A month before he died in April 1994, former President Richard Nixon wrote a letter to then-President Bill Clinton offering what Clinton later called “wise counsel, especially with regard to 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, predicting accurately that relations between Moscow and Kyiv would deteriorate and that someone like Putin could 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 departing 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 U.S. 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 following his presidency taking foreign trips on behalf of the United States and offering counsel based on decades of experience to guide U.S. policy in the post-Cold War era.
Nixon considered the survival of political and economic freedom in Russia “the most important foreign policy issue the nation will face for the balance of this century.” With that understanding, he told Clinton that based on what he saw in Russia, a fledgling democracy under former Russian President Boris Yeltsin was in danger.
“As one of Yeltsin’s first supporters in this country and as one who continues to admire him for his leadership in the past, I have reluctantly concluded that his situation has rapidly deteriorated since the elections in December, and that the days of his unquestioned leadership of Russia are numbered,” Nixon wrote. “His drinking bouts are longer and his periods of depression are more frequent. Most troublesome, he can no longer deliver on his commitments to you and other Western leaders in an increasingly anti-American environment in the Duma and in the country.”
Nixon foresaw that relations between Russia and Ukraine would dissolve. He called the situation in Ukraine “highly explosive.”
“If it is allowed to get out of control,” Nixon told Clinton, “it will make Bosnia look like a PTA garden party.”
The former president advised Clinton to strengthen American 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 Yeltsin’s potential successors. “Bush made a mistake in sticking too long to Gorbachev because of his close personal relationship. You must avoid making that same mistake in your very good personal relationship with Yeltsin,” he wrote.
He was unsure who would rise to power next. “There is still no one who is 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” — a mere five years before Putin’s Russian nationalist regime took hold.
“The Russians are serious people. One of the reasons Khrushchev was put on the shelf back in 1964 is that the proud Russians became ashamed of his crude antics at the U.N. and in other international forums,” Nixon wrote.
The letter also reveals some of Nixon’s dislike for career diplomats. “I learned during my years in the White House that the best decisions I made, such as the one to go 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 his own course and not to be held back by his staff. “Remember that foreign service officers get to the top by not getting into trouble. They are therefore more interested in covering their asses than in protecting yours.”
Clinton in later years would remember Nixon’s advice fondly. “After he died, I found myself wishing I could pick up the phone and ask President Nixon what he thought about this issue or that problem, particularly if it involved Russia,” he said in 2013.