Washington, D.C., February 7, 2023 – With the Cold War coming to an end and the Soviet Union dissolving, President Bill Clinton was determined not to miss a historic opportunity to help Russia transform into a democratic capitalist state, according to a set of declassified State Department records published today by the National Security Archive.
Today’s publication includes a transcript of the first Clinton-Yeltsin telephone conversation in 1993, an insightful transition memo from the outgoing Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, and a high-level briefing from Clinton’s top Russia aide, Strobe Talbott. The documents show Clinton, his advisers and their predecessors in the Bush administration wrestling with a number of key policy challenges, including the presence of nuclear weapons in three former Soviet republics, the rapidly plunging Russian economy, and rising tensions between President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament in 1992. Even as Clinton pondered these important policy choices, he and his advisers felt deep personal empathy for the embattled Russian president and the reform project that he had embarked upon.
Declassified in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by the National Security Archive, these records are early highlights from a forthcoming reference collection on U.S.-Russia relations covering the entire 1990s. That set, US-Russian Relations from the End of the Soviet Union to the Rise of Vladimir Putin, will be published by ProQuest as part of the award-winning Digital National Security Archive series.
Even before William Jefferson Clinton became the 42nd president of the United States, he had developed a deep interest in Russia and its difficult transformation. During his presidential campaign, Clinton called for increased U.S. economic aid to Russia and criticized the Bush administration’s cautious approach. In his address to the Foreign Policy Association in New York on April 1, 1992, Governor Clinton talked about supporting revolutionary changes in Russia, which (along with a secret memo from former president Richard Nixon) prompted the Bush administration to announce its own aid package. However, much of that promised assistance had never materialized.
Clinton’s first meeting with Yeltsin took place during the Russian president’s visit to Washington in June 1992, two weeks after Clinton became the presumptive Democratic nominee. At the time, Yeltsin was focused on Bush, convinced that he would win reelection. Clinton was “a big admirer of [Yeltsin’s] since he stood on a tank to oppose an attempted coup” in August 1991 and found him to be “polite and friendly but slightly patronizing” in their 1992 meeting. Clinton nevertheless took an instant liking to the burly Russian with Siberian roots who was now passionately committed to turning Russia into a democracy and a market economy. Clinton decided to make Russia’s transformation his top foreign policy priority.
Dealing with the post-Cold War world was an enormous challenge for the United States as Clinton took office. In his Jan. 5, 1993, transition memorandum to Clinton’s Secretary of State-designate, Warren Christopher, outgoing Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said that the fate of Russian reform would be the key factor in ensuring peace and security in Europe (Document 1). Eagleburger was an experienced, top-ranking diplomat and former foreign policy aide to Henry Kissinger who became Secretary of State when Bush asked James Baker to join his campaign in 1992. One motive for his memo to Christopher was to counter the Clinton campaign’s focus on domestic politics (“It’s the economy, stupid!”). Interestingly, the memo does not contain any hints about the future of NATO except in the context of peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia.
While Eagleburger was mainly concerned about weapons of mass destruction and possible proliferation, Clinton wanted the U.S. relationship with Russia to be about much more than arms control. Talbott remembered how Clinton was totally immersed in what was happening in Russia during his early January 1993 working vacation in Hilton Head, South Carolina. (President Bush was then in Moscow to sign the START II Treaty.) According to Talbott, “Clinton was thinking hard about Russia, but not much about arms control.” The president-elect saw dealing with Russia’s economic crisis as the main challenge of the day. The Russian economy was in dire straits, as hyperinflation and the resulting loss of personal savings left a real danger of hunger during the winter.
Clinton made his first phone call to Yeltsin two days after the inauguration to express his commitment to supporting Russian reforms, using the word “partnership” several times during the conversation. Yeltsin was drunk when he took the call, according to Talbott, who said that his “words were slurred” and that “he seemed barely listening to what Clinton had to say.” The Russian president’s drunkenness “more bemused than shocked” Clinton, who grew up with an alcoholic stepfather. After the conversation, he described Yeltsin to Talbott as a “candidate for tough love if ever I heard one.” But as long as Yeltsin stayed committed to democratic reforms, his drinking would not derail the relationship. Yeltsin’s alcoholism would remain a theme during most of the 18 summits between the two leaders.
The selection of Talbott to be Clinton’s “Russia hand” (Ambassador-at-Large and Special Adviser to the Secretary of State on the New Independent States of the Former Soviet Union) was symbolic and also signaled the president’s personal commitment to the U.S.-Russia relationship. Talbott was Clinton’s personal friend and roommate from his days as a Rhodes Scholar. He had deep expertise in U.S.-Soviet relations, was fluent in Russian, and was determined not to miss a chance to help Russia on its road to democracy and the free market. In his book, Talbott emphasizes that, in fact, it was Bill Clinton himself who “became the U.S. government’s principal Russia hand, and so he remained for the duration of his presidency,” because of his deep involvement in policy toward Russia.
Talbott saw the Russian transformation as “the greatest political miracle of our era” and believed that, if successful, it would be of similar historical importance as the founding of the United States and its democratic system (Document 3). Talbott’s passionate call to support Russian reformers suggests that the Clinton administration’s Russia policy was genuine, sincere and well-intentioned.
Starting with Gorbachev, and even more so with Yeltsin, Russian leaders were desperate for the establishment of a new international system where Russia would be a true partner of the West. By 1993, all of the necessary elements seemed to be in place: the personal commitment of Bill Clinton, Russia’s willingness to follow the U.S. lead on many international issues, and a good track record of productive cooperation under the Nunn-Lugar program. Clinton’s Russia policy would produce some tremendous achievements (ironically most of them in arms control) and many disappointments in the 1990s. But at this moment of high hopes in February 1993, Clinton’s Russia team looked at the future optimistically.
U.S. Department of State, National Security Archive FOIA
The departing Secretary of State outlines opportunities and challenges for his successor in a tour d’horizon memo, stressing that Secretary-designate Christopher would face a very different world—a “world in the midst of revolutionary transition.” The key transformation is the end of the Cold War and the 15 new states that had emerged in place of the former USSR. For the first time in 50 years, the U.S. does “not face a global military adversary,” according to Eagleburger. Among the opportunities, he notes, is “the gradual incorporation of a reforming Russia and the East Europeans into a stable European system.” Among “potential troubles” is “armed conflict between Russia and any of a number of states on its periphery, with Ukraine not the most likely but certainly the most dangerous possibility.”
The success or failure of reforms in Russia would be especially important to the U.S., Eagleburger writes, because “Russia’s course in the years ahead holds the key to the future configuration of power in Eurasia” and “will determine whether a long-term threat to U.S. security re-emerges in that vast landmass.” Eagleburger sees three main priorities for U.S. policy toward Russia: 1) to “lock in…further stabilizing reductions of nuclear weapons” and make sure that Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus do not renege on their nuclear non-proliferation commitments; 2) to support economic reforms, since “history will not judge the United States kindly if we fail to offer generous assistance”; and 3) to respond with sensitivity to what happens in the Russian periphery. “We do not want to see turmoil on the outside and threats to Russian minorities cause more problems for democrats in Russia; nor do we want to see a reassertion of Russian imperial control,” advises Eagelburger.
Interestingly, the memo calls for “promoting long-term expansion” of the democratic community “to include our former Cold War adversaries.” NATO is mentioned in the context of former Yugoslavia. The “real test” of NATO’s continuing relevance was “in the Balkans,” according to Eagleburger, “not in theological disputes in Brussels.”
U.S. Department of State, National Security Archive FOIA
This memo captures President Clinton’s first phone call to Yeltsin, in which he expresses his sincere desire to support Russian economic reforms and democratization. Yeltsin hears exactly what he wants to hear from his American counterpart: “I am determined that, together, we can create the closest possible U.S.-Russia partnership.” Clinton tells Yeltsin that “we are determined to do whatever we can to help Russia’s democratic reforms to succeed,” and “make our economic aid as beneficial as possible,” including support for “rescheduling Russia’s debt in the Paris Club.” “Partnership” is a magical word for Yeltsin, who sought closer relations with the previous U.S. administration but could not get Bush to commit. Clinton emphasizes his personal commitment to the U.S.-Russian relationship, telling Yeltsin that he “appointed a very close friend and expert on Russia, Strobe Talbott, to oversee all of our assistance programs in Russia and Eastern Europe.” Clinton says the appointment of Talbott “will ensure that I can maintain a high level of personal involvement on this important issue.”
U.S. Department of State, National Security Archive FOIA
This record of a briefing given by “Russia hand” Strobe Talbott to Secretary Christopher before a meeting with the Russian foreign minister is one of the more insightful illustrations of how importantly the Clinton administration viewed the issue of Russian reforms. It also gives one a sense of the unprecedented level of personal commitment on the part of President Clinton and Talbott to advancing Russia’s democratic transition.
Talbott’s remarks open the briefing session for Secretary Christopher, who was preparing for his first meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev. Talbott contrasts his approach with that of Russia expert Peter Reddaway, who he describes as overly pessimistic (“Reddaway syndrome”). Although Talbott agrees that “Russia and the former Soviet Union constitute the single biggest and most dangerous political mess on the face of the earth,” he envisions a bright future if there is a high level of U.S. support for the Russian reform. Talbott describes the three “simultaneous transformations” then occurring in Russia, which he says “constitute nothing less than a miracle, the greatest political miracle of our era.” Talbott concludes his remarks on a high note, saying that if the Russian transformation continues, “it has the potential of matching in positive significance the birth of our own country, of our system, and of our role in the world.”
 Richard Nixon wrote in a secret memo to President Bush: “Aid to Russia and the other former communist nations is not charity. We must recognize that what helps us abroad helps us at home. If, for example, (Russian Federation President Boris) Yeltsin is replaced by a new aggressive Russian nationalist we can kiss the peace dividend good-bye. Not only would the world be far more dangerous but our defense foreign policy would be far more expensive. On the positive side, if Yeltsin succeeds a free market Russia will provide an opportunity for billions in trade, which will produce millions of jobs in the United States.” (The Nixon Foundation, https://www.nixonfoundation.org/2014/03/richard-nixon-post-yeltsin-russia/)
 Thomas Friedman, “THE 1992 CAMPAIGN: Foreign Policy; Turning His Sights Overseas, Clinton Sees a Problem at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” The New York Times, April 2, 1992. https://www.nytimes.com/1992/04/02/us/1992-campaign-foreign-policy-turning-his-sights-overseas-clinton-sees-problem.html
 Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian relations in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 12
 Bill Clinton, My Life (New York: Knopf, 2004), p. 412
 Strobe Talbott, The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy, (New York: Random House, 2003), pp. 42-43
 Ibid, p. 45
 Ibid, p. 5