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Yeltsin’s disciple who would have bombed Iraq, too Nine more declassified, revealing conversations between Vladimir Putin and Bill Clinton’s administration

Source: Meduza
Vladimir Putin and Bill Clinton meet at the G8 summit in Okinawa on July 28, 2000
Sergey Velichkin and Vladimir Rodionov / TASS

Meduza is reviewing the recently declassified transcripts of phone calls and meetings between President Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin. Below, we have selected interesting excerpts from the two leaders’ conversations between 1999 and late 2000. These records include details about events and procedures that the Kremlin has never shared with the public, such as decision making in the Second Chechen War, the release of convicted American spy Edmond Pope, and parliamentary elections before Putin castrated Russia’s political competition.

This text is the third in a series of reports by Meduza looking back at the Clinton-Putin correspondence. Twenty years later, these records demonstrate the state of Russian foreign policy at the start of Vladimir Putin’s presidency.

Putin asked Washington to mention sanctions against Russia less often

June 15, 1999. A telephone call between National Security Council Secretary and Federal Security Service Director Vladimir Putin and U.S. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger:

FSB Chief Putin: I am familiar with the content of the information given by Mr. Talbott and also with that of a letter by Mr. Gore to Prime Minister Stepashin. I think that those proposals may be acceptable in principle. For our part, we will be supportive of those proposals. We shall increase our control of exports and also over dual technologies. We have already established a command control system over 37 enterprises here in Russia. And the enterprises are key ones in this area. And on the nonproliferation issue we have established at the Security Council an interagency group which has been operating already for some time. And we also have a plan of action, the Galucchi-Kupchev plan, and in fact we are already embarking upon its specific implementation. We have certain difficulties in terms of its legislative support for our part, but we are actively working with our State Duma. And the State Duma has a second reading of this piece of legislation tomorrow. In fact, there are no major opponents to this legislation in the Duma. 

As regards some opponents, we are trying to work with them. Now, Sandy, if I may ask you that could you do me such a favor? Could you make use of your very considerable authority and influence so that the question of sanctions does not arise all the time or only from time to time. You see, such threats are not conducive to the promotion of the Russian-American dialog. Should any problems arise here, they would arise from lack of information. And should such problems arise, we could attempt to solve those problems quickly maybe through this line of communications that we have established with you, Sandy. In any case, we shall be doing everything we can to abide by the obligations we undertook in this area. This is what I wanted to tell you on this particular issue.

NSA Berger: What you said is very encouraging. On the issue of sanctions, as the government of Russia — it is obviously preferable for your government to enforce a strong export policy with respect to missile technology to Iran, and it sounds to me like you are strengthening that enforcement and if the Russian government is enforcing its policy in this respect, that obviously diminishes the need for us to discuss sanctions ourselves. Vladimir, I am very pleased to have had this opportunity to at least meet each other on the phone. I look forward to some time when we can meet each other in person. I want to thank you for the time you gave to Strobe Talbott over the weekend and for your efforts to resolve the issues in Kosovo. I think that clearly the conflict in Kosovo puts some strains on our relations. Now that is over, and we can work together to build the peace and we can also focus our attention on helping build a strong Russia.

Context

In early 1999, the United States imposed sanctions against several Russian companies accused of military and technical cooperation with Iran and violating agreements on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and missile technologies.

Putin told Washington that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings

September 12, 1999. A meeting in Auckland, New Zealand, between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. 

Prime Minister Putin: The recent terrorist acts in Moscow have to do with the situation in Dagestan. I have every reason to believe that the perpetrators are the same as the ones who delivered the strikes against the United States. Osama bin Laden has declared his intention to move to Chechnya. His groups already have a presence in Baku and Chechnya. He hasnʼt moved because he is afraid we will apprehend him or take other actions. We have serious resources in this respect and will use our technology to our advantage.

Context

Rumors about Osama bin Laden’s plans to relocate to Chechnya started circulating as early as February 1999. In a later conversation with Washington, Putin claimed that Russian intelligence agents intercepted communications where the Chechen-war veteran, Saudi Arabian-born mujahid Ibn al-Khattab confessed to his role in the Russian apartment bombings. According to Putin, al-Khattab said, “Russia grows weaker every day. In September, we struck Russia at its very center. Moscow hasn’t seen such explosions since the Second World War. As a result, the whole world is now on Russia’s side.” After reading the transcript, Putin warned the Clinton administration that “the creation of an extremist state between the Black Sea and the Caspian is not in the interests of the United States.”

Journalists from The Associated Press who interviewed al-Khattab in September 1999 said he approved of the bombings in Moscow but stopped short of taking responsibility for the attacks. In an interview with the news agency Interfax, meanwhile, al-Khattab outright denied any involvement in the blasts, though a Russian court later convicted him of being one of the terrorist campaign’s organizers.

Putin asked Russia’s Central Bank to devalue the ruble

September 12, 1999. A meeting in Auckland, New Zealand, between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. 

Prime Minister Putin: We in Russia are used to these kinds of problems. By the way, I met you in St. Petersburg when you visited. Much has been accomplished since that time. Our economic cooperation is very important and will help Russia to develop. The increase in oil prices has also had an impact on the ruble. We will need to devalue it a bit, perhaps 6-8 percent. I have asked the Central Bank to do this and to change the exchange rate with the dollar to make our exports more competitive. We need to avoid a situation where the dollar rate is artificially restricted and then weʼre forced to do something all of a sudden. We are pursuing a considered plan to deal with the inflated value of the ruble. Itʼs not going to be harmful.

Context

The Central Bank of Russia is ostensibly an independent entity that doesn’t report to the government. According to the laws in place when Putin spoke to Clinton in New Zealand, federal officials were directly prohibited from interfering in the Central Bank’s activities.

We don’t know when exactly Putin asked the Central Bank to devalue the ruble, except that it happened before September 12, 1999. Putin had been serving as acting prime minister for roughly a month by then, during which time the Russian currency’s exchange rate with the U.S. dollar fluctuated from 24 rubles and 60 kopecks (on August 20) to 25 rubles and 87 kopecks (on September 3). By the end of the year, the dollar rose to 27 rubles. In other words, in the three and a half months after Putin told Clinton about asking the Central Bank to devalue Russia’s currency, the ruble lost between 4.37 and 9.76 percent of its value.

Putin criticized Russia’s political system and made excuses for remarks by Boris Yeltsin

September 12, 1999. A meeting in Auckland, New Zealand, between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. 

President Clinton: I am counting on Yeltsin and you. One thing that you have going for you is that you can try to show that there is no credible alternative to the path that youʼre on. If the opposition doesnʼt have a credible set of proposals, that will help you.

Prime Minister Putin: Unfortunately, thatʼs not the case. Russia does not have an established political system. People donʼt read programs. They look at the faces of the leaders, regardless of what party they belong to, regardless of whether they have a program or not.

The oppositionʼs whole strategy during the election campaign is to stir things up, to have an emotional impact on large groups of people. Of course, you are more aware than anyone about this tactic. Starting with any person in a position of responsibility at the local level, the reality is that most people are going to blame him for everything. All the problems will be on his shoulders.

Most of our population thinks that way and is not very sophisticated. Thatʼs the reality we need to deal with. President Yeltsin understands this and takes it into account. Some of his statements and actions may surprise you, but you need to factor in how they impact on society and the motivations behind them. You need to take this into account.

Part of his actions are determined by this. Some of his actions are simply mistakes. But leaving aside any statements that have concerned you, please bear in mind that we have certain plans and are acting according to them.

Context

This conversation took place at the height of Russia’s parliamentary election campaign, which observers viewed as a prelude to the 2000 presidential race. By the time Putin met Clinton in New Zealand, the favored party was the “Fatherland-All Russia” political bloc chaired by then Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov. Both politicians sharply criticized the Kremlin and accused the Yeltsin regime of corruption.

We don’t know what exactly Putin was addressing when he mentioned “statements” by Boris Yeltsin, but the Russian president had recently indulged in some public criticism of Bill Clinton. In February 1998, for example, President Yeltsin warned that U.S. attacks against Iraq could provoke another world war. On March 24, 1999, in response to NATO’s threats to bomb Yugoslavia, Yeltsin told the world community: “Let’s stop Clinton from going down this path and help him from taking this tragic step. It’s a tragic step!” In November 1999, several months after Putin assured Clinton that Yeltsin’s remarks were intended only for domestic consumption, the president declared at an OSCE summit: “You have no right to criticize Russia for Chechnya. […] We reject the prescriptions offered by Russia’s so-called objective critics.”

Ahead of Russia’s second war in Chechnya, Putin said he regretted the breakdown of negotiations with Aslan Maskhadov and revealed that Russia was protecting the rebel leader’s family

October 30, 1999. A telephone conversation between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and U.S. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger

Prime Minister Putin: I can cite a specific example for you. At my insistence, the leader of Dagestan was invited to a meeting with Maskhadov, and he traveled there. I made an announcement to this effect on TV before the meeting was to take place when Maskhadov was traveling to meet him halfway. The local residents cut off roads with their own bodies, and they stopped this meeting from taking place.

We have to keep this sort of thing in mind. We cannot pretend that the opinions of our people are not being taken into account. I can tell you honestly that I did not expect that sort of reaction to take place. If I had known this reaction would take place, I would never have made the statement on TV announcing the meeting of the Dagestani leader with Maskhadov that was to be carried out according to my personal instructions.

Context

Putin was appointed prime minister on August 9, 1999 — a day after the terrorist Shamil Basayev led an armed invasion of Dagestan. Federal forces and local militias managed to repel the attack, but Chechen militants launched another invasion just a month later. Around the same time, apartment buildings in several Russian cities were targeted in bombings attributed to Islamic terrorists. When Putin and Berger spoke in late October 1999, the Kremlin was busy debating how the federal government should respond to this escalating violence.

After the first war in Chechnya, many Russian politicians opposed a full-scale ground campaign in the region, fearing that the country would be embroiled in another guerrilla war. Many in Moscow advocated negotiations with Aslan Maskhadov, the relatively moderate leader of the breakaway Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. 

Journalists from the newspaper Kommersant accused the Kremlin of deliberately sabotaging the talks between Maskhadov and Dagestani State Council Chairman Magomedali Magomedov, arguing that the negotiations were just a “staged show.” Immediately after the negotiations collapsed, Putin said, “I’ve always respected the Dagestani people, but after yesterday I think of them with love.” Federal troops soon marched into Chechnya. 

A month later, in a phone call with President Clinton, Putin said Russia had placed Maskhadov’s family under state protection:

Prime Minister Putin: Again I will tell you in the confidentiality of this room that we have the family of Chechen President Maskhadov under our protection. No one knows this. They are in one of the refugee camps and are directly under us. A little while ago Maskhadov asked for our help to eliminate the bands of terrorists in Chechnya. Now he is saying something different. The situation is very complicated, but we will deal with it. If we can do this together [unclear if together with the United States or Maskhadov], there will be fewer losses.

Russian security forces killed Aslan Maskhadov in 2005. His family eventually relocated to Finland, though the Chechen authorities say Maskhadov’s widow returned to Chechnya in 2016.

Putin said the mafia-affiliated president of the unrecognized Transnistrian Republic prevented the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region

November 2, 1999. Oslo, Norway. President Clinton meets with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. 

Prime Minister Putin: On Moldova, we want to get our troops out, but Smirnov heads up this separatist faction. If I can say so privately he is hooked up with criminal elements, and it is hard to say what motivates him. We have 15 units there. But whenever we look at removing them, Smirnov puts women and children on the train tracks to keep them from moving.

Context

In 1992, the Russian military halted an armed conflict between Moldova and the breakaway region of Transnistria. The Moldovan authorities later began seeking the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers, but Transnistrian officials rejected the proposal, maintaining that Russia’s military presence is necessary for the self-declared republic’s security. 

In late November 1999 at an OSCE summit in Istanbul, Russia promised to withdraw all its troops from Moldova before the end of 2002. Instead, Russia still has some peacekeepers in Moldova to this day.

Putin praised Yeltsin’s contributions to ending communism and promised to continue Russia’s rapprochement with “civilized countries”

January 1, 2000. A telephone conversation between U.S. President Bill Clinton and acting President Vladimir Putin.

Acting President Putin: As you mentioned in your statement. President Yeltsin did a lot to destroy the Communist system and to push Russia toward the civilized countries. The direction of Russian policies in all areas will continue in the coming three months while I am Acting President. A lot will depend on the person elected President; however, I believe it will be a progressive person.

Context

In his statement about Yeltsin’s resignation, Bill Clinton credited the outgoing Russian president with dismantling Russia’s “corrosive Communist rule” and “building new political institutions under democratically elected leaders within a constitutional framework.” Five years after Yeltsin’s resignation, in his annual address to the Federal Assembly, Putin adopted a significantly different tone, calling the collapse of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” and a “genuine drama” for the Russian people. 

Putin promised to free an American spy before a court had even convicted him of espionage

September 6, 2000. A meeting between presidents Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin in New York City.

President Clinton: I need to raise with you the Pope matter. Weʼve talked about this before, and I need guidance from you on what to do next here. Thereʼs a real health issue here.

President Putin: Iʼll be absolutely candid with you. Iʼve got the information from my people. He is absolutely healthy. Thereʼs no problem there. Thereʼs a different problem. As I told you, I will take a decision here. But I need to wait until the formalities are finished. If I take a decision beforehand, it could be used against us — it could be said that we were holding him for no reason.

President Clinton: You need to release him as quickly as possible. Heʼs not well.

Context

In the spring of 2000, the Russian authorities arrested Edmond Pope, a retired U.S. intelligence officer on charges of buying up and smuggling classified military equipment out of the country as scrap metal. American officials sought his release, citing among other things his deteriorating health. Russian officials maintained, however, that Pope was well enough to remain in pretrial detention. He was formally indicted for espionage on September 27, three weeks after Putin spoke to Clinton in New York. Pope’s trial began on October 18 and ended on December 6 with a guilty verdict and a 20-year prison sentence. Two days later, Putin’s presidential clemency commission suddenly reactivated and recommended a pardon in the case. On December 14, 2000, President Putin signed an executive order pardoning Edmond Pope.

Putin based the pardon on Pope’s poor health and a personal petition Pope drafted together with his prison warden (though we now know from President Clinton’s archives that the Russian president dismissed concerns about Pope’s bone cancer). 

Pope later claimed that Putin had promised Washington he would release him from prison back on August 1 (President Clinton appears to allude to this in the transcript above when he says, “Weʼve talked about this before”).

Edmond Pope was the first U.S. citizen convicted of espionage in Russia since Francis Gary Powers, the CIA pilot shot down over Soviet airspace in the infamous 1960 “U-2 incident.” After Pope’s arrest, the Russian news media circulated reports that he might be exchanged for Aldrich Ames, the former CIA officer turned KGB double agent who was arrested in 1994 and sentenced to life imprisonment. In December 2000, just before Pope’s pardon, the spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service told the newspaper Kommersant that President Putin might simply pardon the American. “For now, he’ll just have to see it through to the bitter end,” said the agency’s press secretary. In the end, Putin pardoned Edmond Pope without any concessions from the United States.

Putin said he also would have bombed Iraq if he’d been in Clinton’s shoes

September 6, 2000. A meeting between presidents Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin in New York City.

President Putin: I think I told you before, entirely off the record, that when you bombed Iraq for what it was doing, I supported you, or at least I would have done the same thing in your shoes. But looking ahead, how do we make them [the Iraqis] sign? Itʼs hard. We need to establish general rules of conduct, intercontinental safeguards. Now, on this disagreement between us over Iraq, weʼre not playing it up. Weʼre doing everything we can to make them stop what theyʼre doing. Thatʼs a common goal.

Context

In December 1998, the United States and Great Britain launched joint airstrikes inside Iraq, targeting sites believed to be involved in the development and production of weapons of mass destruction. The attacks followed Bagdad’s refusal to admit UN disarmament inspectors to several facilities. President Boris Yeltsin expressed outrage at the attack against Iraq. In protest, Russia also recalled its ambassadors from America and Britain. 

Bonus: A Putin joke was cut from Clinton’s “The Final Days” comedic short film

In April 2000, the Clinton administration screened a humorous short film at the White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner, playfully mocking the outgoing president as a “lame duck” whiling away his remaining time in office. In the film’s complete screenplay (released by the Clinton Digital Library), there was a scene mentioning Vladimir Putin that ended up on the editing room floor. 

SCENE 6

THE RED PHONE / INTERIOR OVAL OFFICE

The PRESIDENT is seen in decision mode: pacing, pondering, and in thoughtful repose. He stares out the windows at the South Lawn, like Kennedy during the missile crisis. Finally, he reaches for the red phone. A pause.

PRESIDENT CLINTON

Vladimir, hi. Whatʼs a five-letter word for a “tasty Russian pancake”?

The crossword answer Clinton needed was clearly blini — possibly an allusion to the fact that the U.S. president was sometimes mocked as “Blin Clinton” (Damn Clinton) in Russian. It’s unknown if President Clinton ever filmed this scene, but it doesn’t appear in the final cut:

"The Final Days" White House Correspondents' Dinner Skit
clintonlibrary42

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Text by Denis Dmitriev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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