This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on June 14, 2017. It has been edited in parts for clarity and length.
… You're really there at the beginning of the new Russia, and you come back in ’97. What's happened? …What has happened to Bill Clinton’s big ideas for Boris Yeltsin and Russia?
… At the beginning of the 1990s, the issue was essentially, what was going to happen to the Soviet Union as it broke up? Was it going to do it peacefully? Was there going to be a transition that one might hope would lead to a very different kind of structure? [There was] a lot of optimism about this was the great chance, finally, for the Russian people and their neighbors to begin the democratic experiment.
I think it’s pretty clear that there was also a lot of fear it could become Yugoslavia. The most dire predictions of that kind focused on the fact that you had this whole nuclear arsenal in the Soviet Union, now concentrated in Russia but still spread among the other states. For that whole early period, the idea was [to] support their transition in whatever way you could to a market democracy, see what we could do to minimize the chances for conflict, and also do what we could to get control in some sense or organize control over the nuclear arsenal. That was really the first part of the 1990s.
When you get there, when you're there in ’97 as ambassador, what's the state of play? What's happening? What has happened?
First of all, the agreement has been made that all of the strategic nuclear weapons and warheads will be moved back to Russia, and the carriers for the warheads will be destroyed or returned. So that was a big success. That was a major project. The projects of, if you would call it democracy emergence and market economics was problematic. The market dimension, de facto, was happening. It was a peculiar market all across their whole region, and in Russia in particular. But it was a market. It was no longer a planned economy.
One had moved away from the command economics structure. Private property was now the basis on which you were going to structure the new Russia’s economic system. Things like money all of a sudden had relevance. In the Soviet system money didn’t matter. What mattered was access and meeting your required production. Suddenly what mattered was making money, and that was a big change, huge change.
That had happened. They had gone through their election in 1996, which had been basically a first election after the events of 1991. It re-elected Boris Yeltsin, something people earlier that year hadn’t thought was possible. You had the beginnings of the institutions of Boris Yeltsin having been legitimately elected president of Russia in its new configuration. You had the beginnings of a market system. But all of it was fragile. All of it was very unformed and very, very underdeveloped.
Putin's Political Rise
Let me ask you now about—let’s bring Mr. Putin on the stage. He’s at the FSB [Federal Security Service] in ’97-’98. How does he get there? …
I first met Mr. Putin—and literally just met him; he wouldn’t remember this at all, and I can't say I really knew him then—in 1990-1991. He was one of several deputy mayors in the city of Leningrad then, [which would later] be St. Petersburg. His portfolio in that period, when he worked for a man named Anatoly Sobchak, who was one of the great supporters of Gorbachev’s perestroika and of Yeltsin when he came in, his portfolio was essentially dealing with foreigners, seeking to do business or do investment or establish new firms or whatever, or contracts with the people in the Leningrad City or the region.
We had a fair amount of dealings with him as Americans, the business community did, the Consulate General in St. Petersburg. I knew him quite well, and he was around. So, you know, he was known to the Americans, but he was certainly not at a national level. This was an urban job.
What was his aspect?
… He had been KGB. But there are a couple of interesting things. He did not, for instance, in his legal training—and he had to get trained as a lawyer—he did not go to KGB Law School. He went to the University of St. Petersburg Law School, so he had, if you will, a civilian legal education. People like Sobchak and a few other people who are around still were his professors. He’s maintained connections to them. I don’t know this, but I've always assumed it was through these sorts of connections that, as he left KGB active duties and moved into another world, he fixed himself up with the mayor’s office in St. Petersburg, probably partly through those connections.
I think it’s important that he cut his political teeth, if you will, in St. Petersburg under the mayorship of Anatoly Sobchak, who was, in a sense, a pioneer liberal of the end of the Soviet Union era and the first Yeltsin years. …
So you run into him again in ’97?
Yes. I don’t remember when I first met him, but he was at FSB. He was running the FSB, and—
So that’s sort of a surprise, isn't it?
… I do not know how he then was selected to come and be put into the head of the FSB. But you know, he had security background in his KGB days. And he shows up before I got there, as far as I recall, in that position and was there when I arrived. I dealt with him from time to time in that capacity as head of FSB. He always made a significant impression on me in a couple of ways.
First of all, he never used any notes when you talked to him. He knew his brief. He was well-structured in the way he understood issues or the way issues were discussed. And secondly, he would engage you. I mean, he would discuss issues with you. He was confident. He felt he could deal with the issues that were being brought to him or where he was being approached by the American ambassador to talk about something. It was, in that sense, it was an interesting man to work with.
Second thing about him that I always felt was extremely important, that many people missed, was that you had to listen very carefully to exactly what he said, and not extrapolate or not imply things like agreement if you didn’t really have agreement. … I think that remains a feature of Mr. Putin, and it has for his entire career, as far as I knew him. …
And how is he [Putin] defined [in the wake of the 1999 apartment bombings]?
He is defined as tough, as someone who is approaching this with a tough hand and who is going to ensure that the Chechen issue is resolved. In the end, the way he does it is heavy-handed, lots of bloodshed, but also the idea of Chechenization, if you will, of the solution. He basically buys off one of the major factions in Chechnya, the Kadyrov clan, and basically puts them and gets them in charge and gives them the problem to keep the peace, and in return pays a lot of money and keeps paying it and expects that the loyalty will continue.
How did the people—
It’s been going on ever since.
How do the people—how do the Russian people feel about him at that moment?
I'm not sure the Russian people had all that much thought about him at that moment. I mean, this is Boris Yeltsin’s presidency still in many ways, and people were preoccupied. … The big parlor game was deciding or guessing would Yeltsin really step down or let a new candidate run for president and get elected?
And everybody—I mean, I have to tell you that the cynics and all the intelligentsia, we were all convinced he’ll never give up. It came as a great shock that basically about six months early, he just announced, “I'm leaving.”
Why do you think he did it?
Well, I think it was his way, first of all, of ensuring he could determine the successor. Secondly, I think he knew that the conditions under which he was governing, or the government was working, I think he was aware. He was almost more of an issue than he was a leader.
And thirdly, Yeltsin certainly made the deal with his successor to be retired honorably and so forth. But I think Yeltsin had this great penchant for the dramatic step that kept people off balance or caught them by surprise, to raise himself up again to be the real leader. I've always thought, in a way, that this was the last such step. He was going to prove them wrong. He was going to show that he meant what he said when he wanted it to be a normal country, and he was going to turn the country over to a new leadership whom he hoped would carry on what he had in mind.
A remarkable piece of video where he’s sitting there on New Year’s Eve, apologizing for his failings and naming [Putin]. What were your thoughts when you watched that?
… I thought it was very Yeltsin, what he said. Boris Yeltsin, from my point of view, did two or three big things in his presidency, but the biggest one, in a sense, was to legitimate the idea that the only legitimate power in Russia came from being selected by the population. It wasn’t because you controlled the ideology or understood it; it wasn’t your bloodline. For the first time, popular mandate was the only legitimacy for power.
It was partly out of, in that sense, that he felt he hadn’t managed to, I think, do all the things that his population wanted, and he was trying to turn it over to keep it going.
Interesting, though, that he hands it to such a man, isn't it?
Well, there are a couple of realities here. I don’t think Mr. Yeltsin was fully convinced that—in fact he made a statement at one point to President Clinton about the fact that, in essence, he knew he [Putin] might not be a democrat, but he hoped he could be one. So that was one thing.
Secondly, I think he felt, you know, he [Putin] managed his affairs as prime minister not badly, from the standpoint of bringing the country together, and that this was a man, at least, who had proved himself. He had tried two others who had failed.
He didn’t want people—I'm convinced he did not want anyone from his generation. He wanted a younger person, and he was prime minister. He was the logical choice at the point he was prime minister. And, you know, what kinds of deals or arrangements were made for the personal family of Yeltsin and all this kind of thing—I'm sure this played a role. But I've never quite believed that that was the only thing that would motivate Yeltsin.
The last words he said to Putin, I thought, were sort of indicative. He said, “Take care of Russia,” beregite rossiyu and that was it. There were certainly doubts about having someone from the security background, security service background and so forth, come and take over. But what was interesting is that if you looked at the first two to three years of Mr. Putin’s presidency, you might say that it wasn’t at all obvious that Yeltsin hadn’t made a good choice. …
Putin's Vision for Russia in his First Term
Even after you left, having been there for the birth of Putin, what did you think as the years went on? Did you notice the changes, and what did you notice? What did you worry about that you saw?
Well, first of all, I think there are a couple of things to say about this early first year, year and a half, because there were both positive and worrying realities that were present. On the positive side, if you looked at his record in the first two, two and a half, three years, he essentially got through the Russian system, a tremendous number of things that all the foreigners who had been advising the Russians, and all of the business community and market community wanted to see, and even political people wanted to see, everything from land reform to judicial reform. He brought in trial by jury to economic reforms in the financial system and so on, things that had been on the Yeltsin agenda or the “reformers’ agenda,” for some years. Yeltsin could not get [them] done. He got done in the first two to three years.
Well, how was the interesting point, because this was the positive side. I’ll come to the negative side in a moment. But the positive side was that, when he came into office, I think within two weeks there was an event at something called Old New Year, which was hosted by the patriarch [of the Russian Orthodox Church]. It was in the big Kremlin Theatre, and it was an event which all of the new leadership attended. I was there when the diplomats were there.
The theme was very interesting, because it set, in a sense, the basis on which he [Putin] got the positive things done, but also some of the worrying things. The premise was, Russia is in trouble when it’s divided and Russia is great when it’s united. And it goes on. It was an elaborate project and program, but the message was very clear: “We have been divided.” It was a divided country, between [there were] people I used to say believed Gorbachev waited too long to do anything, and those who thought Gorbachev didn’t do it fast enough, and similarly [for] Yeltsin, that ’91 had come too late or too slowly. [There were those who thought] it should have come a lot earlier, and those who thought it was a disaster when it came.
This had more or less paralyzed the country pretty much from taking these steps. What Putin did when he came in was said: “OK, I've got a different project. We’re going to make”—if you will, to coin a phrase--“I'm going to make Russia great again. The way we’re going to do it is we’re all going to be together, so nobody’s excluded. Nobody has to worry that the past is going to prevent you from being part of this project. If you will join me, you're welcome.” Implicit point was also that if you don’t, you're going to be on the outs with the future.
In that, what he did, he did some I call them mundane things, but they were things that had been so divisive for the years. He created, finally, a way to deal with the issue of what was going to be the flag of the country, the symbol. He kept the one that Yeltsin had brought in as the national flag, but for the military, he let them use the Soviet-era military flags.
Yeltsin had introduced a [Mikhail] Glinka-[composed] national anthem that didn’t have any words. He [Putin] changed this. He brought back the old Soviet anthem, but he got new words for it. It was this melding of the past and the 1990s where he was making the point, “You're all welcome to join me in doing this again.”
In that sense, he laid the foundation for what I believe was to become an increasingly narrowing vision of what unity would mean, and an increasingly nasty vision, in some ways, of what happens if you're not with me. In the first years, 2001, 2000, in many ways he’s very successful in bringing these factions together, saying and showing each that they have a role, or they have a place in the future. The result is that he passes all kinds of things that are very controversial and had never got through Yeltsin, things like land reform and judicial reform, economics.
He becomes, in a sense, a rule-of-law president, because he begins to enforce the idea that a contract signed in St. Petersburg is going to be valid across the entire country, which wasn’t the case under most of Yeltsin’s time. It’s popular with the business and the new-money community.
All of this lasts, I would say, up through early 2003, mid-2003, when two things happen. One, he has to begin to worry about getting re-elected in 2004; and two, there is someone coming up in the system, Mr. [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky, who is overtly challenging him politically. The two things together in a sense make the first real major shift toward the idea that if you don’t have unity just by people willingly coming together, you're going to make sure it’s enforced.
My view is, the Khodorkovsky debacle, where he more or less throws his opponent in jail, demonstrates in a sense an inability to deal with a real challenge to his authority. Khodorkovsky was challenging him. And then, in my view, too, he turns over the process of making the future-defined electoral process work not to the political people who have been traditionally running things, but rather to the security services.
You go from a situation in which his power was based largely on the ability to work as the arbiter of a horizontal series of different centers of authority, power, economics and so forth to one that he begins to describe as “the vertical power,” which is a pyramid at which he sits at the apex.
The 2004 election, in my view, is where the real change takes place. After it, it’s never, never the same open, overt, messy, uncertain democratic process that you had had through the 1990s, and frankly, up through 2001-02.
One of the things that seems important to us as we look at the timeline of events is the consolidation of free media to state-run media, the television, especially the television network.
That’s part of it.
Right in there, almost right away, or very early in his presidency.
I think that’s fair. As I said, Mr. Yeltsin was not convinced he was a democrat, but hoped he could become one. I think the reality was he wasn’t a democrat, even at the beginning, but the basis on which he had to rule, and the structure of the society he was overseeing, was one in which he didn’t have the authority to enforce the kind of pyramidal vertical of power that he acquires over the next two to three years.
… Gradually, what he does over the time building to this 2004 period is he, first of all, in a sense, neuters the oligarchs. He more or less says, “You will not play in politics, and you can keep your money.” That was a very big move. He then begins to enforce the legal structures more stringently across the country to curb the authorities of the regional elites and governors and so forth.
All of this takes places slowly. But what's interesting is, in retrospect in particular, it’s clear that the people he’s depending on to accomplish these things is the one group that the Yeltsin era said did not have a place like it used to, which was the old security services. He brings them back as his people, his group, and they get to be known as siloviki and so on. But ultimately he brings back the security service crowd, gives them the authority to begin to be the ones to carry out his authority and his vision.
Well, one of the early victims in this is the media. The first victim of this idea that if you're with us you’ve got a great future, and if you're not, we’re not going to have a very good future for you, was Mr. [Vladimir] Gusinsky, who had founded the television network NTV and who opposed, had been very critical of the Chechen war and then also opposed Putin when he ran for president early on.
He basically is arrested, detained over debt issues and so forth, and is allowed to leave the country, but basically NTV ceases to be the TV station it was, and it then picks up from there. There is a steady effort to curb the ability of the media to do what I think he always feared, because he watched it with Yeltsin, which was that Yeltsin would be at a high on the media and the people would tear him down and tear him down and tear him down. You know, he was down in the bottom, and then he’d do something else and get back up again. He didn’t want that to happen. He knew, in a sense, that staying at the top was important.
Were you surprised, coming now to 2016, that that man is still president of Russia and that that man presided over the incursion into our electoral process, creating such disruption and chaos that’s almost remarkable?
I had no crystal ball at any point during this time to know whether he would be still president or not, but I didn’t see over the time, particularly after 2004, that there was any real challenge to him from other political organized structures that had any weight to them. One of the great things about the Russian situation is that everybody talks about being in the opposition. They just never tell the Russian people what they would do if they got elected. You know, Russian people aren't dumb. They figure, we know what we’ve got; it may not be ideal, but we’re not buying a pig in a poke.
… I think we did make a miscalculation when we thought that Mr. [Dmitry] Medvedev was going to be truly running things in the future. I think our policy was predicated on the idea somehow that he could be the future. We didn’t give enough understanding or deference, if you will, to the fact that he was there because Mr. Putin put him there, and Mr. Putin was still around.
I was not surprised that he came back. What was surprising was that, when he came back, I think he and Medvedev were both shocked at the reaction, because they had thought he’d be welcome back to the tremendous success he had had in his first eight years as president; that they had weathered the financial crisis, and now he could carry on. Well, the problem is, first of all, when he announced, a lot of people were very unhappy as the demonstrations and so forth showed at the end of 2011. In fact, his party was pretty much rejected in that parliamentary election.
I think he did not understand what had happened or what changes had taken place. The turn against the West, in many ways, I've always interpreted, was a response to the fact that he didn’t have a new way to legitimate his authority. I mean, he was going to get elected. People elected him, I was convinced, elected him basically because “Look what he did for us in the first eight years he was president. The economy boomed. We had growth of 8, 7 percent. Real wages were going up every year.” It was the ideal world.
His problem was that in 2012, there's absolutely no way to repeat that. Oil prices were down. He didn’t have this huge pool of unused assets to put back to work to make that kind of growth possible. He’s been, I think, put into a position where he had to find an alternative to the old social contract, [which] is you let me run things, and I’ll make your life better.
And it’s turned to mean, you let me run things and I’ll keep you safe. That’s the message today, or I’ll keep things stable. He’s not going to produce any economic miracles. He’s not going to produce any particular change that anyone can foresee in the future, that will make Russia very different from what it is today. It will grow; it will be somewhat better. But there's no way he really has to change fundamentally the structure and the parameters of the system he’s built without undermining it completely, and having to do almost again what he did in 2001, which I don’t think he’s up to.
No. Let’s see what we missed.
Just one question about dealing with Yeltsin in the late ’90s, when he’s sick; people say he’s drinking heavily. Did you see that? What was that like?
… Yeltsin was an interesting man, from my observation, because frankly, he hated things like economics. He didn’t think real men did economy. That was the kind of thing that you left to the prime ministers. He was the father of the country, the head of state. He was the friend of presidents and prime ministers and so forth.
When things were that level of decision, he could be up for them. He’d get himself organized, and he had brilliant political instincts that were still—but when it wasn’t that kind of thing, or when he was being attacked and he didn’t have anything really to show, he became depressed, I think. He drank. All of those things were a real problem.
He was kind of [an] absent president. The Kremlin administration, the presidential administration around him, in a sense, were keeping things going and running things, but until something really rose to the level he thought was important enough, he wouldn’t be very much engaged.
Intervention in the U.S. Election
A lot of people say what Putin did with our election interference and so on was brilliant. He’s created chaos. But if we would do a little net assessment exercise, is he a winner, or is he kind of a loser when you look at it? What has he got, and what has he lost?
First of all, I'm not one of the school that thinks this is the 21st century’s most brilliant strategist, and he’s determining all the world’s course. I think it’s kind of nonsense. I don’t quite understand why they got themselves into this. I think as they have done in the past in other occasions, they have badly misjudged the reaction of the outside world to the fooling around and mucking around that they’ve got themselves engaged in.
I don’t personally believe that they thought Mr. Trump was going to win the election. I don’t think that was the point of this. I don’t think it had much to do with it. What I think they wanted to do was ensure that after the election, the American leadership was going to be preoccupied with issues other than pulling their act together to oppose Russia and make life difficult for us to continue pushing the Ukraine idea or sanctions, leading the European unity on sanctions and the anti-Russian stuff.
I think it was a tremendous strategic misreading of what the problem is. I think the same was true when he went into Ukraine. I don’t think he understood or had the slightest idea of what the reaction would be. [He] thought it was going to be manageable and a nice, quick, quick victory, or quick change would be accepted, and life would go on. I think he’s probably living with a lot of uncertainty about why it is that, three years-plus after the Ukraine mess begins, he’s still stuck with it and has no answer. He’s achieved one goal, which is Ukraine isn't in NATO, and Ukraine isn't in the West really, and there's instability in Ukraine. But he managed to unify the Europeans, which is pretty hard to do.
Even in the current conditions of trouble with the euro, with populism in Europe and the mess with that we have, relations we have with Europe, we’re still basically united about one thing, and that is that we’re not going to accept what Russia’s ideas are for the rest of the European or Euro-Atlantic world. I don’t think he saw this coming. Frankly, what he’s done is completely isolate Russia to the point where it essentially has no friends it can count on, and has left totally unaddressed the issues of how he has normal relations with his neighbors or stable relations with his neighbors, and has done nothing really to solve or deal with the economic issues, which are growing, frankly, more acute in many ways.