The Forced Step: Yeltsin on NATO-Russia Charter

Clinton’s parallel tracks of NATO enlargement and Russia engagement depended on Yeltsin personally, often collided, often won cooperation

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President Yeltsin with U.S. Vice President Al Gore in Moscow, December 1994

Hailed at the time as an historic change “burying” a Cold War rivalry, the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 was privately characterized as a “forced step” by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who told U.S. President Bill Clinton that he opposed NATO expansion but saw no alternative to signing the accord. Yeltsin’s blunt admission is one of several revelations from a new set of declassified documents published today by the National Security Archive to mark the NATO 75th Anniversary Summit in Washington.

The documents show that the Clinton administration’s policy in the 1990s emphasizing two tracks of both NATO enlargement and Russian engagement often collided, leaving lasting scars on Yeltsin, who constantly sought what he called partnership with the U.S. But as early as fall 1994, according to the documents, the Partnership for Peace alternative security structure for Europe, which included both Russia and Ukraine, was de-emphasized by U.S. policymakers, who only delayed NATO enlargement until both Clinton and Yeltsin could get through their re-elections in 1996.

Yeltsin and his foreign minister in 1997, Yevgeny Primakov, provided the Americans neither the “grudging endorsement” of NATO expansion that the U.S. hoped for nor even the “acquiescence” that subsequent American memoirs claimed. Rather, as Yeltsin told Clinton personally at Helsinki in March 1997: “Our position has not changed. It remains a mistake for NATO to move eastward. But I need to take steps to alleviate the negative consequences of this for Russia. I am prepared to enter into an agreement with NATO, not because I want to but because it is a forced step. There is no other solution for today.”

The newly declassified documents also show that Yeltsin and his top officials continued to cooperate with NATO on more flexible arrangements under the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty (CFE) even while NATO was bombing Belgrade during the Kosovo crisis of March-April 1999.

These newly published records come from the Clinton Presidential Library and are the result of Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) requests filed by the Archive and other researchers and a successful Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by the Archive against the State Department to open the files of Strobe Talbott, who was a top adviser on Russian affairs (1992-1993) and Deputy Secretary of State (1994-2001) during the Clinton administration.

The documents include internal National Security Council memos read and annotated by President Clinton, never-before-published notes from Vice President Al Gore’s dramatic face-to-face session with Yeltsin in his hospital suite in December 1994 (the “spaceships docking” conversation), Talbott’s detailed “framework” memos from 1996, including direct quotes from Primakov and his deputy Yuri Mamedov, a candid British assessment from 2000 of Moscow’s attitudes towards NATO enlargement, and Talbott’s conclusion that a second wave of NATO expansion would actually be easier under Vladimir Putin.

For thousands of additional declassified documents covering U.S.-Russian relations in the 1990s, see the new reference collection in the Digital National Security Archive series published by ProQuest and edited by Svetlana Savranskaya, U.S.-Russia Relations: From the Fall of the Soviet Union to the Rise of Putin, 1991-2000These documents provide essential historical context on the primary challenges facing NATO today: addressing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and working out new European security arrangements that would help to prevent such conflicts in the future.

This research was supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Click here to read the documents

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