Why you should care

The testy but close relationship between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin helped define the post–Cold War world.

You’d be hard-pressed to remember another time an American leader laughed so violently, hysterically loud. Just watch the footage of then President Boris Yeltsin of Russia bashing reporters during an October 1995 press conference in New York: Standing next to his Russian counterpart, Bill Clinton could barely contain himself after Yeltsin delivered his coup de grâce. “Now, for the first time,” the Russian leader said sternly, referring to recent coverage predicting his meeting with Clinton would end in disaster, “I can tell you that you’re a disaster.”

The Comeback Kid exploded into laughter, his beet-red face contorting as he gripped Yeltsin’s shoulder for support. The barrel-chested Russian, for his part, chuckled with equal parts satisfaction and confusion. Whether Clinton’s amusement was entirely genuine is still a subject of debate. But either way, it was a warm moment in an otherwise tumultuous decade in relations between the former adversaries.

Many an American president has attempted to make nice with Soviet or Russian leaders. Sure, George W. Bush famously saw Vladimir Putin’s soul, and more recently, President Donald Trump has proved unusually willing to indulge his Russian counterpart.

But little else matches the peculiar chemistry between Clinton and Yeltsin, who shared a close, if perpetually strained, relationship as they navigated their countries through a complicated new global order. Their ability to maintain substantial ties despite persistent political tension is a case study in personal diplomacy — which, between the two, “yielded half a dozen major understandings that either resolved or alleviated disputes over Russia’s role in the post–Cold War world,” writes Strobe Talbott, Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, in The Russia Hand.

Clinton and Yeltsin quickly took a liking to each other, forming a bond that buoyed an unprecedented 18 visits between the two leaders.

Sharing similar backgrounds — both were small-town boys who elbowed their way through regional politics — Clinton and Yeltsin quickly took a liking to each other, forming a bond that buoyed an unprecedented 18 visits between the two leaders. Yet one of the reasons they met so often, Talbott writes, was that the U.S.-Russian relationship was beset with difficulties stemming from the new geopolitical realities that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was over, leaving the U.S. the world’s only superpower, but Russia still controlled thousands of nuclear warheads and held sway over a vast stretch of territory once governed by Moscow.

For his part, Yeltsin had ridden the wave of democratic euphoria that followed the Soviet collapse, but by Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, he faced widespread discontent over the country’s painful transition from communism. On the one hand, Yeltsin sought American help to keep a broke and wounded Russia a stable member of the international community. On the other, he was deeply sensitive to being perceived as the junior partner. “Fate gave him a tough time in which to govern,” Clinton said upon Yeltsin’s death in 2007, “but history will be kind to him because he was courageous and steadfast on the big issues — peace, freedom and progress.”

NATO expansion, especially the military alliance’s bombing campaigns in Yugoslavia, proved a particularly thorny issue between the two. Rarely a meeting went by without Yeltsin raising a ruckus about feeling cornered by NATO in his own backyard. The disputes often played out in public, splashed across international headlines.

Still, both leaders shared a firm conviction that personal relations were key. For Yeltsin, it was rooted in a Soviet-style mindset prioritizing patronage over often dysfunctional institutions. “I think he really believed that, ‘If we are friends, things can move forward,’” says Maxim Bratersky, a professor of international relations at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

Clinton, in turn, placed a great deal of faith in his Russian counterpart — a trust that galvanized his critics, who argued he’d over-personalized the strategically critical relationship. “Clinton, himself a highly intuitive politician, believed Yeltsin had the right instincts,” Talbott writes, which included a sense of responsibility to his citizens and a reluctance to push confrontation to a breaking point.

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Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin shaking hands and all smiles during the Helsinki summit press conference in March 1997.

Source Dirck Halstead/Getty

That’s what might have made their final meeting even more memorable. In Moscow for his first sit-down with a newly elected Putin in 2000, Clinton visited “Ol’ Boris,” as he called him, at his residence outside the Russian capital. “Yeltsin kept saying, in a low, choked voice, ‘Moi drug, moi drug’ — my friend, my friend,” Talbott writes. But Clinton soon found himself in the familiar position of being sternly warned that Russia wouldn’t be yanked around. In the end, Clinton calmly encouraged his buddy to “keep an eye” on Putin. “You’ve got democracy in your heart,” he said, according to Talbott. “You’ve got the trust of the people in your bones.”

These days, things are different. Trump’s pledge to mend fences with Moscow — no longer a defeated junior partner — rings suspicious considering the Kremlin’s hacking of U.S. politics, its annexation of Crimea and posturing abroad. Brian Whitmore, a senior analyst at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C., says the “warm interpersonal relationship between Clinton and Yeltsin helped relations at that time.” But that’s when Russia remained committed to a post–Cold War order based on rules. “This, to put it mildly, is not the case with Putin’s Russia,” he says.

It’s too early to tell what the relationship between Trump and Putin has in store. But one thing’s clear: The ’90s are over.

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