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The Clinton administration’s contacts with Vladimir Putin during his tenure as prime minister, acting president, and eventually president between 1999 and 2000 help shed light on the Russian leader’s current actions and, along with some previously untapped sources, provide new clues to Putin’s personality and approach both to Russia’s relations with its close neighbors in the post-Soviet sphere and to the West. Putin did not change as much as some may have thought. Rather, his beliefs and views show a high degree of conservation over the course of his public life, which should prove useful in understanding current events in Ukraine.

The West has underestimated and misjudged Putin for twenty years. Newly available U.S. archival sources from the Clinton Presidential Library and the State Department’s Freedom of Information Act Reading Room reveal that Putin has never respected the sovereignty of the countries in the former Soviet space. For Putin, testing Western resolve is a permanent gamble. In 1999, during the three months when he was prime minister, he toyed with the threat of expanding Russia’s war in Chechnya to neighboring Georgia. In December 1999, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott repelled Putin’s gamble and emphasized that “any Russian intervention in Georgia against the wishes of the Georgian authorities would significantly worsen the already strained relationship between Russia and the rest of the world.”

Putin as Yeltsin’s Choice

Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin and his team misjudged Putin when they were searching for a successor to continue Russia’s reform agenda. Yeltsin committed his single biggest mistake when he appointed Putin acting president on December 31, 1999. In September 1999, Yeltsin praised Putin in a telephone conversation with Clinton: “I found out he is a solid man who is kept well abreast of various subjects under his purview. At the same time, he is thorough and strong, very sociable. And he can easily have good relations and contact with people who are his partners,” Yeltsin said.

Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair were not fully convinced. They thought that Putin was “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.”

The Putin Pattern: Don’t Give an Inch!

The Clinton administration was confident about the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship. However, Russia’s war in Chechnya soon revealed the limits of cooperation. Putin turned down Clinton’s advice to search for a political solution in the Caucasus. “On Chechnya, the question is how we crush this base of terrorism but take minimal losses. Well, what will be done will be done. We have a solid military strategy. We will attack areas with terrorists. But how can we negotiate with terrorists. The Russian people would never accept this. We need to find those we can deal with,” Putin pointed out.

This was vintage Putin. He showed toughness and determination as soon as critical subjects were raised. He drew red lines when his interests in Russia’s near aboard were involved. In December 2000, Putin became confrontational when Clinton raised the matter of Russia’s pressure on Georgia. Putin despised Georgia as a safe haven for terrorists and was put out that President Eduard Shevardnadze had rejected the deployment of additional Russian troops on the border between Georgia and Chechnya. “We need only to have some order here,” Putin said—and he did not calm down until the end of the conversation.

Putin dismissed Georgia’s sovereignty, he switched to an aggressive mode instantly, he tried to intimidate his interlocutors, he turned down appeals for diplomatic solutions, he did not give way an inch, he never made concessions. In February 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright witnessed this intransigence when she urged Putin to search for a diplomatic solution in Chechnya. Putin rejected Albright’s requests to stop the fighting and to give foreign journalists access to the area.

When Albright cautioned against the potential spread of the war to Georgia, Putin went into his aggressive mode. As noted in a State Department document, “Putin said that Georgia’s territorial integrity had already been violated, with some 1500-2000 armed Chechens in the country. … Putin observed Shevardnadze had lost control of Abkhazia, Ajaria and Ossetia and only controlled Tbilisi and its environs. He explained that Russia was ready to help, but had no intention to enter Georgia.”

Putin and the West

At the same time, Putin was a pragmatist and aware that Russia was too weak for a confrontation with the West. In February 2000, Putin revived the Permanent Joint NATO-Russia Council, which Yeltsin had abandoned after the start of NATO’s 1999 war to save Kosovo. Putin welcomed NATO Secretary General George Robertson in Moscow to show his readiness for continued cooperation, and this was an important and much-appreciated signal.

Clinton and Blair thought that Putin wanted to see the West as a partner. Clinton believed “he's very smart and thoughtful. I think we can do a lot of good with him.” However, Clinton’s arms control agenda disclosed the limits of cooperation again. Putin simply avoided a substantial discussion every time Clinton raised the issue of arms control. “This is an unexpected subject, and I will need to think about it further,” Putin drily remarked.

Putin’s Grievance Narrative

During the past twenty years, Putin has always portrayed Russia as a victim of an expansionist Western agenda. He is the champion and leading perpetuator of Russia’s grievance narrative, insisting that his country is constantly being bullied, patronized, and taken advantage of by the West. When Russia annexed Crimea and started its war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Putin emphasized the reputed humiliation Russia had suffered in the face of broken promises by the West, including the alleged promise not to enlarge NATO beyond the borders of a reunited Germany. For more than twenty years, the “broken promise” has been a foundational leitmotif of Russia’s post-Soviet identity.

There is no truth to it. In the 1990s the Bush and Clinton administrations engaged Russia on a broad scale. America used its “unipolar moment” as a chance to facilitate Russia’s transformation and its integration in the global community of nations. In 2000, after Putin’s ascent to the presidency, Talbott predicted that “the West might now be paying the price for seven years of successfully turning Yeltsin’s Big ‘Nyets’ into grudging OK’s. Much had been accomplished on many fronts—on missile sales to India and Iraq, IFOR/SFOR, and NATO enlargement, among other issues. But Putin had set himself up as a departure from Yeltsin and so is more wary of saying yes to the West.”

Putin and the Coalition against Terror

After 9/11, the global war on terror provided Putin with a new chance to align himself with the West. Putin was in favor of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and did not object to the establishment of U.S. military bases in Central Asia. He saw 9/11 as a unique chance to turn Russia into a full-fledged U.S. partner in the war against terrorism. Starting in 2002, Bush’s Putin reset began to disappear. Putin was against the war in Iraq and, based on that, sided with French president Jacques Chirac and German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Starting in 2004, Putin began developing a grievance against the Bush administration’s freedom agenda. Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution upset Putin. He feared the new reform-minded, pro-Western leaders in both countries.

Putin and His Own World

Following the color revolutions, Putin began to create Russia’s own world. Western policymakers have not sufficiently understood that. In 2006, scholar Dmitri Trenin was already warning that “until recently, Russia saw itself as Pluto in the Western solar system, very far from the center but still fundamentally a part of it. Now it has left that orbit entirely: Russia’s leaders have given up on becoming part of the West and have started creating their own Moscow-centered system.” Putin’s infamous speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference should have been understood as a clear warning. In it, Putin told the world who he really was. He lambasted the West and the idea of a global liberal order. He criticized what he perceived as “an almost uncontained hyper use of force—military force—in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.”

We know now that Putin is determined to use military force in unconstrained ways. His war in Ukraine should not be viewed as a surprise.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Stephan Kieninger

Stephan Kieninger

Global Fellow;
Independent Historian

Stephan Kieninger is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center and a historian of transatlantic relations since the Cold War.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more