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The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy

The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy

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by Strobe Talbott

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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


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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Once again Strobe Talbott has written an important and insightful diplomatic history. This richly crafted book, the first authoritative inside account of President Clinton’s personal diplomacy with Russian presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, could have been written only by Talbott, with his reporter’s eye for the telling anecdote, his deep knowledge of Russia, his intimate personal involvement in the events he describes, and his central role as Clinton’s 'go-to-guy' on Russia policy. The portraits of Clinton, Yeltsin and others, as well as the blow-by-blow account of the roller coaster Russian-American relationship in the Clinton years, ensure that The Russia Hand will be a sourcebook for future historians."
--Hedrick L. Smith

"The Russia Hand is easily one of the best memoirs of Presidential diplomacy ever written. With his great command of history, gift of language, sense of detail, and eight years at the center of American foreign policy-making, Strobe Talbott has brought us a fascinating, often surprising account of an historic and pivotal period. The Russia Hand shows us what a complex and impressive achievement it was for the United States to build a lasting relationship with its old enemy of half a century. When historians begin to assess the Presidency of Bill Clinton, this book will be basic and mandatory reading."
--Michael Beschloss

"Fascinating and compelling reading -- this book is at once a serious political science text and a work of high comedy. Strobe Talbott has given us a marvelous window on a rare moment of important and delicate diplomacy between the United States and Russia and, more important, those two most unlikely partners, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin."
--David Halberstam

"A unique document, by turns racy, scholarly, personal, and always of our time. We shall not read its like for a long while. An indispensable and generous contribution to contemporary history."
--John Le Carre

"Strobe Talbott has written a wonderfully rich and revealing account of the turbulent relationship between the U.S. and Russia during the first post-Cold-War years. Colorful, full of surprises and intimate portraits of the key people involved -- by the man who was at the center of it all -- this book is and will remain essential for any understanding of this critical and even dangerous period."
--Elizabeth Drew

"A fascinating portrait of diplomacy as it really works (and sometimes doesn't), written with clarity and grace by a wise man."
--Evan Thomas

From the Hardcover edition.

Strobe Talbott was the chief architect of Clinton administration policy toward Russia and the former Soviet bloc. The Russia Hand is his vivid insider's narrative of attempts by the Clinton foreign policy team to stabilize relations in the rapidly changing post–Cold War world. This candid diplomatic memoir has already earned high praise: John le Carré calls it "a unique document, by turns racy, scholarly, shamelessly personal, and always of our time. We shall not read its like for a long time."
New Yorker
Among journalists, Nelson Strobridge Talbott III was always considered a breed apart, a descendant of the Wise Men generation; whether at the Council on Foreign Relations or at a summit meeting in a European capital, Talbott carried himself with an effortless gravitas. When Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992, he made Talbott, who had been a close friend at Oxford, his point man on Russian affairs. Historians will probably find Talbott's insider account of post-Cold War diplomacy far too unquestioning of an American policy that, in the name of supporting a fragile democracy, tended to forgive Boris Yeltsin everything, even when he was at his reeling, Chechen-shelling worst. In this memoir, Clinton is always sagely reminding everyone that "Ol' Boris" had the toughest job in the world, and needed all the support the United States could provide. Talbott shows no less fealty to Clinton. And, while that may arouse doubts, there is something -- after so many volumes of assault from Cabinet officers, image polishers, and other satraps -- incidentally moving about this book; far from being a definitive history, it is instead a fascinating gesture of friendship sustained and maintained.
Publishers Weekly
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. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
During the Clinton administration, Talbott followed up a distinguished career in journalism by serving as deputy secretary of state, concentrating on relations with Russia. The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that U.S. officials needed to work with the new government in Moscow on continuing issues (nuclear weapons, the Balkans) and on new ones (Chechnya, NATO enlargement, the 1998 financial crisis), all against the backdrop of drastic change in Russia's economic and political systems and while keeping an eye on the domestic political scene and election calendar in both countries. In addition, temporary distractions could not be allowed to derail the fundamental U.S. support for the process of democratization in Russia. Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin maintained a warm working relationship and could often reach agreement on the large issues, but it was Talbott and his Russian counterparts who dotted the i's and crossed the t's. This lively memoir, based largely on the author's diaries, gives a vivid picture of the frenetic pace and frequent jet lag of the Clinton administration as officials juggled many competing issues in unexplored policy territory. Recommended for most collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/02.] Marcia L. Sprules, Council on Foreign Relations Lib., New York Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An insightful evaluation, by a key player, of the Clinton administration's efforts to make an ally of America's former Russian foe. Russian democratization began well before Bill Clinton took office, but, to hear former policy advisor Talbott tell it, his predecessors didn't much know what to make of the new grinning bear in the midst. Clinton had long been applying his famed skills as a policy wonk to the Russian question, but even he was taken unaware; he had hired Talbott, a fellow Rhodes Scholar and longtime student of Russian language and history, to "think full-time about Russia and the former Soviet Union while he went about being president, which he expected would mean concentrating on the American economy." Soon convinced of the importance of securing Russia's support on such matters as widening the NATO alliance and pacifying the Balkans-and of having a stable, democratic Russia as an international partner-Clinton quickly turned his attention to shoring up Boris Yeltsin's shaky government; in this, Talbott reveals, Clinton had a perhaps unlikely ally in former president Richard Nixon, who urged that the economy would take care of itself, remarking to Talbott, "What Clinton will be remembered for is how he deals with Russia. And that means leading the rest of the world, especially those G-7 assholes, in support for what we're in favor of in Russia." Nixon's cheerleading was probably unnecessary, for Clinton took a personal interest early on in helping Yeltsin (and, along the way, in trying to convince the Russian leader to curb his infamous appetite for alcohol); page by page, Talbott reveals Clinton's painstaking efforts in this regard, and, though he is too courtly to criticizeopenly, provides a contrast by which to judge the current administration's on-again, off-again campaign to keep the government of Vladimir Putin at least within eyesight of the Western camp. Sturdy and well written: for wonks in training, as well as those nostalgic for a time of intelligent foreign policy.

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt


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.
The Tempest

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. Clinton remarked on various landmarks as we sped past: the massive Russian State Library, once named after Lenin, where the presiding presence was now a statue of Dostoyevksy; the glitzy nightclubs, casinos and designer boutiques of the New Arbat, Yeltsin’s biggest restoration project when he was running the city in the late eighties; the Russian White House, which had been, at different times, the scene of Yeltsin’s greatest triumph, the command center of his most implacable enemies and the scene of a spasm of bloodletting from which neither he nor his country had recovered nearly seven years later. As we crossed the river and headed out of the city along Kutuzovsky Prospect, Clinton recalled that it had been the route Napoleon used to march into Moscow with the Grande Armée in 1812. That set him to musing in three directions at once: about Russia’s vulnerability to invasion, its close but complex ties to the West and its preoccupation with its own history.

I’d heard riffs like this from Clinton over the years, going back to when I’d first known him in the late sixties. Russia had always been a subject that stirred him when, for one reason or another, it came to his attention. But that had happened only episodically. As a governor in the seventies and eighties, he’d had more reason to think about Japan as a source of foreign investment and as a market for Arkansas rice. He’d brought me into his administration to think full-time about Russia and the former Soviet Union while he went about being president, which he expected would mean concentrating on the American economy.

Then, almost immediately, events in Moscow and the importuning of the man shakily in charge there thrust upon Clinton the portfolio he’d hoped I’d handle for him. It became apparent that being president meant, much more than he’d anticipated, doing the heavy lifting in the management of relations with a giant nation that was reinventing itself and, in doing so, reinventing international politics and requiring us to reinvent American foreign policy.

By the spring of his first year in office, Clinton had become the U.S. government’s principal Russia hand, and so he remained for the duration of his presidency.

Within twenty minutes after leaving the Kremlin, we reached the capital’s high-rent exurbia, where modern redbrick cottages had sprouted amid leftovers of the old power structure—sprawling VIP dachas, rest homes and clinics behind stucco walls or high green wooden fences. After slowing down to navigate a narrow potholed road, we arrived at Gorky-9, a heavily guarded complex where Yeltsin had been living since his last years in office, largely because it was near the Barvikha sanatorium that cared for him during his numerous and prolonged illnesses.

Yeltsin was waiting at the front door, his wife, Naina, on one side and, on the other, Tatyana Dyachenko, his younger daughter. As the car slowed to a stop, Clinton remarked that Yeltsin’s face was puffy, his complexion sallow; he looked stiff and propped up.

Over the eight years they had known each other, Clinton and Yeltsin often bantered about the advantage of both being six foot two: it was easier for them to look each other in the eye. Now, as the limousine rolled to a stop and Clinton scrutinized his host through the window, he noted that Yeltsin seemed to have lost an inch or two since they had last been together, seven months before, when Yeltsin had still been in office.

After Clinton got out of the car, he and Yeltsin embraced silently for a full minute. Yeltsin kept saying, in a low, choked voice, “moi drug, moi drug”—my friend, my friend. Then, clasping Clinton’s hand, he led the way through a foyer into a living room bright with sunlight pouring through a picture window that looked out on a manicured lawn and a stand of birches. They sat in gilt oval-backed chairs next to a sky blue tile stove while Naina bustled about, serving tea and generous helpings of a rich multi-layered cake that she proudly said she’d been up half the night baking.

Clinton settled in for what he expected would be a relaxed exchange of memories and courtesies, but Yeltsin had work to do first. Turning severe, he announced that he had just had a phone call from Putin, who wanted him to underscore that Russia would pursue its interests by its own lights; it would resist pressure to acquiesce in any American policy that constituted a threat to Russian security. Clinton, after three days of listening to Putin politely fend him off on the U.S. plan to build an anti-missile system, was now getting the blunt-instrument treatment.

Yeltsin’s face was stern, his posture tense, both fists clenched, each sentence a proclamation. He seemed to relish the assignment Putin had given him. It allowed him to demonstrate that, far from being a feeble pensioner, he was still plugged in to the power of the Kremlin, still a forceful spokesman for Russian interests and still able to stand up to the U.S. when it was throwing its weight around.

Clinton took the browbeating patiently, even good-naturedly. He had seen Yeltsin in all his roles—snarling bear and papa bear, bully and sentimentalist, spoiler and dealmaker. He knew from experience that a session with Yeltsin almost always involved some roughing up before the two of them could get down to real business.

When the chance came, Clinton steered the discussion toward the subject of where Russia was heading under Putin. But Yeltsin wasn’t yet ready to yield the floor. He had more to say about the past.

I was on a couch, across from the two men, listening intently as they talked. Seated next to me was Tatyana, whom I had seen in passing only once in more trips to Moscow than I could count. When Yeltsin launched into a self-congratulatory account of how he had maneuvered Putin from obscurity into the presidency over fierce resistance, Tatyana looked at me and nodded solemnly. She leaned toward me and whispered, “It really was very hard, getting Putin into the job—one of the hardest things we ever pulled off.”

I noticed the “we.” I was meant to. She wanted me to know it was true what they said: even though she had kept out of the public eye, including during state visits, she really had been one of Yeltsin’s most influential confidants. It was as though she had decided to make her first appearance onstage in a curtain call.

As Naina plied her husband and his guests with more tea and cake, Yeltsin rambled on, but the refrain was simple: Putin was “a young man and a strong man.” Yeltsin kept returning to these two attributes—youth and strength—as though they were the essence both of what Russia needed and of what he, by promoting Putin, had hoped to preserve as his own legacy.

When Yeltsin finally wound down, Clinton gently took control. He too had one piece of business to do. He wasn’t sure, he said, how “this new guy of yours” defined strength, either for himself or for the nation. Putin seemed to have the capability to take Russia in the right direction, but did he have the values, instincts and convictions to make good on that capability? Why, Clinton wondered aloud, was Putin so ready to make common cause with the communists, “those people you, Boris, did so much to beat back and bring down”? Why was Putin putting the squeeze on the free press, “which, as you know, Boris, is the lifeblood of an open and modern society”?

Yeltsin nodded solemnly, but he didn’t answer. All the pugnacity, swagger and certainty had gone out of him.

“Boris,” Clinton continued, “you’ve got democracy in your heart. You’ve got the trust of the people in your bones. You’ve got the fire in your belly of a real democrat and a real reformer. I’m not sure Putin has that. Maybe he does. I don’t know. You’ll have to keep an eye on him and use your influence to make sure that he stays on the right path. Putin needs you. Whether he knows it or not, he really needs you, Boris. Russia needs you. You really changed this country, Boris. Not every leader can say that about the country he’s led. You changed Russia. Russia was lucky to have you. The world was lucky you were where you were. I was lucky to have you. We did a lot of stuff together, you and I. We got through some tough times. We never let it all come apart. We did some good things. They’ll last. It took guts on your part. A lot of that stuff was harder for you than it was for me. I know that.”

Yeltsin was now clutching Clinton by the hand, leaning into him.

“Thank you, Bill,” he said. “I understand.”

We were running late. There was a quick group photo on the veranda, some hurried good-byes and another bear hug.

“Bill,” said Yeltsin, “I really do understand what you said. I’ll think about it.”

“I know you will, Boris,” said Clinton, “because I know what you have in here.” Clinton tapped Yeltsin on his chest, right above his ailing heart.

Back in the car, Clinton was, for several minutes, even more somber than during the ride out. He looked out the window at the birch trees glinting in the sunshine that lined the country road leading back to the highway.

“That may be the last time I see Ol’ Boris,” he said finally. “I think we’re going to miss him.”

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Strobe Talbott was the architect of the Clinton administration's policy toward Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union. He served as deputy secretary of state for even years. A former Time magazine columnist and Washington bureau chief, he is the translator-editor of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs and the author of six books on U.S.-Soviet relations. He is now director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a great behind-the-scenes story of how the Clinton administration dealt with Yeltsin and their relationship. Very comprehensive, but at the end, it became almost tedious to read this book. It is very big, and you never thought 8 years dealing with one subject, even if it is mighty Russia, can take up this much space. The reason this book isn't a 5-star is it's size. Mr. Talbott really could have condensed some of the information here, and the amount of facts and the level of informality is a little overwhelming.