The National Security Archive: NATO Expansion – The Budapest Blow Up 1994

Malcolm Byrne's picture

What Yeltsin Heard: From Cold War to “Cold Peace”

Clinton’s Two Tracks Collide – NATO Enlargement and Russia Engagement

Edited by Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton

Washington, D.C., November 24, 2021 – The biggest train wreck on the track to NATO expansion in the 1990s – Boris Yeltsin’s “cold peace” blow up at Bill Clinton in Budapest in December 1994 – was the result of “combustible” domestic politics in both the U.S. and Russia, and contradictions in the Clinton attempt to have his cake both ways, expanding NATO and partnering with Russia at the same time, according to newly declassified U.S. documents published today by the National Security Archive.

The Yeltsin eruption on December 5, 1994, made the top of the front page of the New York Times the next day, with the Russian president’s accusation (in front of Clinton and other heads of state gathered for a summit of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, CSCE) that the “domineering” U.S. was “trying to split [the] continent again” through NATO expansion. The angry tone of Yeltsin’s speech echoed years later in his successor Vladimir Putin’s famous 2007 speech at the Munich security conference, though by then the list of Russian grievances went well beyond NATO expansion to such unilateral U.S. actions as withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the invasion of Iraq.

The new documents, the result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the National Security Archive, include a series of revelatory “Bill-Boris” letters in the summer and fall of 1994, and the previously secret memcon of the presidents’ one-on-one at the Washington summit in September 1994. Clinton kept assuring Yeltsin any NATO enlargement would be slow, with no surprises, building a Europe that was inclusive not exclusive, and in “partnership” with Russia. In a phone call on July 5, 1994, Clinton told Yeltsin “I would like us to focus on the Partnership for Peace program” not NATO. At the same time, however, “policy entrepreneurs” in Washington were revving up the bureaucratic process for more rapid NATO enlargement than expected either by Moscow or the Pentagon, which was committed to the Partnership for Peace as the main venue for security integration of Europe, not least because it could include Russia and Ukraine.

The new documents include insightful cables from U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Thomas Pickering, explaining Yeltsin’s new hard line at Budapest as the result of multiple factors. Not least, Pickering pointed to “strong domestic opposition across the [Russian] political spectrum to early NATO expansion,” criticism of Yeltsin and his foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, as too “compliant to the West,” and the growing conviction in Moscow that U.S. domestic politics – the pro-expansion Republicans’ sweep of the Congressional mid-term elections in November 1994 – would tilt U.S. policy away from taking Russia’s concerns into account.