[ISSN 1974-028X]



193 / GENNAIO 2024 (CCXXIV)


Twilight Calls
Reflections on US-Russia Relations

di Augusto Tamponi


Boris Yeltsin resigned as Russian President on December 31, 1999, appointing Vladimir Putin as his successor, citing hazardous health characterised by significant alcohol and smoking usage, a national economy on the verge of collapse, and rising governmental corruption. This work aims to illustrate the prospects that at the time seemed to have relations between the Russia of Yeltsin’s successor, Putin, and the United States. The period faced represents an important turning point on the international scene: the Soviet Union had collapsed less than ten years before and the United States had been the winners of the Cold War. Bill Clinton’s presidency marked an important phase of détente in relations between the powers (in a period in which the United States was, in fact, the only world hyperpower), having considerable links with the Yeltsin administration which they allowed Russia to be fully integrated into the international order.


It is particularly useful to remember how Clinton’s United States actively supported the reform process promoted by Yeltsin aimed at definitively dismantling what remained of the planned economy of Soviet heritage. It was therefore a time when there was a perception of the real possibility of a global partnership between powers whose previous tensions had inflamed international politics in the previous 50 years; a climate of collaboration could be glimpsed, despite the differences that persisted between the two countries, which unfortunately never actually took place and which seems even more remote looking at the events of our present, in particular at what has been Russia’s foreign policy starting from the Second War in Chechnya, passing through the War in Georgia and the tensions with Ukraine, culminating in the tragic invasion of the same that we observe in these times.


To do this, this research will use the telephone conversation preserved in the National Security Archive on January 1, 2000 between President Clinton and interim President Putin, designated as Boris Yeltsin’s successor by the resigning president himself.


Focus on the content of the phone call: premises for a new and positive partnership?


The first phase of the telephone conversation sees, immediately after the reciprocal greetings of ritual, President Clinton defines “very encouraging for the future of Russian Democracy both the statements made by Yeltsin at the same time as his resignation and those made by Putin after being appointed successor by Yeltsin himself. After stressing the will to maintain the commitment on the American side in the continuation of the partnership with Russia, Clinton recalls that Washington is still concerned about the situation in Chechnya and the Caucasus. Subsequently, the US President hopes to be able to meet his Russian counterpart (involved in the election campaign) in the near future.


Putin’s response is very cordial. The Russian politician claims to have spoken on the same day with Yeltsin (who calls confidentially by name, Boris Nikolayevich), who asked him to address Clinton’s best wishes for the New Year. Putin reports that both deeply appreciated Clinton’s comment about Yeltsin’s resignation, calling it balanced and well wishing; subsequently, he agrees with his American counterpart on the need to work to develop and strengthen cooperation and relations between the two countries, which Putin himself had already said two days earlier in an interview he gave to CNN.


After a brief interruption of the link, which was evidently due to technical problems, Putin resumed his speech in response to Clinton’s request for a face-to-face summit; The Russian President is very friendly in accepting the invitation of his colleague showing great willingness to organize a meeting at any time that is convenient for you (for Clinton). Subsequently, Putin acknowledges the existence of disagreements on certain issues (the reference to Chechnya and the Caucasian region is evident), but he is convinced that these will not disturb the relations between Russia and USA, being the two powers “together” “on the core themes.


Very important is the subsequent following in which, citing Clinton himself, Putin recalls how Yeltsin did a lot to destroy the Communist system and to push Russia the civilized countries. From this it is clear that the judgment of the former KGB member on the Soviet political system is negative, pointing out that the destruction of the same has been a condition sine qua non for the entry into Russia into the civilized world; in the following years, Vladimir Putin has not missed an opportunity to remark, in numerous statements, his contempt for the Soviet system. Later, the Russian President assures that the process would continue over the next three months in which he would continue to hold the Presidency in anticipation of the Russian presidential elections, adding that he is certain that the next tenant of the Kremlin will be a progressive person. After this sentence, Putin addresses to Clinton and the American people with his best wishes for the new year, reiterating that he is certain that a solution will be found to all the questions on which we disagree.


Returning to the floor, President Clinton thanks his counterpart once again and wishes him well in the New Year. In this passage, he is deeply available to the Russian President telling him to feel free to call it at any time, daily or night: at least in the words, it is also clear from the American side the will to continue the partnership trying in some way to establish also a “personal” relationship with the Russian counterpart, as in fact Clinton had done with the same Yeltsin, in previous years, of whom he became a close friend. Finally, the President expressed his closeness to Russia, which had been severely hit by the economic crisis, and hoped that it could be consigned to the past once and for all.


At this point, Putin thanks his colleague and concludes by admitting that Clinton’s political path was an example for him and his collaborators, engaged in the electoral campaign for the succession of Yeltsin. At this point, the phone call ends.


Final considerations


This work attempted to illustrate what, at the dawn of the third millennium, were the prospects of relations between the United States, winners of the Cold War, and the Russian Federation, The Soviet Union, of which Russia itself was the most important republic. As mentioned earlier, within ten years many things had changed: the era of the bipolar world seemed to have come to an end, and it was in the interest of the United States and the entire international community that Russia could complete the programme of political and social modernization that would enable it to be fully and effectively involved within the international system. The United States had actively supported the political evolution of the Soviet Union first (supporting the reforms of Gorbachev) and then the Russian Federation (strongly promoting the reforms of Yeltsin). The document analyzed shows the possibility of continuing with optimism on the path of partnership that the two countries had undertaken, thanks also to the perception that Putin had given himself in the first phase of his public political career when, from “simple” former official of the now-dissolved Soviet secret services had become the bearer of the political legacy of Boris Yeltsin, appeared to all intents and purposes as a moderate and reformer politician, able to continue with determination the reforms of its predecessor and to accompany Russia on the path towards economic, social and political modernization, in particular in the direction of building effective democracy. The tones of the phone call that has been analyzed seem to go in fact in this direction, and it definitely makes an effect to approach this document at a time when, because of the War in Ukraine, Relations between the US Presidency and Putin are at an all-time low. Putin himself has shown that trust in him was misplaced, having committed actions that have decisively disproved the reputation of the moderate and progressive man he was cloaked with at first. In particular, it is interesting to return to the passage in which Clinton says he is concerned about the situation in Chechnya and the Georgia: Putin’s actions in Russia in both countries constitute a practical and tragic testimony of this.





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[ iscrizione originaria (aggiornata 2007) al tribunale di Roma (editore eOs): n° 215/2005 del 31 maggio ]