Ambassador Matlock Sees the Nuclear Dimension to Ukraine

In a post earlier this month, I decried that the news coverage of the Ukrainian crisis was largely overlooking the nuclear dimension to the risk, and thereby increasing it. As I listened today to the Q&A following Ambassador Jack Matlock’s February 11 speech, I was pleased to see him repeatedly highlight that concern. I therefore began to transcribe the Q&A, and share what I’ve done thus far under my signature line. (Times refer to the video.) If anyone has the time to continue the process, please post it as a comment.

Please see last Wednesday’s post and yesterday’s for more information on the ambassador’s speech, as well as links to a full transcript of the speech itself and to a video of the entire session, including Q&A.

While I was pleased at Ambassador Matlock’s highlighting the nuclear dimension of the risk, I was not surprised. He is a very perceptive individual, with a wealth of first-hand knowledge on these issues. Note how he consistently differentiates between what he would like and what is possible. Also note his thinking through the likely negative consequences of some “feel good” actions. If more people were as objective in their thinking, the world would be a much more peaceful place.

Martin Hellman


[36:27] QUESTIONER (an international investor – the question is paraphrased here): Assad’s agreement to remove the poison gas from Syria came only at the persuasion of the Russian government. Also, because of the current difficulties, we are losing much valuable intelligence that Russia was supplying us, some of which might have prevented the Boston Marathon bombing. Can you expand on what we’re losing by ruining this relationship.

[37:15] MATLOCK: The greatest danger as I put it is that, if in reaction to what we’re doing in an area which they consider genuinely [to be] a matter of their vital interests, leads them to the conviction that we’re out to get them no matter what, the reaction is going to be to beef up their reliance on nuclear weapons.

If we’re not going to treat them as equals … if we’re not going to treat them with any dignity, and we are going to continue – especially our legislature – to try to mind their business, when they [Congress] can’t even mind ours, then what you’re going to get is a reaction.

[38:16] Whenever I make these points, you get people saying, “Oh, he’s just a Putin apologist.” I’m not apologizing for Putin. I don’t like what he’s doing. Russians shouldn’t like what he’s doing. It’s very bad for Russia. But, whenever we get involved – and particularly militarily, and that’s why it’s so important not to be supplying arms to Ukraine – [that’s] just going to end in killing more Ukrainians if they use them. If we keep getting involved in these things, we actually strengthen all of those tendencies of President Putin that we don’t like and the Russians shouldn’t like.

[39:16] 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. [MH: He is probably referring to the Levada Center.] And what he said was, “The more Russians feel that they are threatened by the outside world, the more they will consolidate around Putin.”

So these people who are saying we need to get involved in these things, that are of primary interest to them [the Russians], are enabling Putin. They like to say that those of us who explain why these things happen are Putin apologists.  No! They are the Putin enablers. And they should be made to recognize it.

[40:10] QUESTIONER (sounds like a Soviet emigre): I will not introduce myself for fear of retaliation. I wanted to say with all due respect, I disagree with you 100 percent for the following reasons.

All of the Americans who grew up in this great country, that went to your universities and entered the State Department, you are not familiar with the evils that the people in the Soviet Union have experienced.

You are looking for a reasonable win-win situation when you are dealing with people who are thugs and do not care about their people. Putin is probably the richest thug in the world, who will sacrifice …

[The person making the comment is interrupted by objections from the audience, apparently asking him to ask a question. He then says, “It’s a comment. It’s a comment. May I finish?” After more audience objections: “All right, fine. I’ll give you a question.”]

What do you think about Putin’s alleged worth, and do you think that appeasement will work?

[41:09] MATLOCK: I have no idea. I know that a recent book has documented quite a bit, and I think this is something that the Russian should be very concerned about. [MH: He is probably referring to Putin’s Kleptocracy.] I quite honestly don’t think it rates very high in threats to the United States, or something that we are capable of dealing with. If the Russians don’t deal with it, that’s their problem. If we try to do it for them, we’re going to create more problems.

[41:51] QUESTIONER who identifies himself as a man from Riga, Latvia: Latvia is often called the weak link of NATO because of a huge percentage of Russian speaking population [MEH: Roughly 25% of Lativa’s population is ethnically Russian.]. … But, all the issues we have – non-citizens, citizenship issue, language issue, and so forth are being resolved peacefully. [MEH: Many ethnic Russians have been denied citizenship because they cannot speak Latvian.] No riots, no clashes, nothing like that. Recently American tanks and NATO soldiers have arrived to Latvia. So in your opinion, [does] it escalate the situation …  or [does] it make Latvia any safer?

[42:50] MATLOCK: I really don’t think Russia is threatening the Baltic states. They are in NATO. They will be defended by NATO. And I think they know that. …

[43:28] But since you’ve mentioned the Baltic states, I should say – because this is relevant to Ukraine – that in … 1989 and 1990, delegations of the then newly elected Baltic leaders came to me – I was ambassador in Moscow then – explaining their hopes and plans, first to develop autonomy, and then to restore their independence.

When they did, I listened, and then they said, “Of course, when we declare our independence, you will recognize it.” Because we had never recognized their formal incorporation into the Soviet Union.

I said, “Our hearts are with you. We don’t recognize that you are legally in the Soviet Union. But if you declare your independence, we cannot recognize it until it is recognized by the Soviet regime.”

They said, “Well, how is that?”

I said, “If we do that, you are going to be crushed. If we do that at this time, you are going to be crushed. Either Gorbachev will be forced to intervene, or he will be removed.” And as a matter of fact, he was nearly removed when the Lithuanians declared their independence. I said, “Our hearts are with you, but you are going to have to keep it peaceful. There are going to be provocations, [but] you are going to have to keep it peaceful because if you are suppressed, there is not a thing we can do. We can’t start a nuclear war over it. Now, why we were not telling that to the Ukrainians, I don’t know. That would have saved a lot of problems. [45:18]

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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