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Former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday said nothing he could have done as leader of the U.S. would have prevented Russian President Vladimir Putin’s path to authoritarianism and his aggressive invasion Ukraine.
“I do not believe that there was anything we could have done to prevent this,” Clinton said during a talk at Brown University.
Clinton denied that his administration did anything to isolate Russia or antagonize Putin personally during the 1990s, when his administration oversaw an expansion of NATO following the collapse of the Soviet Union. “It is not true that we did anything to isolate, humiliate or ignore Putin. That’s the biggest load of bull you’ll ever hear,” Clinton said.
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Clinton said Putin’s desire to build a “clepto-state” and dismantle democracy was not evident during his first presidential term. “By the end of his second term, it was clear that he wanted to stay for life,” Clinton said of Putin. “I do not believe that anything we could have done would have done it.”
The Clinton administration’s decision to expand NATO, which started as a Cold War-era agreement among European countries and the U.S. to counteract the expansions of the Soviet Union, has been criticized amid Russia’s two-month old invasion of Ukraine. Putin has cited NATO expansion eastward, and the potential of Ukraine joining NATO, as justifications for his assault on Ukrainian cities.
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Rajan Menon, author of “Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order,” argued that the Clinton administration cut Russia out of the new European system following the economic collapse after the demise of the Soviet Union. But Clinton said Tuesday that Russia would have been welcomed into NATO.
“There was nothing preventing them (Russia) from joining NATO if they thought that their biggest security threats would come from non-state actors,” Clinton said.
Recounting his administration’s actions to cooperate with Russia, Clinton related one instance where “neo-con” rhetoric and the potential for a Republican president scared Putin from further disarmament.
Ahead of the 2000 U.S. presidential election, Clinton said he met with Putin, who assumed the Russian presidency that year, and discussed an existing agreement to withdraw NATO, EU and Russian forces from each country’s borders in order to ease tensions between the west and the former Soviet Union.
“We had a great talk, but I was left completely uncertain about what [Putin] was going to do,” Clinton said. At the meeting, Clinton recalled Putin said he would not withdraw troops from the borders, which Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin had agreed to do, because he was concerned that if George W. Bush won the election, the Republican administration would not abide by the agreement.
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“He said, ‘I’ve been reading everything these Neo-Cons are saying, and I don’t think they’re going to do it. I think they’ll stick it to you,'” Clinton recalled Putin saying.
Putin asked if Bush could win the election, according to Clinton, who said Bush could win the election but then-Vice President Al Gore was likely to win in the end.
According to Clinton, Putin said, “OK, if [Gore] wins, he’ll need a victory. So we’ll do this deal shortly after he’s in office and he’ll get a little boost, and I’ll get the deal I signed up for.”
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Clinton said he recounted that anecdote to show that, “First, Putin was smart. And second, privately, he was honest with me.”
“All these people, they can win for a while,” Clinton said of authoritarian leaders like Putin and Chinese President Xi Jingping. “But they can’t win in the long run because it doesn’t make any sense — as the people of Ukraine are teaching Putin every single day. He may win there somewhere, in whatever he thinks he can do in eastern Ukraine, but I don’t think so, not if we all stay hitched.”
Clinton was speaking at a memorial event for Casey Shearer — the son of Clinton’s longtime friend and advisor Derek Shearer — a Brown University student who suddenly died of an undetected heart condition days before graduating in May 2000.
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The former president also defended his decision to welcome China into the World Trade Organization.
“Did I make a mistake giving them most favored nation status?” Clinton asked of China. “You can argue that flat around, but I don’t think so given what we knew then, because I assumed that we’d be better off having them in a system where at least we could have a legal forum to challenge non-lawful actions, and where we would at least be encouraging them to work with the rest of the world.”