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By John Helmer, Moscow

The records of the relationship between President Boris Yeltsin and President Bill Clinton, declassified for public reading since July, are revolutionary, but not for the reasons the Russian and US state media, journalists and academics on both sides chose to report last week.

That Yeltsin was ingratiating, wheedling, sycophantic towards Clinton is no surprise. In  desperation to survive politically in  the first half of 1996 and cardiologically in the second half of that year  Yeltsin begged Clinton for billions of dollars and the best American heart surgeons   — this too is well-known. It was just as well-known then, and again now, that the two of them schemed for a degree of American intervention in Russian domestic politics much greater, and far more potent, than the Hillary Clinton allegations of Russian intervention in the US since 2016.

It is also no secret that Yeltsin was more fearful of Yevgeny Primakov, foreign minister (1996-98) and then prime minister (September 1998-May 1999)  than any other Russian politician of the time;  and that Yeltsin picked Sergei Kirienko to be prime minister in 1978  and Vladimir Putin prime minister in 1999 because he regarded them as obedient ciphers who would follow his orders without questioning. About Primakov to Clinton, Yeltsin had nothing good to say. By contrast, Kirienko, Yeltsin told Clinton on the telephone on April 6, 1998, was “a very vigorous politician, a very skilful politician, and I think he’ll build good rapport with [Vice President Albert] Gore.”  

Putin, Yeltsin said in a telephone call on September 9, 1999, was dependable. He is “a solid man…thorough and strong, very sociable. And he can easily have good relations and contact with people who are his partners.” In another telephone call on November 9, 1999,  Yeltsin described Putin to Clinton as “a democrat and he knows the west… He’s tough internally, and I will do everything possible for him to win, legally of course. And he will win. You’ll do business together. He will continue the Yeltsin line on democracy and economics and widen Russia’s contacts.”

The revolutionary secret to have tumbled out is that no Russian position of any importance was ever acceptable to the US; that negotiations between the presidents and their subordinates achieved nothing but Russian concessions and the American conviction that reciprocation wasn’t necessary; that this was the decade-long US strategy; and that then — and still today — negotiations between Russia and the US can never be settled except on Russian capitulation to US terms. This is revolutionary because until now the Kremlin refuses to acknowledge it.

That war is the only alternative to capitulation has obvious revolutionary implications — and not only for Russia and the US.

The second revolutionary secret to have been revealed is that these records have been eligible for declassification and public release by the Clinton Presidential Library at the ten-year mark from the record date; this means from 2006 to 2009.  The additional decade of blackout for these records has been accepted by ex-president Clinton himself and the Obama Administration, not because they favoured it, but because they asked the Russians to agree, and the Kremlin  refused. Last week  Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman,  made the point that the president was unhappy at the disclosure.     This time the Americans, according to Peskov, “did not coordinate it or hold any consultations. These [records] are not always liable to declassifying.”

The secret in the Yeltsin-Clinton archive revealed for the first time is the secret President Putin didn’t want anyone to know. Anyone Russian, that is.

A batch of 591 pages was declassified by the Clinton Library between March and July of this year, and released publicly on July 13, 2018. They are transcripts of face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations. Click to read them here

The volume of pages is misleading. Every original document is reproduced at least twice; together with distribution logs within the White House, State Department and other US government agencies, plus archive routing slips and declassification notices;  paper management makes up more than three-quarters of the page total.

Because there was no press announcement, and because the document format is difficult to read, several weeks have elapsed before expert readers have been able to report on their significance. The main document release starts with a document dated April 21, 1996, and concludes on December 31, 1999. That was Yeltsin’s last day in office, when he resigned to give Putin the presidency and almost three months in power before election day on March 25, 2000. Yeltsin had already confided to Clinton more of his plan to elect Putin than he had revealed to Russian voters.

For each of the communications between the presidents, typed notices record that the classification should expire after ten years.


Left, declassification notice on the transcript of a telephone call between Yeltsin and Clinton, May 7, 1996. Right,  declassification notice attached to their telephone conversation record of December, 31, 1999. The code on the line for reason of classification refers to the foreign relations of the US. A small number of the documents in the Yeltsin file are marked X6 on the declassification line; this means that the document is exempt from the 10-year declassification rule because it may “damage relations between the United States and a foreign government…or seriously undermine diplomatic activities that are reasonably expected to be ongoing for a period greater than ten years.” Handwritten notes by White House staff acknowledged how sensitive the documents were at the time: “Andy”, an aide to Sandy Berger, then deputy National Security Advisor, wrote in the margin of a record of the lunch meeting between the presidents on April 23, 1996, “I’d rather not circulate at all. Is that possible? e”. To which Andrew Sens, the National Security Council Executive Secretary,  scribbled in reply: “Done.”  For more details of the US classification practice, read this

This means that the records from 1996 were eligible for release in 2006; the 1999 documents carry classification restrictions which were due to expire in 2009. Why another ten years have  passed without release hasn’t been noticed by American reporters nor explained. Russian analysts haven’t noticed the delay. Instead, they speculate that the timing of the release now is an American plot. Georgy Bovt claims in Gazeta.ru that the release has been contrived by the Trump Administration, though Bovt isn’t clear what their motive is, except to reveal Yeltsin and Clinton agreeing on US Government involvement to sway the outcome of the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections in Russia.

In addition to complaining that the Trump Administration had an obligation to consult the Kremlin in advance of release, but failed to do so, Peskov said in remarks quoted by Tass: “As a rule documents concerning current politicians are not declassified. That’s international practice.” Yeltsin died on April 23, 2007, so if he himself had been objecting, his reason ceased more than ten years ago. There has been no objection to the release of the papers from either of the Clintons. So Peskov’s objection suggests that President Putin has been trying to block the release of the documents by the Obama Administration since 2006.

“I hug you, Bill. I give you a good warm hug”, Yeltsin concluded a telephone conversation in August 14, 1998. That was just three days before the Russian Government defaulted on its treasury debt, the largest commercial banks failed, and the rouble collapsed. Not a word was said by Yeltsin to indicate he knew what was about to happen.

Yeltsin’s sign-off hugging with Clinton reveals the idea Yeltsin kept repeating, at Clinton’s encouragement — that the two of them were not only political equals but bosom friends. On May 1, 1996, when Clinton was visiting Moscow at Yeltsin’s request for an endorsement of Yeltsin’s re-election at the first round of voting, due on June 16, Yeltsin claimed “we will be conducting an honest, equal partnership. We have already decided many issues, which we will take up at the press conference.” In fact, neither then, nor for the rest of Yeltsin’s term in office, did the two of them decide anything significant together. Of state policy, that is.  

Yeltsin’s priority was personal survival, and for that Clinton was much more agreeable. A week after Clinton’s pre-election visit to Moscow, Yeltsin telephoned to ask: “Please understand me correctly. Bill, for my election campaign, I urgently need for Russia a loan of $2.5 billion.” When Clinton equivocated, saying he thought payment of $1 billion in an earlier International Monetary Fund IMF tranche should have been enough, Yeltsin replied that only $300 million had been received.

To persuade Clinton, Yeltsin claimed the threat of election victory by Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist  Party leader, “would cancel the reforms and abolish privatization…They would take back Crimea, even make claims against Alaska.” The records now reveal the desperate measures and money on which Yeltsin and Clinton agreed, and Anatoly Chubais was appointed to manage, in order to block the communists,  and also undermine the swing to the independent nationalist, Alexander Lebed. “If it gets too hard for us,” Yeltsin confided by telephone to Clinton on June 15, the eve of the vote, “I shall call you.” This was a refrain he repeated.

On June 18, Clinton telephoned to endorse the voting fraud he knew had given Yeltsin his  first-round margin over Zyuganov of 35.8% to 32.5%, with Lebed at 14.7%.  “You are well-positioned for the second round,” Clinton claimed. “Congratulations. It was an extraordinary turnout.”  The Communist Party, Lebed’s organization, and the other opposition parties all knew Yeltsin had fabricated from 5% to 10% of the turnout, and had in fact lost the real vote to Zyuganov.

This triggered furious infighting among Yeltsin’s advisors, and a US-backed Kremlin putsch led by Chubais. He emerged on top, declaring on June 20: “There will be no coup in Russia. There will be an election in Russia.” For that story, reported in the US media version, read this.  Telling Clinton that Lebed’s nationalism was the lesser of the two evils, and that he couldn’t win the second round without Lebed’s endorsement, Yeltsin confided: “Well Bill, it is understandable in this situation that I had to join with Lebed.” The release of documents reveals nothing about the Chubais plot to oust Mikhail Barsukhov, director of the Federal Security Service;   Alexander Korzhakov, chief of the president’s personal bodyguard;   Oleg Soskovets, a first deputy prime minister; and General Pavel Grachev, the Defense Minister.

On July 3, the second round resulted in Yeltsin defeating Zyuganov by 54.4% to 40.7%, with a 68.8% turnout. Clinton telephoned on July 5 to say: “I’m so happy and I wanted to call and tell you that I am proud of you..”

By then Yeltsin believed he was dying of heart failure, and he didn’t trust Russian surgeons to save him.  On September 15, 1996, he told Clinton by telephone: “it would be a good idea if experts from the U.S. could come to consult for the operation.” On November 6, the US press version of the operation was that Michael DeBakey, whom Clinton had arranged to “consult”, had ensured the operation had been “a complete success.”’

Yeltsin telephoned Clinton on December 5: “Your doctors are good – great experts. They did a great deal. They were always there before and during the operation, and afterwards. I will never forget what you did for me.”

Primakov (right) became Yeltsin’s foreign minister in January 1996, but his influence on Yeltsin’s policymaking did not appear in the Clinton papers until a year later. On February 27, 1997, Clinton telephoned to say that while the US intended to press ahead with enlargement of the NATO alliance among the former Soviet and Warsaw Pact states on Russia’s western borders, he proposed to give Yeltsin an assurance. “I think we can define a NATO-Russia relationship that will serve both sides’ interests, and make Russia a true partner of NATO and assure Russia a major role in Europe.”

He also promised Yeltsin that if Russia didn’t oppose NATO enlargement the US would agree to commence negotiations for a new round of nuclear arms reductions, a Strategic Arms Reduction START-III treaty. Yeltsin wanted to believe Clinton; Primakov was deeply suspicious. The turning-point happened on March 21, 1997, when Yeltsin and Clinton met in Helsinki.

Yeltsin was now following Primakov’s script. “Our position has not changed,” he told Clinton. But it had. Yeltsin had won re-election and recovered from his surgery. He depended on Clinton less; he depended on the domestic balance of forces more.  “It remains a mistake for NATO to move eastward,”  he declared. He himself was ready to concede some ground on this, if Clinton insisted. And he did. “But I need to take steps to alleviate the negative consequences of this for Russia. I am prepared to enter into an agreement with NATO not because I want to but because it is a forced step. There is no other solution for today.”

There were Russian conditions for restricting the US plan to push NATO eastward. These restrictions, Yeltsin said, had to take the form of an “agreement [which] must be legally binding – signed by all 16 Allies. Decisions by NATO are not to be taken without taking into account the concerns or opinions of Russia. Also, nuclear and conventional arms cannot move eastward into new members to the borders of Russia, thus creating a new cordon sanitaire aimed at Russia.”

This was a clear statement to the Americans of Russian policy – the policy now associated with Putin as president. At the time Yeltsin explained it to Clinton in Helsinki, Putin was a minor Kremlin functionary,  deputy chief of the department in charge of presidential property.

MAP OF NATO ENLARGEMENT, 1949-2017


Source, with country key and enlargement dates: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enlargement_of_NATO

Yeltsin would concede NATO enlargement of membership eastward, he told Clinton, but not over the former Soviet border. “One thing is very important: enlargement should also not embrace the former Soviet  republics. I cannot sign any agreement without such language. Especially Ukraine.”  He added that other NATO recruitment moves in the Caucasus and Central Asia were hostile. “We followed closely [NATO Secretary-General Javier] Solana’s activities in Central Asia. They were not to our liking. He was pursuing an anti-Russian course.” The American state media version of what Solana was doing at the time can be read here.


Yevgeny Primakov and Javier Solana at a joint press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, December 1996. For the text of their remarks, read this.

Yeltsin also warned Clinton that  US naval operations in the Black Sea,  off the coast of Crimea, ,  were threatening, reminding him what the US reaction would be if the Russian Navy acted reciprocally.  “You are conducting naval maneuvers near Crimea. It is as if we were training people in Cuba. How would you feel? It is unacceptable to us. We are not going out to seize Sevastopol… We respect Georgia, Moldova and other countries and have no claims on their territory. We merely want to rent some facilities for our Black Sea fleet.”

Clinton replied: “I’ve tried to reassure you, the Russian government and the Russian people that I am trying to change NATO.” But he rejected each of Yeltsin’s proposals. “If we were to agree that no members of the former Soviet Union could enter NATO it would be a bad thing for our attempt to build a new NATO, but it would also be a bad thing for your attempt to build a new Russia.” He also dismissed Yeltsin’s proposal that the US might give reassurances on NATO expansion in a secret protocol attached to Russia’s pact with NATO. “There are no secrets in this world”,   Clinton warned.  Even if he contemplated making the concession to Yeltsin, it would be leaked to the Baltic states. “It would create exactly the fear among the Baltics and others that you are trying to allay. “

Yeltsin said he himself was ready to accept Clinton’s demands, but that he would be required to submit their NATO agreement to the State Duma for ratification. “It will ratify the document, then it will attach a condition that if NATO takes in even one of the former republics of the Soviet Union, Russia will pull out of the agreement and consider it null and void.”

Yeltsin then offered Clinton what he demanded in public for NATO’s enlargement, with a private, secret concession:

Clinton refused.  Yeltsin retreated and gave way again.  “Okay, let us agree – one-on-one – that the former Soviet republics will not be in the first waves. Bill, please understand me, I am flying back to Russia with a very heavy burden on my shoulders. It will be difficult for me to go home and not seem to have accepted NATO enlargement. Very difficult.”

Clinton conceded nothing, telling Yeltsin “you’re forcing an issue that doesn’t need to drive a wedge between us here.”

Yeltsin then tried to exchange his concessions on NATO with a new strategic arms reduction treaty, START-III. “I suggest we do away with all cruise missiles, land- and sea- and air-based, and in this way put the whole issue of cruise missiles behind us.” Clinton was dismissive.  Yeltsin conceded  more ground. “Okay, we’ll talk again.”  Yeltsin tried one more proposal – to get Clinton’s agreement not to develop and deploy the so-called Star Wars system with anti-ballistic missile (ABM)  interceptors. “In addition to the four elements where we agree, we need to say more about negotiating on high-velocity interceptors.”

Clinton rejected this too. “Well, it sounds as though we really haven’t agreed on anything.”

“We need to do a bit more than that”, Yeltsin tried conciliating Clinton. But Clinton was adamant. “Look Boris, we’ve resolved this issue two or three times, but it always comes back again and again…There’s no way you can draw a line today that answers every possibility that could arise tomorrow.”

This was Clinton’s ultimatum. Either Yeltsin accepted the US demands without preconditions in public and without undertakings in secret, or the US would wind up their talks with a public disclosure making a fool of Yeltsin.  Primakov interrupted, complaining the Americans were refusing to reciprocate Russian concessions; Yeltsin overruled him:

Two months later, on May 27, 1997, Yeltsin and Clinton met again at the US Embassy in Paris. Primakov was present. They met next in Denver on June 20. Primakov was in Yeltsin’s delegation; but also for the first time Chubais, then titled a deputy prime minister. Clinton hinted that for the next round of talks on the proposed NATO-Russia agreement, Yeltsin should replace Primakov with “someone else… a serious person to represent your interests at what will be seen as a serious event.”

This was an attack on Primakov’s influence, and Yeltsin conceded: “We will have a person there who will have the status of a Deputy Prime Minister.”  The NATO press release, issued after that event, flew in the face of everything Yeltsin and Primakov had tried to negotiate.   Primakov told Clinton: “We need constructive instructions on your side, not just previous positions.” They did not materialize.

As the Americans understood, Yeltsin preferred the appearance of agreement with Clinton and would sacrifice the substance if Clinton insisted.  In a telephone conversation on October 30, Yeltsin reiterated his belief in their equality as well as in coordination of their policymaking towards other states. “I am planning to visit China on November 9. So we’ll be able to synchronize our watches, you and I, as far as China is concerned.”

Clinton then began demanding Yeltsin “synchronize watches” on threatening Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  Yeltsin and Primakov asked Clinton to allow them to negotiate with Hussein without the threat of an American military attack. Clinton responded: “I can’t rule out the use of force under any circumstances because he’s threatened to shoot down our airplanes.” Yeltsin did not demur.

In April 1998 the released documents reveal that in their telephone calls Yeltsin complained that US Ambassador to Moscow James Collins (right) had been making public criticisms of Russia’s efforts to expand its relationships with its fareastern neighbours. Yeltsin asked Clinton to reprimand Collins; Clinton did not agree. Instead, he and Yeltsin discussed what the US alleged was an increase in the number of Russian intelligence officers in the US. Yeltsin suggested reciprocal and proportionate reductions of the numbers. “Okay”, Clinton responded without committing himself. “Our people will get together on it.”

He then added two fresh demands for Yeltsin, insisting on action to stop Russian exports of specialty steel and technologies for the Iranian missile development programme; and fresh pressure on the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, to protect the Albanian muslim community in Kosovo.  Yeltsin told Clinton he agreed.

By the time Yeltsin and Clinton met again face to face at the G-8 summit meeting in Birmingham on May 18, 1997, Yeltsin had convinced Clinton he was so desperate for a US-led bailout of Russia’s deteriorating financial condition, he would concede whatever US demands were made on Milosevic. At no point in the record of their exchanges did Yeltsin raise Serbian concerns about secession from the Yugoslav republic by Kosovo or US backing for Kosovar terrorists. Instead, he agreed with Clinton to focus on Milosevic.  “We’re working constantly with Milosevic. He’s a stubborn guy, not easy to work with.  But you can make deals with him. We’ve been exchanging messages, making phone calls, doing everything to push him to engage with the Albanian community in Kosovo.”

On May 28, 1998, Yeltsin begged Clinton to persuade US investors to express their confidence in the financial soundness of the Russian state and the banks. “I would like to ask you, Bill, one way or another to state that the Russian leadership and government and president will handle the situation which has now developed… I would like to ask you to address your investors who work here in Russia so that they will not panic and do not leave Russia with their investments… There is no catastrophic situation here. We need your support. People in the world must know that you support us.”

Clinton replied with conditions: Yeltsin had to accept the IMF’s terms for a new loan; push a US-drafted tax code through the State Duma; toughen the government’s control over the Russian Central Bank; and “send a clear signal to markets that Russia has a reform strategy that will work.”

In mid-June, ahead of the arrival of Milosevic in Moscow, Yeltsin telephoned Clinton. “I tell you, Bill, I am planning to have a tough talk with Milosevic.” But Yeltsin also requested reciprocal measures from Clinton. If Milosevic agreed not to use force against the Kosovars, the US and NATO had to undertake not to attack Serbia.   

Clinton appeared to concur. “I think we should work together through the UN…I think we can avoid having this situation require any [NATO military] intervention.” On June 16, Yeltsin telephoned Clinton with his report of what he had done with Milosevic:

A month later, in their telephone conversation of July 10, 1998, Yeltsin told Clinton the financial situation in Moscow was urgent and he asked the president to accelerate IMF disbursement of a new loan. “If we do not get a decision soon, by the end of next week, it would mean the end of reform and basically the end of Russia..,. The IMF envisages a process of three weeks, but three weeks is too long for us….We need the decision in one week – by July 16. Because here on the line are not only my authority and honor, but also yours and the entire international community.” Clinton replied with the condition that Yeltsin stop cooperation between Russian and Iranian companies.

On August 14, Clinton told Yeltsin “the program Kiriyenko and Chubays put in place is absolutely critical to find a path out of the financial crisis. You have made the right choice.” Yeltsin also told Clinton he had been taking advice from Yegor Gaidar, the unpopular former prime minister and a supporter of US economic policies for Russia. Clinton’s remarks endorse both Chubais and Gaidar as the Russians he wanted the US to deal with.

It wasn’t enough, Yeltsin said.  “I believe it would be worthwhile for us to take steps jointly with the Duma and face the Duma together. That would be a real shocking situation for them, the members of the Duma, and I think it will be a sure win for us… if the President of the US comes to Russia and together with the President of Russia, you and I go to the Duma and address them, I think it would be a very strong move on our part.”

Yeltsin didn’t say why he believed that Duma action could stop the impending financial collapse, or prevent the capital flight which was emptying the Russian treasury and banks faster than the IMF could refill them.  He asked Clinton to keep his Duma idea secret. “If we decide to go to the Duma together, perhaps we could call it a revolution, a small one, but a revolution, I think. But you see, Bill, I think we should keep the whole thing under wraps, it should be kept secret. No one should learn what we are planning to do. I think our telephone line is reliable and will not let out this secret.”

Clinton told Yeltsin  he had confidence in Yeltsin’s team of advisors, especially Gaidar.  He then tied US support for the financial bailout to Russian pressure on Milosevic in Belgrade, insisting Yeltsin could stop Serbian operations against the armed Kosovar units, if he tried harder with Milosevic. If he didn’t, the US and NATO would act unilaterally.  “If the situation continues to deteriorate”, Clinton  threatened, “we will be forced to respond with or without the United Nations.” “The most important thing right now”, Yeltsin responded, “is to prevent a military solution to the conflict.”

The two presidents had agreed on nothing; Yeltsin had received nothing he had asked for. Still, he concluded the call: “I hug you, Bill. I give you a good, warm hug.”

Eleven days later, following the Russian state default, they spoke again by telephone. Clinton was vocably reassuring. “I’m very glad I had this conversation with you,” Yeltsin responded. “It has really put me in a better mood and eased my feelings.” He tried reassuring Clinton that the growing Russian hostility towards the American operations against Serbia would not affect their relationship. “You can be assured that I will extend to you warmth and hospitality, as my friend, while you are in Moscow. And you will see no signs going against you in the streets of Moscow.”

Clinton had no intention of going to Moscow but didn’t say so. “Good. Good-bye”, he signed off. “Bill,” Yeltsin signed off, “a hug from me until I see you next time.”

On September 12, Yeltsin kept trying to reassure Clinton that his appointment of Primakov as the new prime minister – forced by the majority of Duma votes over Yeltsin’s attempt to nominate Victor Chernomyrdin – should not upset the White House.   Primakov is “as we say, an Americanist. He has been an American expert since long ago.” Clinton expressed no confidence in Primakov. “I think it is important that we work closely on this and very important Primakov put in place people who understand the new global economy… Boris, I think getting Primakov in there stabilized the government with a strong person, and that is good, but now that that problem is solved, we have to solve the economic problem. I want to help.”


Victor Chernomyrdin with President Clinton at the White House on May 3, 1999. The US refused to negotiate on the war against Serbia or terms for Kosovo with Prime Minister Primakov, so Yeltsin picked Chernomyrdin as his special envoy because he was acceptable to Clinton. On May 12, 1999, nine days after Chernomyrdin was in Washington, Yeltsin removed Primakov as prime minister, claiming he had failed to make “decisions that are necessary for the revival of the economy for another six months.” Primakov was ousted on the eve of impeachment hearings against Yelstin in the Duma.  

Clinton’s condition was that Yeltsin and Primakov deliver Milosevic. The bombing of Serbia by US and NATO started on March 24, 1999, and Clinton telephoned just ahead of the first airstrikes to tell Yeltsin.  Milosevic “left us no choice. I know you oppose what we are doing, but I want you to know that I am determined to do whatever I can to keep our disagreement on this from ruining everything else we have done and we can do together in the coming years.”

 “I’m afraid we shall not succeed in that,” Yeltsin reacted. He hinted that instead of bombing raids against Serbia, it might be possible to change Serbian policy by ousting Milosevic from power or  assassinating him.

Yeltsin understood and told Clinton frankly that the NATO war on Serbia would destroy positive Russian sentiment towards the US, and make Yeltsin’s efforts futile. “I ask you to renounce that [air] strike and I suggest that we should meet somewhere and develop a tactical line of fighting against Milosevic, against him personally.”

Yeltsin also told Clinton it was the end of the road for their relationship, at least the public record of it which the Kremlin had been releasing. In private there would be no more hugs. “Well, since I failed to convince the [US] President, that means there is in store for us a very difficult, difficult  road of contacts, if they prove to be possible. Goodbye.”

Yeltsin continued to initiate telephone calls. On April 19, 1999, he told Clinton  “the developments of the past few weeks confirm that the US and NATO have made a big mistake. You have miscalculated the consequences of the situation itself. Milosevic will never capitulate.” The effect of Yeltsin’s disclosures confirmed to Clinton that Yeltsin had capitulated, and that the US and NATO had a free hand in the Balkans.

Yeltsin assured Clinton he was blocking recommendations from the military – he called them “the Communists” – to re-arm Milosevic’s forces, and reinforce them with Russian troops.  “Today I gave orders to repeal previous instructions to send seven ships to the conflict area… We will not provide them with our military equipment”.  He told Clinton he had refused an appeal from Milosevic for S-300 anti-aircraft missile batteries. He claimed he had rejected General Staff proposals to aid the Serbs; and seen off a revolt among senior Russian army commanders proposing to despatch volunteers.


Colonel-General Victor Chechevatov. Following Yeltsin’s action against him, he was appointed Rector of the Russian Customs Academy. Chechevatov is reported by the Russian press to have been a senior Cossack commander and a royalist. For details: https://en.crimerussia.com/

In reciprocation, Yeltsin asked Clinton to agree to a “pause” in the bombing and an undertaking that no NATO troops would be sent to Kosovo. Clinton rejected everything. “Do not push Russia into this war,” Yeltsin appealed. “You know what Russia is. You know how it is equipped, but don’t push Russia into this.” Clinton didn’t take Yeltsin’s threat seriously. “Wait a minute, Boris,” he retorted. “I am agreeing with what you are trying to do, but what I am saying is you have got all of the Europeans here taking the lead in this initiative.”

Yeltsin retreated. “Mr President, you should be assured that we are not taking sides with Milosevic. My only aim is to stop the war and stop the air raids.” It was obvious to Clinton that Yeltsin had no options and no surprises in store.  On May 2, in a call to request Clinton to send an official greeter to Washington airport and agree to meet himself with Chernomyrdin for a briefing on Milosevic, Yeltsin was relieved at Clinton’s agreement. “Are we agreed on this, Bill?” “Yes, we are.” “I owe you a bear hug.” “Yes, I want a bear hug.”

In telephone calls with Clinton in June, Yeltsin thought that having removed Primakov from the prime ministry on May 12,  and suppressed the General Staff revolt over NATO intervention in Yugoslavia, Clinton would agree to Yeltsin’s request for a bombing halt. But Clinton responded with fresh conditions for the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo.  “Do I understand that you are now drawing back?” Yeltsin asked the obvious. Clinton didn’t bother to reply.

On June 12, the Russian military command took the initiative to deploy Russian troops from their peacekeeper positions in Bosnia 650 kilometres south to Pristina Airport, in Kosovo, where they threatened to block the deployment of NATO forces also assigned to peacekeeping roles in the seceding region. For details of the incident from the US and NATO perspective, read this.  On June 13 Clinton told Yeltsin to issue new orders to the Russian force at the airport.  “The story of the airport will overshadow everything we are doing to bring peace to Kosovo”. Clinton threatened that if Yeltsin didn’t do what he was told, that “could possibly undermine…the chance for Russia and the G-8 to have a great success in Cologne [G-8 summit scheduled for June 20].”


At Pristina Airport at Slatina, Kosovo, June 13, 1999. Left, British General Mike Jackson; right, General Victor Zavarzin, commander of the Russian forces. For western media consumption, Yeltsin’s foreign minister Igor Ivanov announced the deployment of the Russian unit had been a mistake. For the Russian media, the Kremlin claimed Yeltsin had ordered the operation and promoted Zavarzin to match Jackson’s rank. Zavarzin commanded 250 troops with armoured cars, and held another 100 in reserve in Bosnia. For a British version, read this

Yeltsin replied it was up to Clinton and himself to agree first, and only then, “after we do that, we can give instructions to the group of generals.”

Yeltsin appears to have thought the Pristina incident had recouped some of the bargaining power he had lost to Clinton at the beginning of the war. But he continued thinking, and telling Clinton directly, they should make a secret personal deal together.  Clinton thought this preposterous; as he had before he refused to agree. “Boris, my impression is our people have to work this out. We can meet, you and I, but we have to have some idea of where we are going first.” If Yeltsin wanted Clinton to agree, Clinton required he accept his condition for “this short-term solution [of] the airport issue.”

Instead of Yeltsin’s submarine or island, Clinton suggested they could meet during the G-8 summit meeting in Cologne,   then two weeks away.  “You and I can go somewhere in the vicinity of Cologne, around the G-8, because you are leaving Russia, and anyway, I will be there.” Yeltsin replied: “Yes, but this is not a very clear plan.” Clinton let his annoyance show, demanding Yeltsin agree to his pre-condition.  “Boris, let me be as clear as I can. I am prepared to meet, but I am not prepared to meet as long as we have this impasse at the airport.”

“No, Bill, “Yeltsin replied , “it will not work that way.” He then intimated that he had known nothing of Zavarzin’s move to occupy the airport.  “We will find the people responsible and guilty of doing this,” Yeltsin told Clinton. “There is not such a person in the presidency, and we will find the one in the military who initiated this.”  Yeltsin was either lying to Clinton or conceding he had lost control of his military. Either way, his telephone call confirmed he was ready to capitulate.

A week later they met in Cologne face to face. Yeltsin made a present to Clinton of Russian intelligence agency archives on the death of President John Kennedy in 1963 and the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.  Yeltsin asked Clinton to recognize that since there were no longer any restrictions on the travel of Russians abroad, and no bar to Jewish emigration, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment should be repealed; since 1974 this had tied emigration of Soviet Jews to trade normalization with the US. Clinton claimed this couldn’t be done because there was anti-Semitism in Russia, and because there were restrictions on the travel abroad of Russians who had held security clearances for defence work.

These were new American conditions. Yeltsin replied: “On anti-Semitism, you give me the names and I will grind them down.” There was no agreement.

On November 19, 1999, Yeltsin and Clinton met at Istanbul. It was the last face-to-face meeting of the two presidents in office. Yeltsin criticized the US for aiding Chechen terrorists based in Turkey. “Well, Bill, what about those camps here in Turkey that are preparing troops to go into Chechnya? Aren’t you in charge of those?…I want to show you where the mercenaries are being trained and then being sent into Chechnya. Bill, this is your fault.”

Clinton ignored the point. He then defended the US anti-ballistic missile (ABM) programme which Yeltsin charged was a violation of the ABM treaty of 1972.   “I want to do this cooperatively. I want to persuade you that this is good for both of us. The primary purpose is to protect against terrorists and rogue states.”

Yeltsin rejoined that they should agree together that Russia would guard Europe’s security, and the US would guard the rest of the world. “Just give Europe to Russia. The US is not in Europe. Europe should be the business of Europeans. Russia is half European and half Asian…” Clinton: “I don’t think the Europeans would like this very much.” Yeltsin: “Not all. But I am a European. I live in Moscow. Moscow is in Europe and I like it. You can take all the other states and provide security to them.”

Clinton then proposed a plan for sending American and European security observers to Chechnya. Yeltsin replied that Chechnya was an internal Russian matter. “This meeting has gone on too long,” he added. “You should come to visit, Bill.”

In their last telephone conversation, on the Moscow afternoon of December 31, 1999, Yeltsin told Clinton “if I find myself in America, I will drop by at your place and, together, and we will be able to remember all that we managed to achieve together.”  Through repetition of Clinton’s tactic of upping the ante for every concession Yeltsin made, next to nothing was achieved by the two together. Only one Russian official appears in the record to have recognized this explicitly – Primakov.  At Helsinki he had told Clinton “we’ve been told to accept only American terms and conditions and have gotten nothing nothing in return.”

 “The main lesson of the publication of the Clinton–Yeltsin talks,” reported Pyotr Akopov in Vzglyad, “is to see once again the difference between the sovereign state which Russia is today, and the semi-colony into which it voluntarily turned itself then.”  Is it possible, Bovt asked in his essay  in Gazeta.ru, for Russia to have a non-adversarial partnership with the US in principle?  His conclusion – not then, not now, not ever.

Despite their differences, Russian analysts agree it was Clinton’s attack on Milosevic and the NATO bombing of Serbia which confirmed Primakov’s assessment that no negotiations with the US are possible for Russia short of unconditional submission; and that the US strategy for Russia requires nothing less than surrender. They agree Yeltsin’s record was one of capitulation, successful only in that it kept Yeltsin in power, his domestic allies in money, and his heart ticking.

The lesson of the Pristina Airport incident is not discussed openly in the Russian media, but acknowledged nonetheless. It’s the one option Yeltsin convinced Clinton he would use against Russians but never against Americans – force.  

“What a rich irony Yeltsin leaves us in this record of his dealings with Clinton,” observes a senior Soviet officer now retired in Moscow. “Yeltsin proves that because negotiations with the Americans are impossible, and because Russians will not capitulate, war is inevitable.  And this from the Communist Party veteran, the Politburo member,  who was brought up to believe war was inevitable between communism and capitalism. And he, self-appointed liberator of Russia from communism, ends up proving he didn’t free us from war with the Americans at all. Ha!”

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