would like to give you the real situation. I don't know your opinion, but I think we have a good personal relationship, and I would like you to try to listen to what I tell you now, "said angrily Putin. He despised Georgia as a safe haven for terrorists and was mad that Georgian President Shevardnadze had rejected the deployment of additional Russian troops on the border between Georgia and Chechnya. "We only need to have a bit of order here," said Putin – and he only calmed down at the end of the conversation.(14)

The Clinton records point out that Putin had different ways of saying no. He could camouflage a rebuff or warning with praise and friendliness, but he could go into a mode of aggression if he felt criticized.


(1)Telcon Clinton and Blair, February 8, 2000, see https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us/items/show/48779, 462.

(2)See Masha Gessen, The Faceless Man. The unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012); The world of Angela Stent Poutine. Russia against the West and with the rest (New York: Twelve Publishers, 2019).

(3)Telcon Clinton and Yeltsin, September 8, 1999, see https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us/items/show/57569, 550.

(4)See Lilia Shevtsova, Russia. Lost in transition. The Eltsin and Putin Legacies (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2007).

(5)Memcon Clinton and Putin, September 12, 1999, https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us/items/show/100505, 101.

(6)Memcon Clinton and Putin, November 2, 1999, https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us/items/show/100505, 34.

(8)Strobe Talbott, the hand of Russia. A memoir of presidential diplomacy (New York: Random House, 2002), 361.

(9)Telcon Clinton and Putin, January 1, 2000, https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us/items/show/100505, 118.

(ten)The memcon of this exchange is not part of the cache of recently published documents.

(11)Memcon Clinton and Putin, November 15, 2000, https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us/items/show/100505, 86.

(12)Telcon Clinton and Blair, February 8, 2000, see https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us/items/show/48779, 462.

(13)Telcon Clinton and Putin, December 27, 2000, see https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us/items/show/100505, 223.

(14)Ibid, 222-223, 225.

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