A month before his death in April 1994, former President Richard Nixon wrote a letter to former President Bill Clinton offering what Clinton called “wise counsel, especially on Russia.” The contents of that letter have now been declassified by the Clinton presidential library and appear prophetic.
In the seven-page letter, dated March 21, 1994, and discussed by history professor Luke Nichter in the Wall Street Journal, Nixon gave a blunt assessment of the political situation in Russia, accurately predicting that relations between Moscow and Kyiv would deteriorate and that someone like Putin might come to power. Nixon, 81 at the time, wrote the letter after he returned from a two-week trip to Russia and Ukraine.
While the former president is infamous for leaving the White House amid scandal in 1974, his legacy includes being the architect of détente with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In 1972, Nixon became the first US president to visit Moscow, where he signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. Nixon spent the years after his presidency taking foreign trips on behalf of the United States and offering advice based on decades of experience to guide US policy in the post-Cold War era.
Nixon considered the preservation of political and economic freedom in Russia “the most important foreign policy issue the country will face for the balance of this century.” With that understanding, he told Clinton that based on what he had seen in Russia, a new democracy under former Russian President Boris Yeltsin was in danger.
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“As one of Yeltsin’s first supporters in this country and as one who continues to admire him for his past leadership, I reluctantly conclude that his situation has rapidly deteriorated since the December election, and that the days of his undisputed leadership of Russia are numbered,” Nixon wrote. “His drinking parties are longer and his periods of depression more frequent. Worst of all, he can no longer deliver his promises to you and other Western leaders in an increasingly anti-American atmosphere in the Duma and in the country.”
Nixon saw that relations between Russia and Ukraine would dissolve. He called the situation in Ukraine “highly explosive”.
“If this is allowed to get out of hand,” Nixon told Clinton, “it will make Bosnia look like a PTA garden party.”
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The former president advised Clinton to strengthen America’s diplomatic representation in Kyiv, recounting conversations with American businessmen who complained that the embassy was “understaffed and inadequately led.”
Nixon also urged Clinton to develop relationships with potential successors to Yeltsin. “Bush made the mistake of sticking too long with Gorbachev because of his close personal relationship. You should avoid making the same mistake with your excellent personal relationship with Yeltsin,” he wrote.
He is not sure who will rise to power next. “There is still no one in Yeltsin’s class as a potential leader in Russia,” Nixon wrote. He informed Clinton that a nationalist and populist tide in Russia could produce a “credible candidate for president” – just five years before Putin’s Russian nationalist regime took hold.
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“Russians are serious people. One of the reasons Khrushchev was put on the shelf in 1964 was that proud Russians were embarrassed by his crude antics at the UN and other international forums,” Nixon wrote.
The letter also revealed some of Nixon’s dislike of career diplomats. “I learned during my years in the White House that the best decisions I made, like going to China in 1972, were made over the objections of or without the approval of most foreign service officers,” he wrote. Nixon advised Clinton to chart her own course and not be stopped by her staff. “Remember that foreign service officers get to the top by staying out of trouble. So they’re more interested in covering their asses than protecting you.”
Clinton will fondly remember Nixon’s advice in the years to come. “After he died, I found myself wanting to pick up the phone and ask President Nixon what he thought about this issue or that problem, especially as it related to Russia,” he said in 2013.