25 years later, the Clinton-Yeltsin transcripts show the power of US-Russian leadership on reducing nuclear threats

Recently declassified transcripts of conversations between former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and former U.S. President Bill Clinton show how quickly the political climate can shift expectations, even (or especially) when stakes are high. The transcripts, which cover the years 1993-1996, track the development of a working relationship between Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin, and reflect an optimism that might surprise those familiar with the immediate post-Soviet period in Russia.

The topics covered are wide-ranging, but nuclear issues come up frequently. The two leaders discuss landmarks of nuclear politics of the period: the removal of Soviet nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine, plans for dismantling and reprocessing nuclear warheads, as well as allegations that some Soviet tactical nuclear weapons remained in Chechnya. But many of the policy challenges they reference remain relevant today. More than once in the course of these discussions, Yeltsin suggests getting rid of the “nuclear footballs,” the cases that the Presidents of both the U.S. and Russia have with them at all times containing everything needed to launch a nuclear attack. The first of these proposals came at a September 1994 meeting between the Presidents and high-level staff. While the U.S. participants seem most concerned about securing nuclear materials from possible theft or misuse, Yeltsin’s suggestion places reducing the threat of nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia on the same level as these and other fundamental security concerns:

He also discussed “de-alerting” nuclear forces, which would increase the time necessary to launch a nuclear attack and reduce the risk of an accidental or misguided launch:

These conversations suggest that even in times of political and social turmoil when leaders are facing complex domestic situations, a simple commitment to cooperation on arms control can lead to significant results. Yeltsin, in the words of Pavel Podvig, “…hardly had an opportunity to involve himself in the details of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear superpower confrontation. Nor did he ever show any real interest in the subject, unlike other Soviet and Russian leaders who were enamored with the power that comes with possessing strategic nuclear forces.”

Yet several of the solutions he proposed read today as not only sensible, but even ambitious, slightly extravagant steps toward a more livable nuclear order. The transcripts seem to underscore the point that policies like No First Use and keeping nuclear forces off alert are not products of idealism, ignorance, or insufficient attention to the realities of world politics, but rather small steps that can be taken to allow world leaders to turn their attention to other problems that urgently need it. Indeed, it might be the only way to make sure that the world as we know it is around long enough for its biggest problems to be solved.