Richard Nixon and Post-Yeltsin Russia
Nixon and Boris Yeltsin in Moscow 1991
Following Richard Nixon’s funeral service in 1994, Time Magazine ran the 37th President’s photo on the cover, for a record forty-eighth time, under the headline: “His parting advice to Bill Clinton: America Must Lead.” When it came to leadership during the last decade of his life, no issue consumed more of his energy and time than the final years of the Cold War. Three of his final four books—1999: Victory Without War, Seize the Moment, and Beyond Peace—and dozens of articles encouraged the American leadership class to support Russia’s challenging transition to a free market economy. In March of 1992, as a devastated Russian economy struggled to remain afloat, Nixon drafted a perspicacious memo and paper to President George H.W. Bush on aid to Post-Cold War Russia:
Aid to Russia and the other former communist nations is not charity. We must recognize that what helps us abroad helps us at home. If, for example, (Russian Federation President Boris) Yeltsin is replaced by a new aggressive Russian nationalist we can kiss the peace dividend good-bye. Not only would the world be far more dangerous but our defense foreign policy would be far more expensive. On the positive side, if Yeltsin succeeds a free market Russia will provide an opportunity for billions in trade, which will produce millions of jobs in the United States.
While en route to Memphis, Bush replied, writing:
I read your paper “How to Lose the Cold War.” I certainly agree with the major principle of this paper, namely, that we have an enormous stake with democratic Russia. I am sending the six points back to both Brent Scowcroft and Jim Baker.
With the U.S. economy dominating the 1992 election (Clinton ran under the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.”), Bush struggled to implement his Russian policies while matching the onslaught of his rival. With Clinton, however, Nixon’s message found a more receptive audience, as the eventual electee told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, “I think Baker and Bush have good instincts on what to do in the former Soviet republics, but I think they’ve been a little too timid in doing it. I think they know they ought to be with the republics. They know they ought to be trying to dismantle nuclear weapons. They know they ought to be trying to help convert the currency, but I think they’re just a little timid on it. I think they’re afraid of looking like they’re too preoccupied with foreign policy.”
Upon entering office, Clinton continued to seek Nixon’s counsel and secured economic aid for Russia through the International Monetary Fund. The economic and political stability of Russia, however, remained fragile and collapsed in 1993 as the Russian Parliament tried to impeach Yeltsin and by military force, Yeltsin dissolved the parliament. By declaring parliament violated “the will of the people” and establishing control of the media by Presidential decree, Yeltsin passed a new constitution granting himself strong, centralized authority. Amidst the pandemonium, Nixon travelled to Russia in the spring of 1994 to assess the situation. In what would be his final trip to Russia, Nixon met with Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, young reformers, and became the first American to address the State Duma of the Russian Federation.
His assessment of Yeltsin’s ability to lead Russia’s transformation, however, became more complicated as he told Monica Crowley after returning to the United States, “Yeltsin is in very bad shape, physically and politically. He’s just uncontrollable. Kravchuk, who has always been pro-Yeltsin, says he won’t last.” In his final Op-Ed, Nixon advised the United State to look beyond the Yeltsin era and focus on the new generation of Russian leaders:
But America should also pay close attention to the new generation of Russian leaders—many of whom I met—such as Grigory Yavlinsky, an impressive, young economist; Sergei Shakhray, the analytically minded Minister of Nationalities; and the formidable economics minister, Alexander Shokhin. All in their late 30’s or early 40’s, they are not yet ready for top leadership, but they are without question presidential material. The 55-year-old Prime Minister is now generally acknowledged to be the front-runner to succeed Mr. Yeltsin.
Upon his return to the United States, Nixon dictated his final memo to President Clinton on a “Post-Yeltsin era” plan for Russia. While the memo has not been processed by the Clinton Presidential Library, Monica Crowley observed in Nixon in Winter, “Nixon rose at four in the morning on March 21 and dictated a lengthy letter to the President. ‘I should report only to the man, anyway,’ he told me later in that day. ‘I was brutally honest in the memo. I told him he needs a new ambassador in Kiev because the situation is very dicey.”
In The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, Clinton discussed his response to Nixon’s 1994 stroke and the influence of the “Post-Yeltsin Era” memo with Taylor Branch:
Clinton said the loss would sadden him, as he was getting along fairly well with our old antagonist from the Vietnam era. A month ago today, he had received from Nixon a letter about Russia that Clinton called the most brilliant communication on foreign policy to reach him as President. Nothing else came close, he said. It was about planning for a “post-Yeltsin era,” with penetrating studies of political characters and fledgling countries. Nixon anticipated that sub-nationalist movements aimed to break-up the old Soviet Union still further, and Clinton wished he could talk more with Nixon about his recommendations. He said he shared the letter only with Al Gore. So far, to guard against distortion and leaks, he was keeping it from his own foreign policy team—even Tony Lake.
Nixon’s vision for a Post-Yeltsin Russia is unquestioned but world events in the late 1990s and 2000s complicated U.S.-Russian relations. Despite Nixon’s counsel, the Clinton administration focused on Yeltsin and after NATO support for Serbia during the Kosovo crisis, Washington’s and Moscow’s relationship became further strained. Yeltsin’s unexpected resignation in 1999 led to the ascendancy of former KGB agent Vladimir Putin to the Presidency of the Russian Federation and as Nixon warned Bush in 1992, if “Yeltsin is replaced by a new aggressive Russian nationalist we can kiss the peace dividend good-bye.”