America and Russia in the 1990s: This is what real meddling looks like

It’s hard to imagine having more direct control over a foreign country’s political system — short of a straight-up military occupation.

“We created a virtual open shop for thievery at a national level and for capital flight in terms of hundreds of billions of dollars, and the raping of natural resources and industries on a scale which I doubt has ever taken place in human history.”

—E. Wayne Merry, a U.S. Embassy official in Moscow during the 1990s.

About a year and a half ago, Mark Ames and I put together a modest book proposal about the history of US meddling in Russian politics.

The story we wanted to tell would have gone back all the way to the start of the Bolshevik Revolution, when America and its western allies militarily intervened in the Russian Civil War on behalf of the proto-Nazi “White” Russians — putting around 15,000 “boots on the ground,” killing and imprisoning Red Army soldiers.

But the core of the story would have focused on the 1990s, when the United States — and particularly the Clinton Administration — intervened in Russia’s domestic affairs to such a profound degree that the word “meddling” doesn’t begin to describe it, at least in the way that people like Rachel Maddow think of “meddling.” It was more of a top-down, colonial relationship between a conquering superpower, and a weak, defeated vassal state. And that’s exactly what Russia was back then: a colonized state.

How totally subservient was Russia to America? Well, consider this: Thanks to recently declassified presidential transcripts, we know that in 1999 Boris Yeltsin called up Bill Clinton to tell him that Vladimir Putin would be his hand-picked presidential successor months before anyone in Russia knew, and all but asked Clinton for his nod of approval.

The shocker in this exchange is that Clinton gives Yeltsin tacit approval to rig an election and put Vladimir Putin in power. I mean, isn’t Russia supposed to be a democracy—and wasn’t Russia’s transformation to democracy supposed to be Clinton’s greatest foreign policy achievement? How can Yeltsin simply anoint his preferred man “the next Russian president in the year 2000”? Well, given that Clinton helped Yeltsin steal the election in 1996, he very well knows how, and he doesn’t mind in the least.

The sad thing is that Yelstin groveling to Clinton and telling him who he was going to install as president, it’s not even all that shocking compared to everything going on at that time. 

That’s the thing about today: People don’t remember that all through the 1990s, America meddled in Russia’s politics in just about every way you can imagine: it helped fix elections, flooded the country with untraceable money, secured international aid to help “our guys” stay in power, funded opposition activists, whitewashed horrible human rights name it, America did it. Hell, Clinton’s Treasury Department even wrote presidential decrees. They also helped design Russia’s government apparatus and capital markets structures. 

It’s hard to imagine a more direct control over a foreign country’s political system — short of a straight-up physical occupation.

As Mark and I wrote:

What today’s foreign policy experts seem to have forgotten is that in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the U.S. government had unparalleled commanding power over Russia. This newly-independent country was deep in debt, begging for aid and loans just to feed its people, and desperate to join the West. The country was at its most vulnerable point since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution — while America, the Cold War victor, was at its geopolitical peak. It was during this brief, freakish moment in history — when the power differential between Washington and Moscow was as extreme as that between colonizer and colonized — that America leveraged its full financial, political, and cultural arsenal to coerce Russia into “transforming” itself according to Washington’s dictates and interests.

America’s interventions made sure that the most extremist neoliberal camp prevailed — and it was a disaster for the Russian people.

The country’s vast wealth was privatized to a tiny handful of connected insiders. Millions of people were thrown into poverty and prostitution. Millions died premature deaths. The Lancetestimated that 4 million people died just in the first half of the 1990s as a result of Washington-imposed neoliberal and hyper-capitalist reforms. Paul Klebnikov, the muckraking  American editor of Forbes who was assassinated in Moscow in 2005, compared the scale of Russia’s excess deaths to those under Pol Pot and Stalin’s famines. And yet America’s complicity in this crime has been erased from history.

There was another result of this meddling that our media and foreign policy set would rather forget: America’s intervention in Russia’s nascent democracy helped transform a young parliamentary republic with a weak presidency into the centralized, authoritarian system of government that exists today — a system that Vladimir Putin has used to keep himself in power for the last twenty years. That’s the thing, Americans don’t realize that Putin is a “monster” of America’s own making.

Anyway, I don’t want to go into the whole proposal here. But the reason you’re not seeing this book on the shelves is because no one in book publishing wanted to touch it. 

Before we began shopping the book around, our agent was confident that it would be a smash hit with publishers, and that they’d offer us loads of money to write it. The way he saw it, our book offered important remedial historical context to America’s “Russian meddling” hysteria that has infected our politics ever since Trump won the presidency. He was sure publishers were ready to look at something like this — especially because at that very moment the Trump-Russia collusion conspiracy that Robert Mueller was supposed to blow wide open was already beginning to fall apart.

Mark and I weren’t so that our book would be that well received. 

Ever since Trump won the election, our culture has been totally swamped by an elite panic about “Russia” and “the Russians.” It’s now grown into an all-encompassing xenophobic conspiracy, and it’s now totally fine — and even respectable — in liberal media circles to bombard viewers and readers with all sorts of fantastic, racist plots that feature shadowy Russians infecting “our” society and lurking behind everything that’s going wrong in America and around the world.

So why would anyone want to be reminded of this deadly, cynical chapter in American politics? Why would anyone want to remember that their liberal government — under the Clinton Democrats, no less — had helped plunge Russia into utter ruin, killing and impoverishing millions and overseeing the creation of a vast oligarchy and a powerful authoritarian state? 

This would never have been a popular topic, and it was sure to be particularly unpopular today — when Moral Liberal America is supposed to be fighting for its very survival against the Global Shifty Mongoloid Russian Horde. Hell, the very same Clinton Democrats that destroyed and plundered Russia are now being offered as America’s only salvation, an America that increasingly looks more and more like the neoliberal, privatized, and oligarchic Russia that they helped create.

And we turned out to be right. No publisher wanted to touch the book.

Most just rejected us right off the bat. One publisher clearly feigned interest only so he could get us on the phone and argue with us about the Trump-Russia collusion story. We could hear him sucking in air in shock on the other end of the line when we said there probably wasn’t much to this conspiracy theory. I’m sure he went back to his colleagues and stood around the water cooler mocking us for being credulous dupes and tankies who had fallen for Russian propaganda. “We’d never publish this kind drivel! I bet that KGB thug is paying them to say that.” 

The closest we got to a “deal” was a meeting with a junior editor who talked to us a mile a minute at a major publisher’s officer in Midtown Manhattan about how great the book was and how excited he was that it was so aggressive and anti-establishment — only to disappear when actually pressed for an concrete offer.

It was a good learning experience about the total conformity of America’s publishing industry. That’s the fabled marketplace of ideas for you.

Anyway, there’s probably no way Mark and I will ever write this book now. But we put a lot of work into thinking about this history and organizing it into something that made sense. So I’ve been bummed to see it get buried. 

Mark was in Russia for a big chunk of the story. He knows much of this history personally, and he has incredible insights into that time — insights that few people possess. As for me, for much of the story in this book, I was in San Francisco with my family trying my best to fit in as an “real American” kid in middle and high school, totally oblivious to what was happening back in the motherland. My family left Leningrad in 1989 and arrived in America in 1990, so for me digging into this forgotten history helped fill in a lot of blanks about the post-Soviet world that we had left behind. 

The fact is that almost no one really knows this history. And it ain’t pretty. It shows America as it is, not as it sees itself:  

America — at a moment when it could have done pretty much anything in Russia — went with the scummiest, most barbaric option possible. It callously oversaw mass murder and theft and plunder only seen in times of war. And forget taking responsibility for it, no one in power has even acknowledged that it happened. In fact, all that America’s done is blame the victim: The Russians are too primitive and too asiatic. They’re too slavish for democracy. It’s in their DNA. It’s their fault that everything went bad.

Anyway, until we figure out what to do with this material, I want to publish at least a bit of it. I’d like to start with an excerpt from the opening chapter of the book. It’s about how America meddled in Russia’s first democratic presidential elections, and helped steal it for Boris Yeltsin. 

It’s just a rough draft. But it gives you a glimpse of what real election meddling looks like. Check it out. 

—Yasha Levine

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A Miracle

The call came into the White House on May 7th, 1996 — 3:34 pm, Moscow time.

It was President Boris Yeltsin calling from the Kremlin. He sounded tired.

“Good morning, Bill.”

“Good morning. Hope you’re doing well.”

“Well, there’s a struggle,” Yeltsin replied. “We’re struggling.”

Yeltsin didn’t need to elaborate on the nature of this “struggle.” Clinton was acutely aware that the Russian president had a problem. A very big problem. 

Russia’s first democratically-held presidential elections were just a month away, and Yeltsin was barely holding on. For years, he had been battling depression and self-destructive drinking binges. In his first visit to the United States in 1989, he infamously downed a quart and a half of Jack Daniels in his hotel room and then went to a press conference, mangling his speech and not making any sense — he couldn’t even pronounce “KGB,” instead slurring out “kegebepe.” He had never stopped boozing, and he surely wasn’t getting any younger. Now, at 65, he looked like a bloated, reanimated corpse. He had suffered three heart attacks in the past year alone.

Yeltsin knew he was teetering on the edge, and people closest to him feared the worst.

His political legacy was coming apart, as well. The radical neoliberal privatization programs he had pushed through had left the country in ruins. The Russian people saw him as a corrupt, mobbed-up populist buffoon who had sold the country cheap to cronies and foreigners, and his approval ratings were in the single digits at the start of the election campaign. “Stalin had higher positives and lower negatives than Yeltsin,” is how the Russian president’s American campaign advisor, Richard Dresner — who had previously run Clinton’s first campaigns for Arkansas governor in the late 70s and early 80s — described Yeltsin’s prospects.

On top of it all, millions of the very voters Yeltsin hoped to woo — teachers, doctors, industrial employees, and pensioners — hadn’t even been paid in well over a year. His campaign advisors had warned that if he didn’t find a way to get money into these people’s pockets right away, he could look forward to a humiliating loss to Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, a man who promised to reverse the American-backed free-market reforms, and to reconstitute the Soviet Union.

Yeltsin was in a bad position. It was the kind of deep trench from which political candidates don’t usually crawl out of successfully.

Talking on the phone with Yeltsin, Clinton knew all this. He knew about the man’s drinking binges and his rapidly failing health. He had been personally involved Yeltsin’s beleaguered presidential election campaign from the moment it kicked off in early 1996. He held weekly White House meetings and was in constant contact with Yeltsin and his team of American campaign advisors, calling up political favors and doing everything he could to tip the scales in Yeltsin’s favor. “Bill would pick up the hotline and talk to Yeltsin and tell him what commercials to run, where to campaign, what positions to take,” recalled Dick Morris, Clinton’s longtime political adviser. “He basically became Yeltsin’s political consultant.” 

One of the big things Clinton did to help shore up Yeltsin’s popularity was to personally work to secure a giant multibillion-dollar International Monetary Fund loan — money that was supposed to help Yeltsin pay off his wage and pensions arrears. But now Yeltsin was complaining that the cash was being held up by IMF bureaucrats.  

“Bill, for my election campaign, I urgently need for Russia a loan of $2.5 billion,” Yeltsin pleaded. “I need money to pay pensions and wages. Without resolving this matter of pensions and wages, it will be very difficult to go into the election campaign.”

Clinton sympathized. Yeltsin needed that money. He needed it quick. 

And Clinton needed Yeltsin to get that money, too. The White House had already invested everything in Boris Yeltsin’s regime as its showcase foreign policy “success.” If Yeltsin were to lose now — to an anti-American Communist, no less — after all the tens of billions in loans and aid, and after all the big promises about how Russia was transforming into a Jeffersonian democracy and a shining example to the world, how would that affect Clinton’s own election chances in November of that same year? Republicans were smelling blood, waiting to pounce. He knew what they’d say: “Republicans won the Cold War and defeated Communism, and Clinton gave Russia right back to the Communists in one term!”

The IMF’s multi-billion-dollar tranche would be sorted out immediately, Clinton promised Boris…

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