During the past ten years, few issues have mattered more to America's vital interests or to the shape of the twenty-first century than Russia's fate. To cheer the fall of a bankrupt totalitarian regime is one thing; to build on its ruins a stable democratic state is quite another. The challenge of helping to steer post-Soviet Russia-with its thousands of nuclear weapons and seething ethnic tensions-between the Scylla of a communist restoration and the Charybdis of anarchy fell to the former governor of a poor, landlocked Southern state who had won national election by focusing on domestic issues. No one could have predicted that by the end of Bill Clinton's second term he would meet with his Kremlin counterparts more often than had all of his predecessors from Harry Truman to George Bush combined, or that his presidency and his legacy would be so determined by his need to be his own Russia hand.
With Bill Clinton at every step was Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state whose expertise was the former Soviet Union. Talbott was Clinton's old friend, one of his most trusted advisers, a frequent envoy on the most sensitive of diplomatic missions and, as this book shows, a sharp-eyed observer. The Russia Hand is without question among the most candid, intimate and illuminating foreign-policy memoirs ever written in the long history of such books. It offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of policymaking and diplomacy alike. With the scope of nearly a decade, it reveals the hidden play of personalities and the closed-door meetings that shaped the most crucial events of our time, from NATO expansion, missile defense and the Balkan wars to coping with Russia's near-meltdown in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. The book is dominated by two gifted, charismatic and flawed men, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, who quickly formed one of the most intense and consequential bonds in the annals of statecraft. It also sheds new light on Vladimir Putin, as well as the altered landscape after September 11, 2001.
The Russia Hand is the first great memoir about war and peace in the post-cold war world.
Talbott (At the Higher Levels), Clinton's top adviser on Russia policy and deputy secretary of state from 1994 to 2001, recalls the president musing, "the thing about Yeltsin I really like... is that he's not a Russian bureaucrat. He's an Irish poet. He sees politics as a novel he's writing or a symphony he's composing.... It's why he's better than the others. But it's also his shortcoming." In this memoir of his years in the State Department, Talbott traces the evolving relationship between Clinton and the mercurial Yeltsin, recalls his own encounters with key Russian and American players (including some colorful cameos of Nixon) and describes how he and his State Department colleagues negotiated nettlesome issues like arms control, the expansion of NATO, the cease-fire in Chechnya and American missile defense. Yeltsin weathered several near-disasters as Russia's first post-Soviet leader, such as the shelling of his residence by Communist opposition in 1993, an election he nearly lost to a Communist rival in 1996 and the country's economic collapse in 1998 not to mention his own alcoholism, depression and ill health. Talbott movingly depicts Clinton's steadfast, affectionate loyalty toward "Ol' Boris" through these crises a devotion that sometimes went against the advice of his Russia experts. Talbott also expresses reservations about Yeltsin's successor, Putin, whom he describes as part of a sea change in Russian politics over the last few years from "unabashedly pro-Western reformers... toward nationalistic bureaucrats." Though there's probably too much detailed policy analysis for general readers, Talbott is a fluid and often engaging writer, and those who are wonkishly inclined should enjoy his war stories -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 12, 2003
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Excerpt from The Russia Hand by Strobe Talbott
THE HEDGEHOG AND THE BEAR trinculo: A howling monster; a drunken monster! caliban: . . . Freedom, high-day! high-day, freedom! . . . stephano: O brave monster! Lead the way.
At noon on Monday, June 5, 2000, Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin emerged from the Czar's Entrance of the Grand Kremlin Palace. While they paused for a moment in the sunshine, I hovered behind them, trying to catch anything of significance that passed between them as they said good-bye. But at this moment, which brought to an end the official portion of Clinton's fifth and final visit to Moscow as president, the nuances were all in the body language: the burly Clinton looming over the welterweight Putin, the ultimate extrovert still trying to connect with the coolest of customers who just wasn't buying.
As they shook hands one last time, I pocketed my notebook and hustled down the steps to take my place on a jump seat in the rear of the armored Cadillac that had been flown in from Washington for the summit. John Podesta, Clinton's chief of staff, and Sandy Berger, his national security adviser, were already on the seat behind me, crammed together to leave plenty of room for the president. Once Clinton had settled into place, he looked out at Putin through the thick bullet-proof window, put on his widest grin and gave a jaunty wave.
As the limousine pulled away from the curb and sped across the cobblestone courtyard, Clinton slumped back and a pensive look came over his face. Usually he found these events, including the ceremonial sendoffs, exhilarating. Not this time. The talks over the past three days had been inconclusive, not so much because the two leaders had been unable to agree as because Putin had not even tried. Clinton had come to Moscow hoping to make progress toward a number of objectives: reconciling a new American missile-defense program with long-standing arms control treaties; coordinating U.S. and Russian diplomacy in the Balkans; ending Russian military assistance to Iran. Clinton had also registered concern over Putin's domestic policies, especially the crackdown he'd launched against the leading independent television network, the deals he was cutting with the communists at the expense of reformist parties and the war he was waging in Chechnya.
On all these issues, Putin had given Clinton what was calculated to seem a respectful hearing, but Clinton knew a brush-off when he saw one. Missile defense was a complex problem, Putin had said with a mildness of tone that belied the firmness of his message: precipitous American deployment would jeopardize Russia's interests and provoke a new round of the arms race. As for the targets of his get-tough policy, they were criminals, not champions of democracy and free speech. And Chechnya was a nest of terrorists; America's own international Public Enemy Number One, Osama bin Laden, had contributed to the infestation there, so the U.S. should be supporting Russia's campaign against a common enemy. On all these subjects, Putin urged Clinton to rethink American policy and the assumptions on which it was based.
Clinton felt patronized. It was no mystery what Putin's game was: he was waiting for Clinton's successor to be elected in five months before deciding how to cope with the United States and all its power, its demands and its reproaches. Putin had, in his own studied, cordial and oblique way, put U.S.-Russian relations on hold until Clinton, like Putin's predeces- sor, Boris Yeltsin, had passed from the scene. Realizing that, Clinton had even more to think about as he headed toward the western outskirts of Moscow, where Yeltsin was now living in retirement.
The Cadillac barreled out of the Kremlin through the Borovitsky Gate and took a sharp right turn. The rest of the motorcade, including several vans full of press, tried to follow but was stopped by Russian security police and diverted directly to Vnukovo Airport, south of Moscow, where Air Force One was waiting.
With a motorcycle escort, Clinton's limousine hurtled down the center of the eight-lane artery out of the city he'd first visited thirty years before.