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“HELLO BILL, THANK YOU BILL, GOODBYE BILL” – 20 YEARS OF TALKING WITH US PRESIDENTS HAVE BEEN A WASTE OF RUSSIAN BREATH

by John Helmer, Moscow 
  @bears_with [1]

Vladimir Putin liked to call the White House officials he met in mid-1999 by their first names,  except for Strobe Talbott of the State Department whom he called Mister Talbott.  

That was when Putin was Secretary of the Security Council, and his direct US counterpart was the White House National Security Advisor, Samuel (Sandy) Berger. In August of that year Putin was promoted to Prime Minister, and he began to take calls from President Bill Clinton. Putin began calling him Bill at their first face-to-face meeting in Auckland, New Zealand, on September 12, 1999, It was there Putin confided that President Boris Yeltsin did things that were “simply mistakes”.

Clinton avoided calling Putin Vladimir when they spoke by telephone on January 1, 2000, after   Putin had replaced Yeltsin the night before as acting President. “Hello Vladimir”, Clinton addressed him for the first time by telephone on March 27, 2001; Putin’s election the day before had been confirmed.

The newly released Clinton-Putin records reveal a string of Putin concessions to ingratiate Clinton which went unreciprocated by the time Clinton left office in January 2001. The Clinton archive also exposes that Clinton patronised Putin, demanded, threatened, extorted, and lied his head off.

The release of the White House records of telephone and face-to-face conversations with Putin from 1999 to 2001 ought to have begun a decade ago, according to the archive notes at the Clinton presidential library.  But declassification was delayed until 2019; public release was postponed  until last month.

Clinton’s conversations with Yeltsin, and the opinion of Yeltsin which Clinton shared in secret with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, were revealed at the start of 2016. They told each other Yeltsin was an ingratiating fool whom they could rely on to do what they wanted so long as his health held. When it didn’t, they were happy to see him out of the way by staging, as they planned, his succession by Victor Chernomyrdin. That regime-changing scheme failed; read the story in the Clinton-Blair papers here [2].

The first mention of Putin in the Clinton-Blair dossier was on February 28, 2000. Clinton told Blair then “we’re trying to resolve bilateral issues with Russia and kind of get this Chechnya thing resolved. Putin has enormous potential, I think. I think he’s very smart and thoughtful. I think we can do a lot of good with him.” Blair’s first direct meeting with Putin came later that year. Blair told Clinton: “He was very anxious to impress me.”

Clinton didn’t tell Blair he had already met Putin twice – in New Zealand in September of 1999,  and then in Norway eight weeks later. Read the 225-page Clinton White House archive on Putin for 1999 to 2001 here [3].

In August of 1999, uncertain of US support for his promotion to the prime ministry, Putin was covering his back with the White House. He told Berger he was ready to trade; he would give  the Americans the assurance he wouldn’t follow Yevgeny Primakov in policy if they didn’t plot to remove him as they had done to Primakov, prime minister between September 1998 and May 1999.  “I am pleased to say I felt support from you [Sandy]. I would like to express support to you and your colleagues for your support to my naming as prime minister of Russia. I would like to let you know and the State Department that there will be no sharp [sic] changes to the cabinet. This pertains to foreign policy and domestic economic policy”

A month later, when Clinton and Putin met in Auckland, Putin offered to give up the Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic in exchange for relief of US pressure to break up the Yugoslav federation and destroy Serbia. “I am aware of your past statements about Milosevic”, Putin said. “I think that the fate of millions is more important than the fate of one person. However, our positions on this person closely coincide. From our assessment of the situation, he did not behave appropriately. What is important is to have good cooperation between our two countries. Strobe Talbott did a lot in the diplomatic arena…One bad thing that we’re faced with is the dismantling of Yugoslavia.”

There is no record that Putin told Clinton he objected to the US and NATO bombing of Serbia between March and June of 1999. On the other hand, Clinton and several other officials made a repeated record of their objections to the Russian military operations, including aerial bombing, in Chechnya. It was one thing “to stand against terrorism”, Clinton told Putin,  “but if the price is to incur major civilian casualties, that’s too high a price to pay”. Clinton said this on November 2 during their meeting in Oslo; five months after he dropped his last bombs on Belgrade.  “It will draw international criticism,” Clinton lectured Putin. “Beyond that, I don’t know if such a strategy will work because it could turn ordinary people in Chechnya against you.”

Suspecting the Americans would continue trying to “turn ordinary people in Chechnya” against Moscow, Putin stuck to his guns on the ground, but conceded in the air:

Source:  https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us [3]  -- page 41.

There is no sign in the White House record that Clinton or his officials suspected Putin would take the presidency from Yeltsin seven weeks later. The following March, Putin was still nervous the Americans were plotting against him. He continued to ingratiate.

“l’d like to thank you, Bill, for this phone call”, Putin said on March 27, the day after the presidential election. He followed by reading from a script on his desk. “I also want to say that the statement that you made about my modest personality was not unacknowledged here, and it is clear to the whole world that I am a person you can work with. This statement by the US President was not unnoticed by people in Russia and throughout the world.”

This form of the double negative is not Putin’s style. Its use is a sign Putin was gagging.

The archive reveals also that Clinton used every conversation and every meeting to press Putin for concessions. The minute one was granted by the Russian president,  the American would escalate and demand a fresh one. Clinton’s list of demands included the US anti-missile missile defence system – the so-called Star Wars project; the removal of Milosevic from power in Belgrade; the removal of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad; pressure on the Palestinian leadership;  removal of Russian military bases from Georgia; even the release from prison in Moscow of the convicted American spy, Edmond Pope.

Pope had been caught trying to steal secret Russian military equipment and technology for the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), and sentenced [4]to twenty years in prison. At the time he was the first American to stand trial for espionage in Moscow since 1960, when Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union flying a U2 aircraft for the CIA.

On September 6, 2000, at their meeting at the United Nations in New York, Clinton told Putin that Pope was seriously ill in prison and he wanted him returned to the US. Putin knew Clinton was lying. He replied: “I’ll be absolutely candid with you. I’ve got the information from my people. He [Pope] is absolutely healthy. There’s no problem there. There’s a different problem. As I told you, I will take a decision here.” Putin was promising Clinton he would release Pope.

However, he was warning Clinton that he wasn’t exactly free to do so in the face of opposition from the Russian military, intelligence services, and the Security Council. “I need to wait,” Putin said in a text classified for the past twenty years as SECRET, “until the formalities are finished. If I take a decision beforehand, it could be used against us – it cannot be said we were holding him for no reason.”

Twelve weeks later, on December 8, the Kremlin announced that Pope had not only been released, but pardoned by Putin’s decree:

Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/ [5]

Left: Pope at his trial on September 9, 2000. Right: Pope in a US military hospital on December 9, 2000, after his flight from Moscow.  

Clinton and the US press claimed in 2000 that Pope was suffering from bone cancer. Today, twenty years after his release by Putin, Pope is still alive at 74 years of age. According to his website [6], he is demanding:  “Why don’t we hear more about human rights abuses in Putin’s Russia?”

The Pope precedent Clinton demanded of Putin has not gone well for US espionage agents operating in Russia without diplomatic cover. Paul Whelan, for example, was arrested in December 2018 convicted in June 2020, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He remains there [7].

Between August and September 2000, Putin had been in the Kremlin for just eight months. At the same time, after eight years in the White House, Clinton was hoping to hold on to power by helping Vice President Al Gore win election in November. Clinton asked Putin to push Milosevic out of the power in Serbia and Yugoslavia. Putin said he agreed. They spoke by telephone on August 16, but the record of that call is missing from the published papers. On Clinton’s initiative, they spoke again on September 30. “Hello, Vladimir,” Clinton began. “Thank you for taking the call.” “Good afternoon to you, Bill. I’m happy to hear your voice”, Putin responded. Clinton: “I just wanted to talk to you for a minute about Yugoslavia”. Putin: “With pleasure”.

Not really. According to Clinton, Milosevic had just lost the national election to Vojislav Koštunica, and was hanging on to power illegally, and creating “instability in Montenegro”. “I think the best thing to do is to try to get Milosevic to leave,” Clinton told Putin, “but I think you’re the only person who can do that.” Clinton’s idea was that Putin speak to Milosevic privately “making clear that Russia will support the will of the people”.

Putin said he agreed that Milosevic had to go. He had just worked out a plan with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, Putin told Clinton, for a scheme of appearances to ease Milosevic out in a second-round presidential vote. However, Kostunica was refusing to deal with the Russians.  

Source: https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us/ [3] -- page 180.

Clinton should persuade Kostunica, Putin proposed, to accept his invitation to visit Moscow where he would be received by high-level government officials in a show of Russia’s endorsement of a second round of voting against Milosevic. Clinton also had to tell Kostunica to lift his objection to the second round ballot.

Left: Prime Minister Primakov with President Milosevic in Belgrade, March 1999. Right: President Putin with President Kostunica in Moscow, October 2000, after Kostunica had replaced Milosevic.

Source: https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us/ [3] -- page 182.

In their small talk Putin told Clinton he was drinking too much Coca Cola. Clinton told Putin he was “younger and in better shape than me.” Putin congratulated the president on Hillary Clinton’s Senate victory in New York, asking why the Italians of the state voted against her.

In the only report by the White House note taker of its kind in the archive, in their last official  conversation on December 27, 2000, “Putin’s voice becomes increasingly emotional and insistent as he discussed Georgia.” Clinton said he wanted to stop Russian “pressure” on the Georgian government and see the withdrawal of Russian troops and equipment from Georgian territory.

Putin resisted. “I would like to give you the real situation…I think we have good personal relations, and I would like you to try to listen to what I am saying to you now. Russia is not exerting any economic pressure, and it’s not able to exert any political pressure on Georgia. So I’d like you to know the real situation” ( emphasis in the White House document).  Russian troops would not be removed, or their bases dismantled, Putin insisted, so long as the Georgian government was supporting the Chechen fighters in their attacks on Chechnya and Dagestan.  

Source: https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us/ [3] -- page 224. 

Kremlin photograph of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze meeting Putin in Moscow on November 30, the month before the Clinton call. According to the Kremlin communiqué [8] accompanying the picture,  “Mr Putin and Mr Shevardnadze discussed important aspects of bilateral economic, energy and financial cooperation, as well as the restructuring of Georgia’s debts owed to Russia. Both Presidents exchanged opinions on the introduction of a mutual visa regime. Mr Putin and Mr Shevardnadze said that negotiations on the status of Russian military bases in Georgia were going well.”

Thus ended the two presidents’ conversations — Putin was familiar; Clinton promised a further call in the first week of January, but it didn’t materialse; he was finished. Putin: “Thank you, Bill, and Happy New Year”. Responded Clinton: “Thank you. Goodbye.”