1995 Moscow Summit, "Moment of Truth": Memo to President Clinton from Strobe Talbott, 4/15/1995

Clinton and Yeltsin, Vancouver April 1993

Memo Review by Alex Dubin, HKS MPP

            The end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union generated an enormous peace dividend and left the U.S. as the world’s sole superpower. However, the question of how to effectively engage with post-Soviet Russia loomed large over U.S. policytowards Europe. NATO eastward expansion, arms control, Russia’s turbulent economic transition, and nuclear weapons removal from post-Soviet states were just some of the issues facing U.S. policymakers.

The Situation

The Clinton administration had been pushing hard for NATO enlargement into former Warsaw Pact countries. Clinton had met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin twice in the last eight months, once in September 1994 in Washington and then in December 1994 in Budapest, as part of a series of ongoing meetings.[1] At the September summit, Yeltsin agreed to the idea that NATO would expand, but in December, he backed away, saying NATO expansion was contrary to Russian national security interests.[2] Clinton had initially rejected a subsequent May 1995 summit in January before reversing and accepting.[3]

The Memo

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott wrote a memorandum to President Clinton in April 1995 in advance of a summit in Moscow on May 10. The memo lays out what’s at stake at the summit and two possible outcomes and their respective consequences. It goes into background on Clinton’s previous interactions with Yeltsin, the thoughts and motives of Russia and international partners, and what U.S. goals for the summit should be. It concludes with an action plan on how to use the remaining 25 days to prepare for the summit.

Talbott gives the memo a provocative title—“May 10: Moment of Truth.” The opening lays out the stakes at this summit: Can the U.S. keep its dual strategies of NATO expansion and a positive relationship with Russia on track, “crucial to your vision of post-Cold War Europe?”

He then outlines two possible results from the summit, first the most ideal, and then the second-best. The first sees Yeltsin’s concerns about NATO expansion assuaged and he agrees that Russia will participate in the Partnership for Peace. The second-best is essentially a status quo—it’s a difficult conversation, but no Budapest repeat.

Talbott then traces the President’s previous interactions with Yeltsin. He restates Clinton’s European priorities: a “determination” to enlarge NATO, “not a matter of if but when,” and an “integrated, undivided Europe.”

Talbott includes the key language Yeltsin agreed to in September—the four “no’s” on NATO expansion— “no rush, no surprises, no threat, and no exclusion.” He writes about why Yeltsin backed off in December in Budapest—after the North Atlantic Council announced a 1995 NATO expansion workplan and the Republicans won big in 1994, he felt it was moving too fast and warned Clinton of a “cold peace” (i.e., a new Cold War) if NATO expanded east.

Talbott reminds Clinton of post-Budapest events: Russia’s acceptance of “parallelism” of NATO expansion and NATO-Russia, stalling tactics, and sub-presidential, high-level communications. He includes a “where we are now” section that warns Clinton that “all major players in Russia” are opposed to NATO expansion, tempering expectations for a major breakthrough. He goes into Russian fears over isolation, Yeltsin’s desire for a positive summit with Clinton, personally, and the general inclination amongst NATO allies towards seeing a positive relationship with Russia.

            Talbott then outlines in more detail the U.S. goals for the summit with signed deliverables, including a joint commitment and joint statement. Clinton should also make a statement on European security in advance that assures NATO expansion is happening but that it isn’t rushed (to avoid it being a “concession.”)

            Finally, Talbott concludes with action items for the next 25 days, beginning immediately with Yeltsin letters, a phone call, and arranging senior staff meetings with Russian counterparts.

Memo Review

            This is an excellent memo that makes the policy problem explicit—how do we keep our dual priorities, NATO expansion and relations with Russia, on track?

Talbott understands his audience, the President, and makes the case personal at times—"your vision,” “if you can convince Yeltsin,” and “you got him to accept.” While this might be putting a little too much on Clinton’s shoulders rhetorically, especially with the “Moment of Truth” title, perhaps a few more we’s would have been ideal. But the strategy is effective in conveying the situation to Clinton.

One of the greatest strengths in this memo is Talbott’s anticipating Yeltsin and Russian motives and reactions to current and potential issues, and pre-emptively offering strategy on how to counteract.

In his outcomes, Talbott doesn’t even consider a third option—another meltdown as in Budapest. He slips a little note at the end of the second outcome, that Yeltsin’s advisers have assured him that he won’t be a “bad host” even if they can’t agree – but nevertheless, Talbott should have explored this outcome as a possibility.

Talbott’s bullet point format with headings works extremely well, guiding Clinton through the sections with easily skimmable topics. He might have considered using some underlining on key phrases and not made the entire memo in bold, but these are minor points.

The action items for the next 25 days at the end are outstanding – Talbott outlines exactly what needs to happen, beginning today. After describing a dangerous and high stakes situation and making it so personal, Talbott essentially assures Clinton, we’re on it. We’re handling the prep work.

The memo is a bit long, it could perhaps use more concision, but it does provide critical background that Clinton might be interested in reviewing.

Overall, this is a fantastic, compelling guiding document for Clinton to review and prepare with just under a month before the Moscow summit.

Aftermath

The Moscow summit took place on May 10, and Clinton achieved a mix between outcomes 1 and 2. Yeltsin agreed to move forward with the Partnership for Peace but did not move away from his opposition to NATO expansion.[4]

NATO-Russian talks eventually led to the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997, which was designed to base the relations on trust and cooperation.[5] NATO expansion did occur, with the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joining in 1999. But despite the many complicated issues at stake, it did seem as if relations were improving and the “cold peace” Yeltsin threatened would be avoided.

Of course, Russian fears over NATO growth did not disappear, and further NATO expansion eastward, especially into former Soviet republics, along with a new Russian President even more suspicious of the West and determined to pursue an independent foreign policy, led to a slow decline in relations.