Hanging on the telephone: how US-Russian diplomacy was thwarted by a mix-up
As leaders of two of the world’s greatest super powers, their time was precious.
So it was perhaps little surprise that when a technological hitch meant a scheduled telephone conversation between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and US counterpart Bill Clinton had to be abandoned in February 1994, the ailing older statesman was none too pleased – and let the American know about it.
Private internal correspondence between Downing Street officials, released by the National Archives, reveal that a fuming Mr Yeltsin was left on hold for 90 minutes while White House staff sought desperately to locate President Clinton and connect the pair for bilateral talks.
The handwritten note on Downing Street headed paper between John Major’s private secretaries, Alex Allan and Roderic Lyne, said: “On a trivial level, did you hear about the foul-up on the US end in getting Clinton on the phone to Yeltsin?
“Apparently the Russians misunderstood all the preliminary soundings the US operations room do, and put Yeltsin on the line.
“Panic at the US end, no sign of Clinton.
“Yeltsin kept waiting for one-and-a-half hours before he gave up.
“V pissed off. Hence refusal to take call from Clinton for next couple of days.”
The note, signed by Mr Allan, asked the PM to be apprised of the incident.
A subsequent annotation added: “This explains a comment Clinton made at the start of the PM’s call. They had technical problems with us too, and Clinton said ‘If we have communication problems with the Brits too then perhaps the Russians will believe us’.”
The document was included in a slew of confidential Whitehall correspondence relating to Mr Major’s visit to Russia at the time.
A briefing note on some of the key players of Russian politics, written by Downing Street aide Tony Bishop upon Mr Major’s return to the UK, remarked that Mr Yeltsin “had lost quite a lot of weight in the body since I last saw him”, though he was regarded as “still rather puffy around the neck and jaw”.
Mr Yeltsin was said to have “stayed off the vodka” during the PM’s visit, “contenting himself with some large gulps of wine”.
It added: “He (Yeltsin) did seem to have lost his former bounce. Although his relations with the PM were warm at all times, indeed better and more trusting than I had ever seen them, he now seemed to be operating on a fairly flat battery, with lowered vitality.”
The document claimed that Mr Yeltsin had told Mr Major’s wife, Norma, that the only free time he had during the week “started on a Sunday afternoon”.
Mr Yeltsin, Russian president until the end of 1999, died following a heart attack in April 2007.