Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs

Strobe Talbott, Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, and Special Adviser to the Secretary of State on the New Independent States
Videotaped Remarks
Washington, DC
May 24, 2007

Strobe Talbott, Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and Ambassador-at-Large and Special Adviser to the Secretary of State on the New Independent States. State Dept. photoFollowing are excerpts of an interview conducted by Mary B. Warlick of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, March 22, 2007.

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I think the key thing to keep in mind when looking back to 1993 - which is when the Clinton Administration came into office - is that Russia had only very recently emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, and there was a combination of uncertainty, anxiety, and euphoria in Russia. There was a lot of optimism in the west about what the possibilities were in Russia and there was a lot of optimism in Russia about what that country could do to live up to its huge potential now that the system was no longer Soviet, Stalinist, and communistic. We had in President Clinton's counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, a former Soviet now Russian leader who had repudiated the communist party and really wanted to bring Russia into the west, and that carried with it great promise. But what quickly became apparent is that he had a lot of resistance and difficulty to overcome at home. That said, there were quite a number of things that happened during those eight years that, I think, left a lasting and positive legacy. Whatever else Yeltsin did, I think he succeeded in kind of driving a stake through the heart of the old Russian communist party. The '96 election was a very close thing, and he also brought Russian troops out of the Baltic States where they were not wanted. He cooperated in the de-nuclearization of the three other post-Soviet republics that had nuclear weapons. He reconciled himself in Russia to the enlargement of NATO, and he ultimately made Russia a part of finding a solution to the Kosovo war. Most important of all was the personal diplomacy between President Clinton and President Yeltsin. Because of the trust that the two of them developed, President Clinton was able to get President Yeltsin to agree to things that were very tough for him to do particularly in the Russian domestic environment in which he was operating.

There was also the question of economic reform, and there, I think, we can only be self-critical; that is, those of us in the Clinton administration looking back to some extent because the fact of the matter is that economic reform could have used a lot more major up-front support from the outside world. We and other Russian reformers should have paid a lot more attention to the kind of structural side of what was necessary in economic reform and ensuring that there would be real rule of law.

First of all, I think it ought to be self-evident, but I feel I have to say it - Russia needs to figure very near the top in the strategic concerns of the United States. It's too big a country to fall off the radar screen. It's still massively armed with nuclear weapons. It borders more states than any other country on the planet. It has vast natural reserves. It's got huge capacity for both good and ill. And it's got to be consistently a major focus of American attention. The second point is Russia is not going to go away. And it's ridiculous to talk about Russia as though it's something to be won or lost by the west. It's going to find its own path, and the challenge for American policy is to help provide guideposts for what a path is that will both serve Russia's interests and also those of the world.

There needs to be a lot more candid interchange, I think, between the private sectors, between the NGO world, the think-tank world, the university world. Across the board there needs to be more engagement. Our Congress hasn't been sending anywhere near as many Congressional delegations. It used to kind of drive our Ambassadors and Embassy staffs politely and quietly nuts when they were always pouring into Moscow. But it was very important to thinking. The Russian language isn't being taught in American schools anywhere near as much as it was when I was a teenager, on the principle, "Know thy enemy." Well, Russia's not our enemy anymore, but it's still one very important country and we have to know it, we have to understand it, and we have to be able to talk to them - both literally and figuratively - in their own language.

The general point I would make is how important it is for anybody who takes a proper interest in Russia to get out of Moscow itself. And St. Petersburg is always an important place to visit for all kinds of reasons, but get out of St. Petersburg, too, and get out into that great big vast country. And that means getting on trains and airplanes - and not always in the most comfortable conditions - and moving around the country just so you get a sense of what it is that makes those different parts of the country so different from each other.