The Book Club

Did We Help the Russians Kill Dudayev?

Dear Strobe,

I’m not disputing the existence of American aid and support for Russian NGOs and others. I’ve had the good fortune to meet some wonderful grassroots reformers in Russia, from Galina Dudina, a little old lady who constitutes the entire movement for prison reform between Arkhangelsk and the Arctic Circle, to Lena Nemirovskaya, whose Moscow School of Political Studies has been preaching civil society to Russian politicians since the early 1990s. Both have been (and are still) supported by well-spent Western money.

What I’m disputing is the larger policy—which is what you also focus upon in your book: Clinton’s insistence on publicly aligning himself with Yeltsin, Clinton’s insistence upon publicly praising Yeltsin’s democratic instincts, Clinton’s belief that Yeltsin was political leader who focused “like a laser,” as you write, “on one very big task—which was to drive a stake through the heart of the old Soviet system.” I’m just not sure if that was all that he and his advisers were doing or even how much of the Soviet system they really wanted dismantled. Yeltsin’s “family,” the retinue of corrupt relatives and advisers who circled around him during his later, sicker years, were suspected of engineering Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, in exchange for a guarantee of their own safety. Do you think that was true? If so, does it not somewhat sully the picture of Yeltsin-the-idealistic-democrat?

In its way, the Gore-Chernomyrdin relationship, which you do indeed make much of in the book, was even harder to fathom than the Clinton-Yeltsin relationship. Viktor Chernomyrdin was not merely a Russian prime minister: He was also a leading light of Gazprom, the company that controls one quarter of the world’s natural gas reserves. Was that connection of absolutely no relevance at all? Would it not have been prudent to prevent the American vice president from becoming too closely aligned with a man whose image, in Russia, was very far from that of the neutral bureaucrat you describe? I question, simply whether the “other less noble or downright stupid stuff” that took place during Yeltsin’s presidency was really a sideshow. To my mind, it was the main story.

A few points to counter some of yours. Don’t put me in the box with the critics who think the reforms in Russian took place too quickly. Put me in the box with the critics who think that for a long time, their reforms, both economic and political, didn’t take place at all. In your previous e-mail, for example, you spoke of the Russian independent media “surviving the current Putin crackdown.” In 1996, at the time of Yeltsin’s re-election campaign—a campaign that we backed, financially and politically—the media were hardly independent, in our understanding of the word: They were owned and manipulated by powerful business and political clans who had decided that the re-election of Yeltsin lay in their own interests. The media’s near-unanimous support for Yeltsin was applauded in the West—but it hardly set a wonderful example, and it hardly took a “crackdown” to persuade Russia’s media to shift gears and grant near-unanimous support to Vladimir Putin a few years later. Putin is more openly nasty to the press than Yeltsin ever was, but the difference is between red apples and green apples, not apples and oranges.

By describing Putin as an “ally,” I meant that Russia is an ally in the war on terrorism, not that Russia is a member of NATO. That aside, there are many interesting ironies in the current U.S.-Russia relationship. You and President Clinton spent an awful lot of time pumping and cajoling Boris Yeltsin to get him to comply with various U.S. demands, internal and external. Yet without any pumping or cajoling, or indeed hardly any diplomacy at all, Vladimir Putin happily invited American troops into Central Asia, doesn’t seem bothered by U.S. plans to build a missile-defense system, and is apparently going to acquiesce to a further expansion of NATO—all in defiance of his own security establishment. My guess is his behavior partly derives from his estimation of the threat that radical Islam poses to Russia and is partly generational: Perhaps these things just don’t seem like such big taboos to someone who never held high office during the Cold War. What do you think?

One final question, simply to satisfy my own curiosity. Although you do say, in your book, that you wish Clinton had condemned the Chechen war louder and earlier, you don’t, understandably, really discuss the details of the war—with one intriguing exception. Apropos of nothing, you mention the death of the Chechen leader Dzhokar Dudayev, who was killed by a Russian missile while talking on his satellite telephone. Did we give the Russians the technology that enabled them to find that telephone?

As I’ve asked you a lot of other questions this time around, a simple yes or no will suffice.