By John Helmer, the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and an advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. He is the first and only member of a US presidential administration (Jimmy Carter) to establish himself in Russia. Originally published at Dances with Bears
In the time of President Boris Yeltsin, there was no difference between loose lips and moose lips.
According to newly released records of President Bill Clinton’s secret conversations with Prime Minister Tony Blair, at a luncheon on January 13, 1994, Yeltsin served Clinton “roast pig and told me real men hack off the ears and eat them. And once he served 24 courses, including moose lips.” But Clinton and Blair didn’t think Yeltsin was a real man. They thought he was an ingratiating stooge, whom they could rely on to agree with them so long as his health held. When it didn’t, they were happy to see him out of the way by staging, as they discussed in the planning, his succession by Victor Chernomyrdin.
There’s many a slip between the cup of national interest and the lip of its betrayal. According to the Clinton records, Yeltsin tried them all. In secret he agreed to the US expanding NATO to include former East European and Balkan allies of Moscow. He dismissed the Russian opposition to that move as “a lot of old ladies out in the country”. He went along with the US war on Serbia and on Iraq, so long as Clinton fabricated a self-defence justification to keep it from a United Nations Security Council vote. He begged Clinton for money. Immediately after the financial crash and government default of August 1998 he asked Clinton to come to Moscow to reassure the world Yeltsin wasn’t culpable, and was still in charge. Clinton told Blair: “My relationship [with Yeltsin]… is such that all [Kremlin] hardliners believe I could talk to [him] and get him to sell the oil wells for three dollars and a half, but that’s not true. He’s just more far-sighted and progressive than they are.”
The state-funded Boris Yeltsin Presidential Centre in Yekaterinburg – inaugurated by President Vladimir Putin on November 25, last year – is a monument to cover-up. Questioned last week, the Centre staff refused to confirm that the luncheon menu Yeltsin served Clinton on January 13, 1994, included moose lips. The first report of the moose lips came from a Clinton aide, who told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
Putin, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medveded and Naina Yeltsina, at the Yeltsin Centre inauguration on November 25, 2015. Putin said: “We saw the exhibition just now. It really does tell the honest story of how modern Russia was built, the difficulties encountered on the way, and the problems that had to be solved. It is the story of all that was accomplished during this difficult period. We are learning to objectively and carefully treat and respect our history…” Several biographical reminiscences of Yeltsin aides and family report that he shot herds of moose to obtain the lips to eat. For the Siberian hunter’s guide to preparing the delicacy, read this.
Declassification of the Clinton-Blair papers was requested from the Clinton Presidential Library by the BBC. The declassification at the American end occurred on October 15, 2015, but the BBC delayed public release for almost three months, until January 7. The entire file can be read here. The dossier runs for 532 pages, commencing with a telephone conversation of May 1, 1997 (below), hours after Blair had won a landslide election, and the day before he took power. The dossier ends with a telephone-call transcript dated December 13, 2000, days before Clinton left office.
The dominating topic of their conversations is Northern Ireland, followed by the two regime changes Clinton and Blair were preparing against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia. The death of Princess Diana and the birth of a Blair baby were topics also taking up talk time. Most of the Blair side of the conversation record has not been released.
Authority for that is given in the text as Executive Order E.O. 13526, section 1.4(b)( d). That allows the US to black out material – in this case, Blair’s remarks – when “unauthorized disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to the national security…and it pertains to one or more of the following:… foreign government information…[and] foreign relations or foreign activities of the United States, including confidential sources”.
Regarding Russia, there are altogether 82 references. These are dominated by Clinton’s relationship with Yeltsin; and his coaching for what he thinks, and tells Blair he should say in his communications with Moscow. Yeltsin is mentioned 35 times, Chernomyrdin, who was prime minister between December 1992 and March 1998, 13 times. The records show Clinton relied on a back-channel between Chernomyrdin and Vice President Albert Gore, and by Russian and US officials they designated, to prepare for a US-approved succession or replacement for Yeltsin. After the August 1998 crash, and Yeltsin had no choice but to replace then-Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, Chernomyrdin lasted for just 19 days before Yevgeny Primakov took power instead. Clinton then told Blair they should keep trying to “resuscitate” Chernomyrdin.
Gore and Chernoyrdin signed at least one, probably several secret pacts not revealed at the time. Here’s one, revealed in 2000
Kirienko is not mentioned at all by Clinton. Primakov is mentioned 5 times. His successor from May to August of 1999, Sergei Stepashin, is ignored.
Putin, who became prime minister on August 9, 1999, is discussed by Clinton and Blair 4 times, but only after he assumed the presidency in January of 2000.
Putin and Clinton, July 21, 2000.
It is clear from the low CONFIDENTIAL classification stamped on many of the papers that little of sensitivity was actually discussed, though the redactions make it look as if Blair continues to feel vulnerable to the record of how much he went along with Clinton. Also, Clinton admitted to Blair the telephone was tapped: “Things are getting a little better in Bosnia, “ he said on September 1, 1997, “Plavsic is showing some get up and go. You’ve got a decision coming your way that we can’t discuss on this line, but I think things are going in -the right direction.”
Kremlin picture of Putin with Blair, April 17, 2000
Clinton makes several references to how obliging he found Yeltsin to be. The moose lips lunch was one such occasion in 1994. On May 29, 1997, Clinton told Blair at lunch at Downing Street, that he was in favour of enlarging the membership of NATO, but “some [Republicans in Congress] are against enlargement because of the fear of provoking a nationalist response in Russia – that is a silly argument.” Blair replied: “Yes”. Sandy Berger, Clinton’s security advisor, interposed: “New polling data shows that NATO is just not a grass-roots issue in Russia. “ Blair added: “What a surprise they are just being normal and caring more about the economy.” Clinton went on to say that he was confident of buying Yeltsin’s support for the British plan for devolution of Hong Kong because “we have more leverage with Russia because of IFI [International Financial Institutions, such as the IMF and World Bank] programs and denuclearization funding.”
On October 1, 1997, Blair telephoned to say: “Look, Bill, the reason I called was to
mention a couple of things: I went to Moscow early in the week, and also I have some thoughts on Northern Ireland.” All trace of what Blair went on to say remains classified SECRET, except for their mutual concern that Yeltsin might leave office. “The President: Did he give any hint of whether he would run for another term?” Blair spoke at length, all of it redacted. “The President: Yeah.”
Then a genuine disclosure – a secret back-channel: “The President: I believe that a lot of things do happen without his knowledge. When they changed their economy, they did not have the intermediate controls in place that a normal economy has. We have a process going with the Vice President, Chernomyrdin, Wisner [Frank G. Wisner, former Pentagon official and special envoy on missile negotiations, board member of Enron] and Koptev [Yury Koptev, head of the Russian Space Agency], that I think will work. They say they’re cracking down, but he is careful about what he says in public, maybe because he doesn’t want to be seen to be dancing to our tune…” Blair’s remarks are redacted. “The President: Oh God, I’m really worried about it. They are so strongly opposed to any of that stuff that I’m quite worried about how they’d react to it.” For a fuller story of the US efforts to get Yeltsin to overrule his subordinates, and halt missile sales and the Bushehr nuclear reactor deal with Iran at the time, read this.
On February 23, 1998, Yeltsin continued to be ingratiating, this time towards US pressure on Iraq. Clinton telephoned Blair to say: “Now, let me tell you some good news, potentially. I spoke with Yeltsin, and went over my concerns…Prime-Minister Blair: That’s pretty good. The President: That’s pretty damn good….The President: My relationship with Yeltsin is such that all his hard-liners believe I could talk to Yeltsin and get him to sell the oil wells for three dollars and a half, but that’s not true. He’s just more far-sighted and progressive than they are. Half the time they go to work on him, and I have no doubt that they’ll make some effort to undermine this. He was quick and unambiguous, and one thing about Yeltsin, he doesn’t like for people to take advantage of him. If Saddam Hussein doesn’t do it, Yeltsin would take it as a personal insult to him. I think he wants to do right, so if he can stay hitched, I really believe that’s the best guarantor we have that he’ll observe the agreement. If you talk to Yeltsin, I would appreciate it if you would reinforce this. ..The President: You should say you’ve talked to me and you agree with me.”
On August 6, 1998, Clinton confided to Blair that he had a cunning plan for military operations against Milosevic (below, right) in Belgrade, while avoiding Yeltsin’s veto at the UN.
“The President: I called you to talk about Kosovo. It is getting worse. The headlines show that, but Milosevic is going for a military solution… Milosevic has a sense of doing this under the threshold for NATO military response because he believes that NATO will respond only with a UN resolution, but Russia guarantees to block it. My view is, at a minimum, we need to make him think again… I believe we ought to make it clear that, while we would like to get UN authority, we can do it without it…Let me tell you we are headed to a collision on Kosovo and what is going on in Russia. I talk to Bob Rubin [Treasury Secretary, 1995-99] about every day. I am still quite concerned about their economy and about the stability of the Yeltsin government. His health is deteriorating and a lot of noise is being made about controls on freedoms to get order in society… If we put Yeltsin into this box, he will be forced to abstain because it is so bad and would really hurt him at home politically with the economy the way it is, or he can keep with Primakov and veto it and run the risk of alienating the rest of the world at the very time he needs the most support from the international community. While it is better to have UN support, I am very worried about bringing this to a vote right now… One thing I had our guys do — there is a .basis: there have been a number of cross-border incursions and threats to international observers, which could be a trigger for self-defense….it will hurt Yeltsin if we put him in a position of having to sign off or block now.”
Details of the “self-defense” scheme are redacted. Yeltsin appears to be agreeing, according to Clinton, so long as the US moves discreetly. “We can nose around it. His economic problems are horrible and his internal political problems are awful. I’m very worried about this. Yeltsin was going to go on vacation in August, but then he had to come early, even though his health needs rest. I am going over there and meet with him for a few days in September, but I’m very worried about this.”
Blair commented briefly. Then Clinton: “We have to work through another option, apart from a Security Council resolution. They [Russians] would have to raise holy hell, but, in the end, if we handle it in the right way, it would be the best of three bad alternatives. Better than forcing them [Yeltsin] to veto it . Better than forcing him to eat it.”
A few days later that August, following the Russian government’s default on its bonds and the collapse of the Russian banking system, Clinton and Blair spoke by telephone on August 27: “The President: Now, what the hell do you think is going on over in Russia? I’ve got Strobe Talbott (right), my Deputy Secretary of State, over there in Russia. We’re watching it closely. Our stock market took a big hit with this rumor that he would resign. Yeltsin’s in the dacha, Chernomyrdin’s working on confirmation. There are rumors that Yeltsin would resign once Chernomyrdin is confirmed. I don’t know, but I know this: They are absolutely insistent that I come. I can’t initiate my not going. It’s kind of a mess. That could sink their economy or politics sure enough.”
Clinton acknowledged there was no Kremlin control over the flow of money offshore. “Their economy is still rapidly deteriorating. The Central Bank is still under pressure to inject liquidity into the banking sector. The problem is when they do, the banks turn around and take the money out of the country, and so there’s no control over that money. There’s no clear economic policy, and I think they’ve got this new Trilateral Duma Commission, talking about renationalizing industries and price controls. What I think they have to do is bite the bullet and pass a decent regulatory system and tax system and a decent bank and a decent social welfare system… I think it’s worth going over to try to work through this. We’ve got to reassert our commitment and reassert the importance of the weapons agreements we can still make, but tell them they’ve still got to embrace democracy and free markets… If they get a dictatorial leader, they’ll be much harder to deal with on Kosovo and other things, I’m afraid. I think it’s worth my going over there. I’ll meet with the Duma leaders from other parties and have a little no-BS conversation about what’s going on here and hopefully reduce a little of their paranoia about America and the West. It may not be a conventional success, but I’ll go as long as they want me to come — unless Yeltsin resigns in the next two days — if nothing else but to talk to Chernomyrdin, who is physically and mentally quite alert and strong, personally…”
“The President: What I’m worried about with Yeltsin is — in my last conversation I had with him, he said all the right things, even on the things we disagree on, he said all the right things, at least from his point of view, but he really seemed profoundly tired in a way I had never heard him before. I am afraid his energy, his will to go on may be sapped. Prime Minister Blair: Yeah, I’m afraid so. The President: But there’s nothing I can do about it. Prime Minister Blair: [redacted] The President: One thing, we’ve got to do everything we can to keep their IMF program going. You know, they’ve only gotten, what, $7 billion out of $21 billion. There may be some other little things we could do, which I’m working on. But the hard truth is we will be pouring good money after bad if the banks keep taking the money and putting it in Europe. I’m worried about Russia becoming like Africa. It’s bad enough the market takes the pipe, but the citizens of the country who ought to be putting their own wealth in there are shipping it out, and you have massive capital outflows instead of internally generated growth.”
Three days later, Clinton told Blair their priority was to get Chernomyrdin into the prime ministry, and in place to take over the Kremlin if Yeltsin resigned. Blair’s idea is redacted. Clinton replied: “The first thing we have to do is get him confirmed, and [redacted]… I’ll see what I can do over there and work like hell to influence the Duma people. Keep your fingers crossed.”
Clinton and Blair don’t register immediate objection to the failure of Chernomyrdin to be voted into the prime ministry by the State Duma. They don’t begin to go on the offensive against Primakov until October 6, 1998, when Clinton tells Blair: “We have got to tell Yeltsin, look, if you are right and we are wrong then Milosevic will be in full compliance. If he lied to you one more time, then we are going to do it. This is an issue that to me seems to be a real mistake to let pressure up now.”
Yeltsin removed Primakov from the prime ministry on May 12, 1999. The Washington Post reported the move was “setting in motion a collision with the Communist-dominated legislature on the eve of a debate on impeachment charges against Yeltsin.” Clinton told Blair the following month: “We need to boost Yeltsin and his pro-reform forces. I wish we could resuscitate Chernomyrdin, and I realize this may be more water than we can carry.” On June 18, 1999, Clinton met Blair on the sidelines of a G7 summit meeting in Cologne: “we should accelerate accession for some of the Balkan countries into NATO. You might consider the same thing for the European Union. Should there be a Customs Union with the EU, like Turkey. Should you accelerate the accession process? If you think we, should push the envelope, then we can push [German Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder, [French President Jacques] Chirac and [Italian Prime Minister Massimo] D’Alema to think about this” Blair replied: “I agree we should push the envelope…”
On NATO enlargement Yeltsin had been reassuring again, through the back-channel. According to national security advisor Berger, “We also have to solve this problem with the Russians. I think we are almost there.”
“Prime Minister Blair: Let me make clear my view: [redacted]. The President: I think we all need to watch them. If we have something that we can live with, I don’t mind letting them declare victory so we can just get this out of the headlines and move on. Right now they are in the way and we need to resolve this. I want to nail this Russian thing down. The other reason is that I am truly worried that Yeltsin might make a dangerous decision…He thinks we are trying to extend our sphere of influence. He just doesn’t understand we are trying to make a more peaceful Europe and reverse ethnic cleansing. But I think he will do the right thing at the end….”
“The President: Yeltsin is the only Russian leader who truly hates communism, believes in freedom and integration with the west.” Prime Minister Blair: [redacted]. The President: I agree with that. In addition, we need a huge effort to move the center of Russian politics. I think one way to do that is for us to get more parliamentarians there. It’s a huge effort to go to them and to bring them to us in a more systematic way but I think it’s worth it. That will really help to educate politicians there and move them to the center. We need to combat their insularity.”
Clinton and Blair don’t talk again about Russia until February of 2000. By then, Yeltsin had resigned, and Putin named acting president in his place until the election scheduled for March 26, 2000. The first mention of Putin in the Clinton-Blair dossier was on February 28, 2000. According to Clinton, “We’re trying to resolve bilateral issues with Russia and kind of get this Chechnya thing resolved. Putin has enormous potential, I think. I think he’s very smart and thoughtful. I think we can do a lot of good with him.” Blair mentioned his wife was due to give birth five weeks later; he ignored Putin.
On April 9, Clinton told Blair he had an intestinal feeling about Putin “I might be completely wrong, but my gut tells me he could do wonders with his popularity if he could make some progress on the health care problem. Prime Minister Blair: I’m sure you’re right.” This document was classified SECRET.
Clinton reminisced about Yeltsin. “I used to have these arguments with Yeltsin all the time when we were looking at expanding NATO. I asked him once, Do you really believe that if we got a foothold in Poland we would bomb western Russia? He said, No, I don’t, but there are a lot of old ladies out in the country who do. He was dead serious. I think it’s important to understand their mentality on this. They are still affected by Napoleon, Hitler,and the way the Cold War .came to end, and about the way the Soviet Empire collapsed. Yeltsin was much more enthusiastic about this in some ways than his progressive successors. He wound up mortally hating communism, but still believing in Mother Russia. All these guys do, and we’ve got to be sensitive about that.”
Clinton and Blair also discussed how to get Putin to accept the deployment of American anti-missile missile batteries close to the Russian western frontier. “We can’t walk away from something that can keep a lot of us alive. I want to talk to you about it in greater detail, maybe before I go to see him [Putin]. We can’t get this done without serious adverse implications unless both Russia and Europe believe this can be something that benefits all of us. Since it’s a defense system, I’m committed to that. I think there might be some way to plug him into that. I am still formulating my ideas on it, but let’s talk one more time. Let’s do that first before my meeting with him.”
Clinton also revealed Russian resistance to his effort to get Yeltsin to agree to the sale of gas and oilfields to US companies. “I think all the internal energy problems they’ve got have caused and cost untold billions of dollars of investment. Their whole view of energy is caught up in the notion of sovereignty, and we’ve had trouble cracking that nut. Al Gore couldn’t move Chernomyrdin very far on that stuff, but I still think they’ve got just staggering potential.”
On May 27, 2000, as the electioneering intensified in the US over the “Star Wars” missile plan, Clinton admitted to Blair that he was having trouble getting Putin to accept it. “One thing Republicans say is that nobody believes we can have bad intentions, but we are the only people who have ever dropped one of these weapons. My objective is to try and leave office with the thing in the best possible state in terms of a decent outcome. I am trying to do this deal with Putin to foreclose the possibility of going to any bigger system which would undermine arms control. It might not work. We might not be able to do it. But I still think we are going to win this thing. We might not. It might be close. I always believed Al [Gore] is going to win. I am going to try to make it difficult for Bush to go off half-cocked on this Star Wars deal.”
June 4, 2000 – Clinton and Putin sign a memorandum on exchanging data on missile launches
Six months later, on November 23, Blair spoke to Clinton about a meeting he had had with Putin. The outcome of the US presidential election on November 7 hung on whether the US Supreme Court would allow Florida to count the state for George Bush; that didn’t happen until December 12. “How did your visit with Putin go?,” Clinton asked. “It was fine. Very interesting He feels that he is not understood about the problems that he is facing there. He was very anxious to impress me. He wanted to see America as a partner, I think.”
“The President: I think he does, depending on who wins our elections, it might take a while to get it going, but the more time you can spend with him the better. I think he [Putin] is a guy with a lot of ability and ambitions for the Russians. His intentions are generally honorable and straightforward, but he just hasn’t made up his mind yet. He could get squishy on democracy.”
Clinton told Blair to keep up the contact with Putin. “The more time you spend with him, the more it will pay off. Prime Minister Blair: Yes. I will carry on with it. I think the other thing is he is only now choosing the people around him. That really matters in terms of what is being pumped into his ears. He is highly intelligent. The President: Yes. A lot of people pour crap in. He wants to do a g