When Bill Clinton assumed the presidency in 1993, he hoped to focus on the U.S. economy. Instead, momentous events in Moscow almost immediately thrust him into an unexpected role. "By the spring of his first year in office," Strobe Talbott writes, "Clinton had become the U.S. government's principal Russian hand, and so he remained for the duration of his presidency." Until Boris Yeltsin resigned on January 1, 2000, the two men were the major figures on the world's political stage. They met 18 times, almost always to deal with extremely sensitive issues. As Russia sought to reinvent itself, significantly changing international politics in the process, the United States was required to "reinvent American foreign policy," Talbott says.
In The Russia Hand, a compelling account of this dramatic and crucial period in post-Cold War politics, Talbott shares his behind-the-scenes experiences as deputy secretary of state and chief architect of the administration's policy toward Russia.
A multitude of concerns regarding nuclear weapons, the war in Chechnya, political opposition in the Duma, the Russian parliament and virtually anything that might be considered reform made diplomacy sticky for the Clinton administration. Yeltsin added to the challenge by being somewhat unpredictable. He felt his country should never be perceived as being less than equal with the U.S. Clinton was empathetic with Yeltsin and felt the United States and other allies should help Russia. The two leaders, despite their differences, respected each other. "The thing about Yeltsin I really like," Clinton says at one point, "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." Talbott, whose background includes a 21-year career as reporter, Washington bureau chief and columnist for Time magazine, is a keen and insightful observer as well as a key player in the story. Anyone interested in U.S.-Russian relations will find his new book a source of riches.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.