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Limits of personal diplomacy

Petr Lunak reviews and compares the memoirs of Strobe Talbott, Boris Yeltsin and Yevgeniy Primakov.

Among Strobe Talbott's many qualities is an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. In the late 1960s, as a promising young Russian/Soviet expert, he was awarded a scholarship to Oxford University to write a thesis on the poet Vladimir Mayakovskiy and found himself sharing a house with a young Bill Clinton, there as a Rhodes Scholar.

While at Oxford, Talbott was also commissioned to translate and prepare for publication the memoirs of deposed Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who was by then living as a "special pensioner" near Moscow. And while working on the memoirs, he spent countless hours discussing Soviet affairs with Clinton, who was already demonstrating a passion for politics. In 1992, after almost a quarter of a century as a journalist and writer - during which he co-authored At the Highest Levels on Soviet-US relations at the end of the Cold War, among other books - Talbott was offered the position of ambassador-at-large for the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union when his former housemate was elected president. In Clinton's second term, Talbott became Deputy Secretary of State. In both roles, he was charged with formulating US policy towards Russia

Talbott's memoir, The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy (Random House, 2002), offers fascinating insights into the Clinton administration's decision-making vis-à-vis Russia. From the outset, Talbott insists that Clinton alone was in charge of formulating the strategic direction of this policy. So much so that it almost seems as if, in his own gentlemanly way, Talbott - who often drew heavy criticism as the personification of the administration's "Russia-first" policy - is downplaying the importance of his role in key decisions and events.

On the other end of Washington's relationship with Moscow was Boris Yeltsin, whose career embodies the turmoil that Russia experienced throughout the 20th century. Yeltsin had been a communist apparatchik who, as party boss in Sverdlovsk (now known again by its pre-revolutionary name, Yekaterinburg), had overseen the destruction of the house in which the last Tsar and his family were executed in 1918 in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. Yeltsin subsequently became first an enthusiastic advocate of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and then one of Gorbachev's harshest critics as the last Soviet president started to back-pedal on reform. After the aborted putsch of August 1991, Yeltsin effectively dealt a deathblow to the by then moribund Soviet Union, and became a self-styled democrat relying on an instinctive, rather than a reflective, understanding of what democracy truly meant. This personal journey as well as his and Clinton's conviction that post-communist Russia needed to forge cooperative relations with the West, provided the background to the eight years that he and Clinton shared as presidents of their respective countries. That intense period is neatly encapsulated in Yeltsin's memoir, Midnight Diaries (PublicAffairs, 2002), ghostwritten by his former Chief of Staff Valentin Yumashev.

Rightly or wrongly, Yeltsin was seen by Clinton - and by himself - as the only politician capable of maintaining Russia on a course towards both democracy and closer and deeper relations with the West. Clinton was convinced that Yeltsin's term in office offered a window of opportunity that had to be seized. In many ways, however, Yeltsin's Russia was less of a window of opportunity and more of a mirror reflecting what Washington wanted to see. Yeltsin was, for example, surrounded by a strange entourage, which included dubious characters of the likes of Boris Berezovsky or General Aleksandr Korzhakov - both of whom were originally appointed by Yeltsin. Having grown rich on the back of Russia's privatisations, these and other individuals used their personal relationship with Yeltsin to exert great influence over the country's political evolution. It seems that the question of the extent to which Yeltsin was personally responsible for this state of affairs and whether such an environment was conducive to assisting Russia's democratic transition never really impacted Clinton's thinking.

While the United States could not apply its own standards to a country making its first steps towards a pluralist society, the Clinton administration chose to gloss over matters in Russia that would probably not have been treated so leniently in any other emerging democracy. Two notorious examples stand out. First, in 1993, Clinton - apparently against Talbott's recommendations - gave unqualified support to Yeltsin when the latter used force to dissolve the country's anti-democratic parliament seemingly without considering the extent to which democracy can be promoted by such methods. Similarly, at the beginning of the first Chechen war, Clinton, on the basis of incomplete information, effectively sanctioned Yeltsin's ill-advised and ill-designed campaign, by comparing it to Abraham Lincoln's conduct in the American Civil War.

As Talbott shows all too well, US policy on Russia was a permanent crisis-management operation provoked not only by external events in both Russia and the United States, but also by Yeltsin's all-too-frequent indispositions. Nonetheless, this crisis-management operation was, on the whole, successful, and Talbott rightly points to many victories. These included preventing Russia from selling rocket components to India, a step that would probably have upset the delicate strategic balance between India and Pakistan. It also included an agreement on the removal of Soviet-era nuclear missiles from Ukraine in exchange for Russian guarantees of Ukraine's security and persuading Russia to honour previous commitments on troop withdrawals from the Baltic states, thereby preparing the ground for their inclusion into the Alliance. Moreover, the United States managed to institutionalise NATO-Russia relations on the eve of the first wave of NATO enlargement, and secured Russian involvement to help bring the Kosovo conflict to an end, as well as the deployment of Russian peacekeepers there.

Russian willingness to engage in a constructive dialogue was a prerequisite for the resolution of these issues and Yeltsin was clearly central to maintaining this dialogue. Moreover, Russia remained as constructive even after Yeltsin decided in January 1996 to replace Andrey Kozyrev, a committed westerniser, at the Foreign Ministry with Yevgeniy Primakov, whose career had been spent in the intelligence services. Although Yeltsin describes the latter as having "too much red on his palette", Primakov proved in most cases to be a great pragmatist both as foreign minister until September 1998 and then as prime minister until May 1999. Indeed, despite frequent diplomatic lapses - including calling then NATO Secretary General Javier Solana a "stool pigeon of the United States" - Primakov was generally as ready to accept compromise as his predecessor. In this way, the demise of Kozyrev did not reflect a shift in Yeltsin's worldview but was a political reshuffle aimed at placating his foreign-policy critics. As Talbott implicitly argues, in the end, it was often easier to deal with Primakov, who was able to deliver, than with Kozyrev, whose room for manoeuvre was limited and whose positions were frequently undermined.

In his memoir Vospominanyja: Gody v bol'shoi politike or Recollections: Years in Great Politics, (Sovershenno Sekretno, 1999), Primakov devotes much space to the issue of NATO enlargement and Moscow's efforts to mitigate its alleged negative impact. He likens this policy to "sleeping with a porcupine", a phrase he attributes to Warren Christopher, but which Talbott believes was initially coined by Primakov. By his own account, Primakov had already concluded in early 1996 that the best possible Russian policy was "to continue to express opposition to enlargement but, simultaneously, conduct talks in order to minimise its negative consequences".

Despite this, Primakov embarked on a policy that was probably just as unrealistic as that of trying to stall NATO's enlargement. Russia sought nothing less than a legally binding treaty stipulating co-decision-making between NATO and Russia on all matters of European security, including the use of force, and prohibition of the stationing of nuclear weaponry on the territory of new members. While this was unacceptable to the NATO nations since it would limit their freedom of action and relegate new member countries to a second-class status, the Alliance was willing to meet Moscow halfway. NATO unilaterally declared that there was "no reason, no need and no plan" to deploy nuclear weapons and multilateral combat forces on the territory of the new members. Moreover, in 1997 the NATO-Russia Founding Act, spelling out the agenda for cooperation, was agreed and a new consultative body called the Permanent Joint Council (PJC) established.

From his memoirs, it seems that Primakov was never particularly enamoured by these arrangements and that, from the Russian point of view, the Founding Act and the PJC were only meant to be an instrument to "keep the porcupine's quills from making Russia too miserable" and not an instrument to develop NATO-Russia relations. In fact, Primakov writes, the only positive consequence of the PJC's existence was that NATO fears of a possible Russian walk-out kept the Alliance from escalating its combat effort in Kosovo by launching a ground offensive.

Nevertheless, Russia chose unilaterally to suspend participation in the PJC in the first days of NATO's air campaign. The Russian Ambassador to the PJC was recalled and Moscow ratcheted up its anti-NATO rhetoric. Primakov himself learned that NATO had launched its air campaign while travelling to Washington to meet with then Vice President Al Gore and - in all probability with Yeltsin's approval - ordered his plane back in mid-air. Indeed, it was not until Yeltsin's emissary - and Primakov's rival - Viktor Chernomyrdin became involved in the shuttle diplomacy with Belgrade that Russia had real impact on the course of events. NATO's controversial public decision to take the option of ground troops off the table was based more on the need to maintain solidarity within the Alliance than on any consideration of Russian sensitivities.

Talbott effectively demonstrates how "government-to-government relations often succeeded or failed on the basis of personal relationships". Quite possibly. But the strength of these relationships should not be overestimated. Indeed, Yeltsin's memoirs suggest that the Russian President shared a greater sense of closeness with statesmen of his own generation, namely with then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Jacques Chirac, than with Clinton. Indeed, in one amusing anecdote, he recounts how President Chirac's daughter Claude advised his daughter Tatyana on how to help her father remain in control of things.

Similarly, on the issue of Kosovo, which Yeltsin characterises as of "global importance", frequent contacts with Clinton did not prevent him concluding that the NATO intervention was motivated not by Western efforts to prevent a repetition of the Bosnian tragedy, but by US efforts to assert primacy over an increasingly independent Europe. Moreover, Yeltsin seems to have played a rather more significant role than Talbott suggests in precipitating a Russian advance on 11 June 1999 from Bosnia and Herzegovina, across Serbia, to Kosovo's Pristina Airport before NATO troops moved into the province. In Talbott's account of this event, he was flying between Moscow and Brussels when he learned of the Russian advance and ordered his plane back to Moscow to seek clarification from Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Defence Minister Marshall Igor Sergejev. Back in Moscow, he was then witness to an absurd comedy in which the two men claimed (in all probability honestly) to be unaware of their army's dash to Pristina, even though CNN was simultaneously broadcasting images of the deployment. Interestingly, Talbott attributes this incident to a "virtual mutiny" of a group of Russian generals, led by Generals Leonid Ivashov and Anatoliy Kvashnin, whose yelling could be heard in the background during the 11 June meeting. In his memoirs, by contrast, Yeltsin claims full responsibility for the move, a decision he apparently made on 4 June, writing: "I hesitated for a long while. It seemed too dangerous to send our men in early. Furthermore, why were we demonstrating military boldness and waving our fists after the fight was over? Still, I decided that Russia must make a crowning gesture, even if it had no military significance. I gave the order: GO."

Although Yeltsin might have been covering up his inability to keep recalcitrant generals in check, it is also possible that, in one of his more impulsive moments, he did approve the move without consulting the key members of the government. Indeed, the fact that Yeltsin went on to reward both generals at a time when personal loyalty was critical to career progression, seems to suggest that hard-line conservatives in the military had succeeded in winning him over rather than that they were conspiring against him.

It is not often that so many books covering a particular period of history and written by the participants appear so soon after the events they describe. This makes reading the three in parallel so fascinating. All three memoirs seek to illustrate the importance of good personal relationships to resolving problems, yet they also reveal the limits of such relationships. Clearly personal diplomacy has its merits and we should all be grateful for the rapport that both contemporary and recent leaders in both Russia and the West appear to have built up with each other. At the same time, however, in what are often extremely complex situations, decision-making based on what leaders see in each other's eyes cannot be a substitute for policies based on expert analysis and objective assessments of the available options.

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