NATO expansion to Ukraine will be grievous mistake for US - last US ambassador to USSR

An emerging chill between the US and Russia is causing alarm around the world. But despite the diplomatic blows traded over Ukraine, cooperation on other matters goes on as usual. Is this latest quarrel just a passing storm or are tensions between Russia and the West more than just a series of misunderstandings? Jack Matlock witnessed the end of the Cold War in Moscow while serving at the US embassy.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:President Obama has said, “This is not a new Cold War, because Russia is not leader of any bloc of countries and there is no ideological agenda.” What would you call it?

Jack Matlock: Well. I think, what we are hearing is rhetoric that is reminiscent of the Cold War. But you know, the issues that are now important as they are, are nothing like the issues we dealt with during the Cold War. There we had a worldwide confrontation of two ideologies and an arms race that was getting out of control and confrontation in many-many areas. As serious as the problems are in Ukraine they are not in any way comparable to the ones we had during the Cold War.

SS:But nevertheless you have called the language used between Russia and the US more trident. How does it compare to Cold War days?

JM: You know, the language during much of the Cold War was very severe. Toward the end of the Cold War, that is I would say from the late 1980s, both sides tried to lower the rhetoric, to work with our problems privately and to concentrate publicly on those things we could agree upon. And at the time, when Eduard Shevardnadze was foreign minister of the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev was first general-secretary and then president, over a few years we developed, I would say, a close-working relationship, so that we could avoid much of the rhetoric and accusations in public.

SS: But it would seem like our foreign ministers these days also have a very close working relationship. They meet all the time. What was so different back in your days? Why was the relationship warmer then? Was it maybe because Moscow’s policies were more in line with what Washington wanted?

JM: I think there are a number of complicating things, and I agree that it is a very good thing that our foreign ministers are working together, and as far as I know their personal chemistry is just fine. But I think that a number of issues that have arisen with our publics are really based upon false understandings of what happened in the past, and this has created sometimes public issues over matters that probably should not be that big an issue.

SS: Well. Let’s talk about false understandings. You’ve also said that failure to appreciate how the Cold War ended has had a profound impact on Russia-US relations. What exactly do you mean by that?

JM: There are several things here. One is that a lot of people feel that the Soviet Union broke up because it lost the Cold War. That gets everything entirely mixed up. We negotiated at the end of the Cold War under terms there were advantageous both to the West and to the Soviet Union. And the Cold War had ended before the Soviet Union broke up. The Soviet Union broke up because of internal pressure and not because of the West.

SS: But, like you’ve said, end of the Cold War and break-up of the Soviet Union are two different issues that people get mixed up all the time, but you’ve argued the Cold War didn’t end with a victory for the West, but there were advantages for both sides. But here is what an average Russian will tell you right now: they would tell that decade after the fall of the Soviet Union was the worst time in their lives and that was when Moscow blindly followed Washington’s lead. And they would ask you where the advantage is in that.

JM: Well, all I can say is that it was not us, Americans or Westerners, who brought the Soviet Union down. The person who played the key role in that was the elected president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin. So if the Russians don’t like what happened, they need to look at their own political past and not blame outsiders.

SS: But do you think, as a man who was heavily involved in all these negotiations back then, do you think that the US could have taken a different approach or could have done something differently at that point?

JM: You mean after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union broke up?

SS: Yes.

JM: At the time I had hoped that we could negotiate a security structure in Europe that would include Russia and East Europeans. And I opposed at the time the way that NATO was expanded. On the other hand I recognize now looking back that Russia really did not make any proposals that seemed to be acceptable in the ’90s. So I think we got into a pattern of what I consider inconsiderate actions by the West. They were not meant to offend Russia, they had other reasons. But they were accepted in Russia as being offensive. And I would just repeat, as we started, I don’t think this is a new Cold War.

I think the main thing now is for everybody to concentrate on how Ukraine can solve its internal divisions, because the basic problem in Ukraine is internal. Unfortunately, the external influences have tended to pull it apart, and that includes Russia’s influence which has not been helpful.

SS: Before we get to Ukraine, because we are going to get to Ukraine, I would like to discuss a little bit more the misconceptions that there are between America and Russia at this point, if I may. I know there was an attempt to reset the relations between President Obama and President Medvedev’s administration. So why right now are relations between the two countries at their lowest since the Cold War?

JM: One thing, I think, we had the American reaction to what seemed to be a steady movement by Russia to restrict democratic rights, to make the political process much more difficult and to restrict the media, to control it. In other words to introduce some of the problems the Soviet Union had that were associated with the Cold War. When Americans and West Europeans commented on these things, usually there was a very negative reaction from Russia, saying: “These are our internal affairs, they are not your business”. Well, they were internal affairs, and yet they did affect the rest of the world view of Russia and of its leadership and of the ability to do business with Russia. And I think that such things as for example, in the US, the Magnitsky Act, which I thought was unnecessary and should not have been passed. But then the reaction of the Russian Duma was actually damaging to the Russia’s interests. So these emotional issues tended to simply intrude upon cooperation where our interests were really similar.

SS: So, like you’ve said, the US blames Russia for the downfall in the relationship. Russia blames the US. Is there a truth somewhere in the middle?

JM: I think the time has come to say, “Let’s draw the line all over this. Let’s go back to square one so to speak and look at where our interests lie.” The fact is that the things that threaten us all are things like deterioration of the environment, the global warming, the spread of deceases, poverty, violence, conflict and terrorism. These real problems are international. We need cooperation to deal with them. And to have disputes over pieces of land and abstract ideas such as sovereignty or territorial integrity…These are important things, but basically it is keeping us from concentrating on the issues that we need to cooperate on if we are going to be successful in the future. And I think we need to simply step back, stop arguments and say, “Look, let’s see how we can put our heads together and find a way satisfactory for both of us to cooperate.”

SS: So do you think Russia has grounds to see the United States as a threat? Because as I understand, the biggest point is NATO expansion, of course. The US broke a promise not to expand Easts after German reunification – I might even think that you have been at that meeting in Malta in ’89. So why is the West so appalled when Russia resists the expansion of the NATO to its borders?

JM: I don’t think Russia should see the United States as a threat. In my opinion, we have made some mistakes in the past and Russia has also made mistakes in the past. But I think it is clear that the United States is going to be much more careful in the future about using its armed forces abroad. And this has its good aspects and its bad aspects. The bad aspect is that we are not going to be there to help on some of these local struggles. We are simply not going to sacrifice our people anymore and get into fights of other people. Americans are simply against that.

So the idea that somehow we are going to use military force in the future in anything other than the direct defense of ourselves and our formal allies is simply not correct. And as a matter of fact, I think, that any - even implied - use of military power in the sort of differences we have is very unwise and negative. It is simply not going to happen. We are not going to have war with each other. That would be absolutely insane. And therefore I think the whole idea that the United States is a threat or could be, has been a very mistaken idea in Russia.

SS: But do you see why Russia feels betrayed when it says that, “You, guys, promised us not to expand NATO to my borders”? “There was not going to be an inch expansion towards these” - that is what former secretary James Baker said at that meeting to Eduard Shevardnadze and Mikhail Gorbachev. They took his word for it. So here we are twenty-something years later, and it seems like Americans are saying, “It’s our promise. We gave it to you, so we can have it back.” Do you see why Russians are feeling betrayed?

JM: Any sort of promises regarding Eastern Europe is wrong. Now, there was a policy, and I pointed this out, when the question of NATO expansion was raised later by a different administration entirely, and that is that I thought: we had no reason to expand the NATO military organization to the East until we had an agreement that would put Russia in a European defense structure.

However, it was not the decision of the United States: “Oh, we’ve got to expand NATO.” It was the East Europeans. The Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians that said, “Look, we need protection. After all, there was a pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union when Stalin was running it, to divide us. There is history there. We have been occupied, the communist system forced upon us. We need that protection.” It was there, in impetus, that caused NATO to start expanding.

I personally had hoped we could do it in a different way. But I must say that the Russian government at that time came up with no good alternatives. I can’t just blame one side for this. I think it is unfortunate because I think there should have been a greater Western effort, American and West European, to make sure we had brought Russia into a security structure and that we have done more to encourage an understanding between the West Europeans and Russians.

SS: I don’t think for Russia NATO expansion to its borders is an arguable point because when they say, “NATO expansion to our border threatens our national security,” they are not being sly. They really mean it. I’m sure you, being a representative of a great country, can imagine what the American reaction would be if a military organization expanded towards American borders. So what is the way out? I mean, the only way out is not to expand towards Russian borders anymore, no?

JM: Frankly, I have never thought it was a good idea to think about or talk about extending NATO to Ukraine and Georgia, for quite different reasons. Georgia still has internal problems and we should not take on any ally that has unresolved internal problems. In the case of Ukraine the majority of Ukrainians don’t want to be in. I don’t know why NATO would want it. And I’m pretty sure that practically speaking NATO will not accept either Ukraine or Georgia.

So frankly I don’t think it was ever a practical responsibility. I think Russia overreacted to that prospect, and I would have advised much earlier to simply put it on ice by giving assurances that would not happen. And I certainly hope that assurances like that can be given today.

However, let me point out that, with Ukraine, the sort of pressures that Russia was putting on Ukraine - cutting trade and so on, enormous pressures to keep them away from making economic agreements with EU - I think that was highly improper and had created a lot of the tension that has since been developed.

So this is not just a case of one side threatening the other. It is the case that Russia and the West and the US getting involved into what has divided Ukraine have tended to divide the country rather than unite it. And I think they should all step back and start thinking about ways we can help the Ukrainians to get together because they are still deeply divided.

SS: You have also said that Ukraine should look to the example of Finland if it wants to avoid being torn apart between East and West. Why hasn’t it done so in the twenty something years of independence? Is the pull from the two sides was just too strong?

JM: Well, as yet I think there has not emerged a leader who was able to unite the country. I don’t know about the current leader - maybe, and I would hope that he would be able to. I do think that in the process, Russia has, at times in fact, fairly steadily, encouraged one side rather than the other. And I think we outsiders have to understand that both Russia and Ukraine are suffering from the Soviet heritage and all of the problems it had. It was the same country after all for many years. And many institutions have grown out of Soviet institutions in both countries.

But I do think that if Ukraine is to stay together there needs to be a leadership that can unite the people. And certainly they need to make Russian an official language. And I would think that if it can be structured properly, a federal system is appropriate for them. But this is something Ukrainians have to do. And I don’t think outsiders should try force it upon them. I’ve said and written maybe they should talk to the Finnish leaders. How did Finland manage to have such good relation with Russia and stay independent? I think there are lessons there.

SS: Like you’ve said, in the background of the crisis, other aspects of US-Russia cooperation haven’t stopped yet. I mean we still have united transit route to Afghanistan through Russia, also the Syrian and the Iranian problem. Will this crisis soon melt away and the cooperation will continue or will this crisis halt the cooperation on other issues as well.

JM: Well that probably doesn’t help them a great deal, although I must say, I think Russia’s interests basically are not different from American or West European interests in these things. Certainly, I don’t think Russia would be welcome an Iran with nuclear weapons. So I would certainly hope we can still cooperate to keep that from happening.

In the case of Syria, Americans are puzzled, while Russia seems to be happy with the Syrian leadership that kills its own people. But on the other hand we all should be wary of what might follow if the current regime falls. But I think there should be more Russian pressure on the Syrian president to stop his attacks on civilians, and also to negotiate. But that’s something that I think Russia will decide where its interests are, as will others.

So I would hope that on these other issues this won’t have any great effect. There is no reason for the disputes over Ukraine to spill over into areas where both sides have an interest in solving the problem.