’90s Chaos

Blame This Drunken Bear for Vladimir Putin

Bill Clinton had to call Russia’s first president early in the day to catch him sober. But the U.S. could work with Yeltsin—though he chose a successor who would ‘repudiate his legacy.’

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

As the first president of the Russian Federation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin’s biggest mistake was picking Vladimir Putin as his seventh or ninth prime minister. Russian expert Strobe Talbott can’t remember exactly which one, there were so many. “It was like spin the bottle, and the bottle stopped spinning at Putin,” he says.

Putin was actually Yeltsin’s sixth prime minister, for those keeping count. Named in August 1999 by Yeltsin, who was deeply unpopular, in failing health, and whose heroic stand atop a tank in defiance of a communist-led coup eight years earlier had been forgotten, replaced by anger over food shortages and rampant corruption.

When Yeltsin abruptly resigned in December 1999, Putin stepped into the presidency, moving from accidental prime minister to the powerful president for life he is today. Asked why Yeltsin chose the former KGB agent, Talbott says, “He picked him because Putin was a security guy, and he could secure the safety and immunity, that’s the word, of Yeltsin and his family after he left office.”

In the chaos that accompanied the dismantling of the communist state, the fruits of corruption had a stronger hold on the ruling class than dreamy ideas about democracy.

“In picking Putin, he was picking a guy who would ultimately repudiate his legacy,” says Talbott, who was deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration.

Talbott recalls President Clinton after a summit meeting with Putin in May 2000, stopping at Yeltsin’s retirement dacha on the way to the airport, where he said, “Boris, unlike you, Putin does not have democracy in him.” Yeltsin was a deeply flawed yet enormously brave and stoic figure as he led the Russian Federation through a peaceful transformation that under another, less imposing figure could have turned violent. “Thanks to Boris Yeltsin keeping the borders exactly as they were, the breakup of the Soviet Union was relatively peaceful,” says Talbott.

Clinton found a soul mate in Yeltsin, and Talbott, now head of the Brookings Institution, says their personal relationship produced diplomatic benefits even as critics say Clinton missed an opportunity to help shape the post-Yeltsin Russia by coddling Yeltsin, overlooking his faults and excusing his alcoholism.

“President Clinton was well aware of his alcoholism,” says Talbott. “We literally used to schedule calls early as possible in the day because the chances of Yeltsin being sober were better.” When Russian troops occupied the airport in Pristina, Kosovo, in June 1999, “That happened because Yeltsin was incommunicado and some of his generals went rogue, and when he became communicado again, if that’s a word, he called and said, ‘Bill, you and I can solve this together. Let’s meet in secret on a submarine in the sea.’ That wasn’t practical,” Talbott notes. The incident ended peaceably.

Yeltsin was opposed to NATO using force against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, “but because of the spirit of partnership and cooperation and trust” between Yeltsin and Clinton, “Yeltsin was instrumental in getting the Serbian government and Milosevic to accept NATO’s terms for stopping the bombing. He was dead set against the use of force, but he put all his diplomatic energy into working with the European Union and the U.S. to come up with a common position. Milosevic had no choice but to accept the terms because the Russians were behind it.”

The Clinton administration had less sway over the corruption driving the Russian economy and creating the oligarchs. In 1996, a popular communist with strong grassroots support, Gennady Zyuganov, challenged Yeltsin’s re-election. “There was a very real possibility that a communist could be elected, and God knows what would have happened next,” says Talbott.

Yeltsin knew what to do. He made a deal with a group of oligarchs to fund his campaign in exchange for an even larger share of what had been state property. “I remember talking to Larry Summers and the folks at Treasury and saying, ‘This is not good,’” says Talbott, dubbing it “a classic Washington dilemma: two bad options. It wasn’t our call, and it was clear Yeltsin would make it. I don’t think we could have talked him out of it.” Yeltsin won 53.8 to 40.3 percent, a victory ensured by ample resources over his underfunded communist challenger.

Clinton and Yeltsin had two summits, the first in Vancouver in April 1993, when it was clear Yeltsin needed both understanding and support to deal with the many crises that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian officers were stranded in the Baltic states, which wanted them out, and Yeltsin needed financial help for housing them back in Russia.

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The second summit was in Helsinki in March 1997, and Yeltsin wanted assurances that the Baltics and other nations that were part of the Soviet bloc should be forever ineligible for NATO. Clinton said agreeing to that would only make Russia’s neighbors much more frightened of Russia, “and that was the end of the argument,” as Talbott remembers it.

The following year, in 1998, the U.S. Senate voted 80 to 19 to admit Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into NATO. Then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) led the charge for enlargement, while Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) warned of the danger of isolating Russia. Putin’s complaints about the West encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence have received a more sympathetic hearing in recent weeks after his annexation of Crimea than they did 25 years ago, after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Talbott maintains that recent events justify the aggressive expansion of NATO. If the former Soviet republics that now enjoy NATO membership did not have that protection, he says, “They would be shaking in their boots, or they would have Russian boots stomping around places like Tartu in Estonia, where there is a significant Russian-speaking population.”

Even though Putin has “ripped off his mask and bared his teeth,” Talbott says he believes that 29 years after Mikhail Gorbachev became the last leader of the Soviet Union and the reformer who made post-Soviet Russia possible, the country has moved into the international community. There are a lot of Russians who do not want to live in Putin’s Russia, he says, and they will carry the day. When and how that might happen, he did not say.