Reagan’s Ambassador to Moscow Speaks on Ukraine

Over the last year, this blog has presented significant evidence that the prevailing Western view of the Ukrainian crisis has major blind spots which are prolonging the human suffering in that nation, and which also increase the risk of a nuclear disaster. Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, has been a valuable resource in my efforts, so I was pleased to see an article in The Nation which reported on a major address he gave last Wednesday. Here are some key excerpts (emphasis added):

Something is amiss, according to the ambassador, when heretofore serious voices in Washington believe that arming Kiev is a relatively consequence-free policy choice because they insist on viewing Russia as “a regional power.” To Matlock’s way of thinking, this is an error of the first order. “No one with ICBM’s is a regional power, not by any means.”

Matlock stressed that his position—that the United States needs to find a modus vivendi with Russia in spite of the crisis in Ukraine—is not driven by any animus towards the Ukrainians, far from it. “I respect and know Ukraine; I know it, its people and its literature,” but we in the West and in the United States in particular need to understand that for Russia, Ukraine is of “existential” importance.

According to the ambassador, who was present at some of the most pivotal discussions between President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev during the Cold War’s denouement, the taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion. … Bush’s promise [to Gorbachev] not to expand the alliance eastward in exchange for the peaceful and orderly withdrawal of Soviet occupying troops in Eastern Europe was, according to Matlock, repeated by nearly all of the alliance members at the time.

I had not seen coverage of Ambassador Matlock’s speech in my daily reading of both the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, and a web search found no coverage from them on line as well. The same was true for the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. This  bias on the part of our media results in a dangerous blind spot in our perspective on the Ukrainian crisis. My search did find another article which had more direct quotes from the speech:

The West’s top priority should be to reestablish civil relations with Russia – and ease tensions to minimize the risk of spiraling confrontation. … The most important thing we did in ending the Cold War was cooling the nuclear arms race. If there are any issues for this country to face that are existential, that’s it. … But I’ll tell you, if the United States gets further involved [in Ukraine] … I don’t see how we are going to prevent another nuclear arms race. And that’s what scares me. …

In 1989 and ’90, after declaring their revolution, several Baltic leaders came to me hoping that the U.S. would support their plans, first for autonomy [from the Soviet Union] and then to declare their independence.

And I said, our hearts are with you, but if you declare your independence, we cannot recognize you until you are recognized by the Soviet regime. If we do, then you’re going to be crushed. Either Gorbachev will act to suppress you or he will be removed. And we can’t start a nuclear war over it.

Why we didn’t say that to Ukraine, I don’t know.

Martin Hellman

If you think Ambassador Matlock’s view deserves wider attention, please share this post via Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, or email.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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4 Responses to Reagan’s Ambassador to Moscow Speaks on Ukraine

  1. Ambassador Matlock’s National Press Club talk was referenced in the Washington Post. The reason why it was not picked up more widely was because it was not particularly newsworthy, unless you are a died-in-the-wool apologist for Russian policy, as is The Nation. The word I got from people who attended Matlock’s talk is that he was given a rather bad time by the audience. It would be best, however, to check eyewitness accounts to verify this.

  2. Nuclear Risk says:

    Clearly we have a difference in perspectives. Please see my 22 FEB post in which Ambassador Matlock addresses accusations, such as yours, that we are Putin-apologists. He makes a good case (at least in my mind) that those who demonize Putin are “Putin-enablers” because, “The more Russians feel that they are threatened by the outside world, the more they will consolidate around Putin.” I haven’t had time to listen to all of the Q&A yet, but the first 15 minutes had the opposite of the reaction your sources related. The first two commenters/questioners were very sympathetic (and one was from Riga). The third person to speak was clearly annoyed by Ambassador Matlock’s remarks, but it was the commenter, not Matlock, who was heckled by the audience. Of course, audience heckling or approval says nothing about the validity of the points being made, something we need to keep in mind whichever way it reacted.

    While we differ in our perspectives, I thank you for adding yours here. If more people were open to a serious discussion of these potentially existential issues, we would have a much better foreign policy and far fewer residents of Ukraine would be dead, wounded, or homeless.

    If you would like to, I would welcome your adding comments which address the substance of the Ambassador’s arguments. Calling people Putin apologists does not get to the heart of the matter. The same is true of calling them Putin enablers, except in that case the Ambassador presents evidence as to why the label is warranted – a poll by a reputable organization showing that to be the case. Any evidence to the contrary would be most welcome.

  3. Nuclear Risk says:

    I looked at it, but didn’t see any facts which contradict what Ambassador Matlock said. There was a lot of opinion and scare-mongering, such as: “When the alternative is too scary to contemplate, denial works for a time, until the Russian bear comes crashing through the front door, sharpened teeth and claws at the ready.”

    To take just one example of facts the ambassador presented in support of his position, in the Q&A which is covered in my later post, the ambassador said (at 39:16 in the YouTube video):

    “One of the quotes that I had in my longer remarks was, in January, from one of their researchers at probably the only [Russian] polling organization that is pretty honest. And what he said was, ‘The more Russians feel that they are threatened by the outside world, the more they will consolidate around Putin.'” [I suspect he is referring the the Levada Center, which I’ve checked out and found to be highly objective – the government even tried to shut it down.]

    But, even without that poll, we have evidence that our current policies are raising popular support for Putin, rather than the other way around.

    So given that evidence that attacking Putin is creating even greater support for him in Russia, what evidence can you cite to the contrary?

    Another example: The ambassador notes that, while there is evidence that Putin may be a kleptocrat, why does that make us responsible for dealing with him? And, as the ambassador asks, what can we do? He argues that it’s an internal Russian matter, better left to them to handle. If you have evidence that it is in our national interest and our national power to do otherwise, I’d be interested in hearing it.

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