The Undoing of Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin’s Friendship, and How It Changed Both of Their Countries
On June 15, 1998, however, Clinton calls Yeltsin specifically to discuss Kosovo. He makes it clear that nato is considering military action to stop Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević’s troops from terrorizing Kosovo.
.. Serbia is Russia’s traditional ally, and American military intervention will show that Moscow is helpless either to protect or influence it. It will serve as proof that Russia has lost its superpower status.
.. Yeltsin tells Clinton that he had invited Milošević to Moscow so that he can talk sense into him. At the same time, he is trying to talk sense into the American President. “Military action by nato is unacceptable,” he says.
.. Clinton tells Yeltsin that Milošević has broken his promise to Yeltsin: Serbian troops, Clinton says, have displaced two hundred thousand civilians.
.. Clinton talks about needing to take action before the harsh winter threatens displaced Kosovars, especially the estimated ten thousand who are hiding in the mountains. Yeltsin agrees.
.. Clinton calls Yeltsin to tell him that he, the leaders of France, the United Kingdom, Germany, “and the rest of the Europeans” have concluded that they must launch air strikes against Milošević. “As you know, Milošević has stonewalled your negotiator and Dick Holbrooke”—the American negotiator—“and he has continued to move his forces into Kosovo and to evacuate villages,”
.. Clinton begs Yeltsin not to allow Milošević to destroy their relationship—in his framing, it is all the Serb’s fault.
.. Yeltsin just gets sadder. “Our people will certainly from now have a bad attitude with regard to America and with nato,” he says. “I remember how difficult it was for me to try and turn the heads of our people, the heads of the politicians towards the West, towards the United States, but I succeeded in doing that, and now to lose all that. Well, since I failed to convince the President, that means there in store for us a very difficult, difficult road of contacts, if they prove to be possible. Goodbye.”
.. Nineteen years later, it seems clear that one President was being more honest than the other. Contrary to Clinton’s assertion, he and the other nato leaders certainly had a choice in the situation, and the choice they made—to launch a military offensive without the sanction of the United Nations—changed the way that the United States wields force. By bypassing the Security Council and establishing the United States as the sole arbiter of good and evil, it paved the way for the war in Iraq, among other things.
.. It also changed Russia. What was seen as a unilateral American decision to start bombing a longtime Russian ally emboldened the nationalist opposition and tapped into a deep inferiority complex. Sensitive to these sentiments, Yeltsin responded that May by celebrating Victory Day with a military parade in Red Square, the first in eight years. In fact, military parades took place all over the country that year, and have been repeated every year since. What was even more frightening were a series of nongovernmental Victory Day parades by ultranationalists. That these public displays, some of which featured the swastika, were tolerated, and in such close proximity to celebrations of the country’s most hallowed holiday, suggested that xenophobia had acquired new power in Russia. Later that year, Yeltsin anointed Vladimir Putin his successor and signed off on a renewed war in Chechnya. This offensive, designed to shore up support for the country’s hand-picked new leader, was both inspired and enabled by Kosovo. It was a dare to the United States, an assertion that Russia will do what it wants in its own Muslim autonomy.
We will never know whether Russian politics would have developed differently if not for the U.S. military intervention in Kosovo. And, of course, the new war in Chechnya and the emergence of Putin himself were symptoms of deeper problems, including Russia’s failure to reinvent itself as a post-Soviet, post-imperial state. For this, Yeltsin himself bears most of the responsibility. Still, these transcripts tell a tragic story of much more than a friendship gone sour.