Ukraine has retracted an earlier claim to have reached a ceasefire with Russia. The office of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko initially said he agreed with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on steps toward a ceasefire with pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. But the Kremlin then denied a ceasefire agreement, saying it is in no position to make a deal because it is not a party to the fighting. Ukraine has accused Russia of direct involvement in the violence amidst a recent escalation. The confusion comes as President Obama visits the former Soviet republic of Estonia ahead of a major NATO summit in Wales. On Tuesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest outlined NATO’s plans to expand its presence in eastern Europe. Ukraine and NATO have accused Russia of sending armored columns of troops into Ukraine, but Russia has denied its troops are involved in fighting on the ground. We are joined by Jack Matlock, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the crisis in Ukraine, where more than 2,600 people have been killed since April. Earlier today, Ukraine said its president had agreed with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on steps towards a ceasefire with pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, but the Kremlin denied any actual truce deal had been formalized. Initially, the Ukrainian presidential website had claimed a permanent ceasefire had been reached, but then the statement was retracted.
The confusion comes as President Obama visits the former Soviet republic of Estonia ahead of a major NATO summit in Wales. On Tuesday, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest outlined NATO’s plans to expand its presence in eastern Europe.
PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: The United States, in cooperation with our allies, plans to significantly increase the readiness of a NATO response force to ensure that the alliance is prepared to respond to threats in a timely fashion. This will involved training, exercises and discussions about what kinds of infrastructure will be required in the Baltics, in Poland, in Romania and other states on the eastern frontier to deal with the world in which they face new concerns about Russian intentions.
AMY GOODMAN: Ukraine and NATO have accused Russia of sending armored columns of troops into Ukraine, but Russia has denied its troops are involved in fighting on the ground. Over the past week, the Russian-backed rebels have made a number of advances in eastern Ukraine. On Monday, rebels took control of the airport in the city of Luhansk. Now they’re storming the airport in Donetsk, the biggest city under their control. On Tuesday, an Italian newspaper reported Putin had told outgoing European Commission President José Manuel Barroso that he could take Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, within two weeks, if he wanted to. The Kremlin said the remark was taken out of context.
Joining us now is Jack Matlock, served as U.S. ambassador to the former Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991, author of several books, including Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray—And How to Return to Reality, as well as Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended.
Ambassador Matlock, we welcome you to Democracy Now! What do you think is most important to understand what’s happening in Ukraine today?
JACK MATLOCK: Well, I think one of the most important things to understand is that, practically speaking, the Ukrainians and the Russians have to agree on what would be an acceptable way to proceed within Ukraine. That is the fact of the matter. And one can, you know, talk all one wishes about how impermissible it is for Russia to intervene, but the fact is they are going to intervene until they are certain that there is no prospect of Ukraine becoming a member of NATO. And all of the threats by NATO and so on to sort of increase defenses elsewhere is simply provocative to the Russians. Now, I’m not saying that’s right, but I am saying that’s the way Russia is going to react. And frankly, this is all predictable. And those of us who helped negotiate the end of the Cold War almost unanimously said in the 1990s, “Do not expand NATO eastward. Find a different way to protect eastern Europe, a way that includes Russia. Otherwise, eventually there’s going to be a confrontation, because there is a red line, as far as any Russian government is concerned, when it comes to Ukraine and Georgia and other former republics of the Soviet Union.”
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday—
JACK MATLOCK: I would say, with the exception of the three Baltic states. They were a special case.
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for immediate negotiations on the statehood of southern and eastern Ukraine. On Monday, Putin blamed Kiev’s leadership for declining to participate in direct political talks with the separatists. This is what he said.
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] What is the essence of the tragedy that is happening in Ukraine right now? I think the main reason for that is that the current Kiev leadership does not want to carry out a substantive political dialogue with the east of its country. And so, right now, in my opinion, a very important process, a process of direct talks, starts. We have been working on it for a long time, and we agreed upon that with President Poroshenko in Minsk. We start to have—or renew, to be precise—this sort of contact.
AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Matlock, the significance of what President Putin is saying?
JACK MATLOCK: Well, it does seem to me that, practically speaking, there needs to be an understanding between Russia and the Ukrainians as to how to solve this problem. It is not going to be solved militarily. So the idea that we should be giving more help to the Ukrainian government in a military sense simply exacerbates the problem. And the basic problem is Ukraine is a deeply divided country. And as long as one side tries to impose its will on the other—and that is what has happened since February, the Ukrainian nationalists in the west have been trying to impose their will on the east, and the Russians aren’t going to permit that. And that is the fact of the matter. So, yes, there simply needs to be an agreement.
And most of the—I would say, the influence of the West in trying to help the Ukrainians by, I would say, defending them against the Russians tends to be provocative, because—you know, Putin is right: If he decided, he could take Kiev. Russia is a nuclear power. And Russia feels that we have ignored that, that we have insulted them time and time again, and that we are out to turn Ukraine into an American puppet that surrounds them. And, you know, with that sort of psychology, by resisting that, in Russian eyes, he has gained unprecedented popularity. So, it seems to me that we have to understand that, like it or not, the Ukrainians are going to have to make an agreement that’s acceptable to them, if they keep their unity.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to reporters Thursday, President Obama said the U.S. will collaborate with its NATO allies in dealing with the Ukraine crisis, but he ruled out military action against Russia.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will continue to stand firm with our allies and partners that what is happening is wrong, that there is a solution that allows Ukraine and Russia to live peacefully. But it is not in the cards for us to see a military confrontation between Russia and the United States in this region. Keep in mind, however, that I’m about to go to a NATO conference. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but a number of those states that are close by are. And we take our Article 5 commitments to defend each other very seriously.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s President Obama. Ambassador Jack Matlock, you say, you know, Russia is very threatened by the possibility Ukraine would join NATO. Most people in the United States, I don’t think, understand the politics of NATO. It’s not on people’s radar. Why is NATO such a threat? And what was the agreement that was originally worked out around NATO, with Ukraine and also in the Baltics, in Lithuania and Latvia and Estonia—Estonia, where President Obama is right now?
JACK MATLOCK: Well, they are members of NATO. They will be defended. Russia is not threatening them militarily. Of course we will defend them, because they are members of NATO. Ukraine is not a member of NATO. And why we react as if it is and has any claim on our cooperation in defending them from Russia, this is simply not the case. These are different cases. And, you know, by saying we have to increase our military presence in the Baltic states, this just reinforced the Russian perception that they must, and at all costs, keep Ukraine from that happening, or else they’ll have American bases in Ukraine, they’ll have American naval bases on the Black Sea. This is the fear. And it seems to me that it is not necessary to protect the Baltics, which are not being threatened by Russia, and it is apt to make the Russians even more demanding toward the Ukrainians when it comes to Ukraine. However, you know, we’re on that course, clearly. The Estonians and others feel that they could be threatened. But I think there is no question that as members of NATO, they would be defended by the United States, and Russia is not going to present a military challenge to them. But they are going to do whatever they consider necessary to make sure this doesn’t happen in Ukraine.
AMY GOODMAN: What about NATO officials saying they plan to approve a NATO rapid reaction force that would, what, be a 4,000-member force that could be rapidly deployed to eastern Europe in response to what they called Russia’s aggressive behavior?
JACK MATLOCK: Well, I’m not aware of what that aggressive behavior in regard to the Baltic states is. And again, I think that’s unnecessary, and it tends to make the Russians even more demanding when it comes to Ukraine.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the original understanding of NATO and Russia. Go back a ways to understand what the deal was worked out between Russia and NATO allies.
JACK MATLOCK: Well, when the Berlin Wall came down, when eastern Europe began to try to free itself from the Communist rule, the first President Bush, George Herbert Walker Bush, met with Gorbachev in Malta, and they made a very important statement. One was we were no longer enemies. The second was the Soviet Union would not intervene in eastern Europe to keep Communist rule there. And in response, the United States would not take advantage of that.
Now, this was a—you might say, a gentlemen’s agreement between Gorbachev and President Bush. It was one which was echoed by the other Western leaders—the British prime minister, the German chancellor, the French president. As we negotiated German unity, there the question was: Could a united Germany stay in NATO? At first, Gorbachev said, “No, if they unite, they have to leave NATO.” And we said, “Look, let them unite. Let them stay in NATO. But we will not extend NATO to the territory of East Germany.” Well, it turned out that legally you couldn’t do it that way, so in the final agreement it was that all of Germany would stay in NATO, but that the territory of East Germany would be special, in that there would be no foreign troops—that is, no non-German troops—and no nuclear weapons. Now, later—at that time, the Warsaw Pact was still in place. We weren’t talking about eastern Europe. But the statements made were very general. At one point, Secretary Baker told Gorbachev NATO jurisdiction would not move one inch to the east. Well, he had the GDR in mind, but that’s not what he said specifically.
So, yes, if I had been asked when I was ambassador of the United States in Moscow in 1991, “Is there an understanding that NATO won’t move to the east?” I would have said, “Yes, there is.” However, it was not a legal commitment, and one could say that once the Soviet Union collapsed, any agreement then maybe didn’t hold, except that when you think about it, if there was no reason to expand NATO when the Soviet Union existed, there was even less reason when the Soviet Union collapsed and you were talking about Russia. And the reason many of us—myself, George Kennan, many of us—argued against NATO expansion in the '90s was precisely to avoid the sort of situation we have today. It was totally predictable. If we start expanding NATO, as we get closer to the Russian border, they are going to consider this a hostile act. And at some point, they will draw a line, and they will do anything within their power to keep it from going any further. That's what we’re seeing today.
AMY GOODMAN: Jack Matlock, we’re going to ask you to stay with us. Jack Matlock served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 1987 to 1991. We’ll continue this discussion, and then we’ll talk about the beheading of Steven Sotloff, the freelance journalist, by ISIS and the U.S. response in Iraq. Stay with us.