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Ex-U.S. Ambassador to USSR: Ukraine Crisis Stems Directly from Post-Cold War Push to Expand NATO

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U.S. officials are accusing Russia of sending more forces to the Ukrainian border just days after Moscow announced it was pulling some troops back. This comes as Ukrainian authorities and Russian-backed separatists are both accusing the other side of violating a ceasefire in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. For more on the history behind the present crisis in Ukraine, we speak with one of the last U.S. ambassadors to the Soviet Union prior to the collapse of the USSR, Ambassador Jack Matlock, who says the U.S.-led expansion of NATO following the end of the Cold War helped lay the groundwork for the current standoff over Ukraine. He argues continued escalation could stoke another nuclear arms race, and lays out some of the parallels with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Tension over Ukraine remains high between Russia, the U.S. and NATO. U.S. officials are accusing Russia of sending more troops to the Ukrainian border, just days after Moscow claimed it’s pulling some troops back. Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities and Russian-backed separatists are both accusing the other side of violating a ceasefire in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine.

We begin today’s show looking at the roots of the crisis with a former American diplomat who served as the last [sic] U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union prior to the collapse of the USSR. Ambassador Jack Matlock held the post from 1987 to 1991. He was first stationed in Moscow in the early 1960s and was there during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Matlock has written extensively about U.S.-Russian relations. His books include Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended and Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray. His latest article is headlined “I was there: NATO and the origins of the Ukraine crisis.”

In the article, Ambassador Matlock writes about testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a quarter of a century ago and about the possible expansion of NATO. He told the Senate, quote, “I consider the administration’s recommendation to take new members into NATO at this time misguided. If it should be approved by the United States Senate, it may well go down in history as the most profound strategic blunder made since the end of the Cold War. Far from improving the security of the United States, its Allies, and the nations that wish to enter the Alliance, it could well encourage a chain of events that could produce the most serious security threat to this nation since the Soviet Union collapsed.” Ambassador Matlock’s words. And Ambassador Jack Matlock joins us now.

Ambassador, that was you speaking a quarter of a century ago. Why is this so important and relevant today?

JACK MATLOCK: Well, thanks for the question. And first of all, I should make one correction: I was not the last ambassador to the Soviet Union; Robert Strauss was. Now, he lasted only about three months of the last in the Soviet Union, and some people have forgotten that, but I should correct that, to start with.

But the reason that I testified, along with a number of other people — many of them had been influential in bringing the Cold War to the end. The reason I testified against expanding NATO expansion — against expanding NATO, in the beginning, in the late ’90s, was because we had — at the end of the Cold War, we had removed the Iron Curtain. We had created what we had aimed for: a Europe whole and free. And it was obvious, if you start piecemeal expanding NATO, you are going to — without including Russia — you are going to once again precipitate a buildup of arms and a competition, an armed competition, then. But there was no reason to do it at that time. Russia was not threatening any East European country. Actually, the Soviet Union in its last years was not, because Gorbachev had accepted the democratization of the East European countries. And actually, one of the last acts of the Soviet parliament was to recognize the freedom and independence of the three Baltic countries, so that we had a Europe whole and free. The task was to build a security architecture that would include them all. And the reason I testified against it was that I saw that a process that we started then, if continued, and if continued up to the borders of the Soviet Union — I mean, to the borders of Russia and included former parts of the Soviet Union that were recognized as part of the Soviet Union at that time, such as, most importantly, Ukraine and Georgia, that this would bring about a confrontation.

And I would say my experience and the experience of others during the Cuban Missile Crisis brought home to us the dangers of a military confrontation between countries that have nuclear weapons. At the time, those of us involved — I was in Moscow at the American Embassy — that was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, did not understand how close we came to a nuclear exchange. We learned that only later. But it would have been a disaster for both sides. And so, I had hoped, and I advised, that we not start this process of expanding NATO for that reason.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ambassador Matlock, could you explain what at the time, following the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union — what was the justification at all for the continuation of NATO, especially following the end of the Warsaw Pact, the dissolution of that defense agreement?

JACK MATLOCK: Well, to put it bluntly, there were three purposes of NATO to begin with. As the first secretary general, British Lord Ismay, stated, NATO was to keep the Russians out, to keep the Germans down, to keep the Americans in. So, when it was no longer necessary to keep the Russians out, many of us thought that it was important to keep the German military integrated, and so that in the future you wouldn’t risk some breakout, as had happened earlier. And we thought it important to keep the United States as a part of European security to ensure the stability. So, I certainly approved at the time the continuation of the NATO that existed at the end of the Cold War; however, I thought it should be integrated into an overall European security organization that included Russia, the East Europeans and the other states that had been in the Soviet Union. And we actually had plans for that at the time through a proposal called the Partnership for Peace, which could include them all. And we also had an organization, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which included all the European countries, and it could have been beefed up in many respects. And in that case, we could have kept the old NATO but built other security arrangements.

You know, I thought that when we ended the Cold War, one of the most profound, I would say, principles was one that President Gorbachev, then the president of the Soviet Union, expounded. He said, you know, security must be security for all. And that was precisely how he justified reduction in the Soviet military. And even before the Soviet Union broke up, we were living in peace, and we had a united Europe. Many people seem to feel that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the end of the Cold War. That’s wrong. It had ended two years before that. And the breakup of the Soviet Union did not occur because of Western pressure; it occurred because of internal pressures within the Soviet Union. And it was something that President Bush did not wish. As a matter of fact, one of his last speeches, when there was a Soviet Union, was in Kyiv, when he advised Ukrainians to join Gorbachev’s voluntary federation, that he was proposing, and actually warned against suicidal nationalism. Those words, you know, are not remembered much now. People seem to think that Ukraine is free because of the end of the Cold War and the pressure of the West as one of the fruits of victory in the Cold War. This is simply incorrect. It turns history upside down.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ambassador Matlock, could you elaborate on some of the initial agreements that were reached between NATO and Russia? In the same year in which you testified against NATO expansion to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in 1997, the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed, in which NATO and Russia — which said explicitly NATO and Russia do not consider each other adversaries. Was that agreement significant? And explain why so many Eastern European states, including former Soviet republics, have wanted over the decades to join NATO.

JACK MATLOCK: I think that the — it is true that those, the countries, beginning with Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, they wanted to join NATO because they feared that there would be another attempt to — you might say, to bring pressure to bear on them or to occupy them. There’s no question that some of them wanted that, but the — seems to me what was important is we should have tried to convince them that that was not likely and that if there was to be a division of Europe again, arming part of it would bring about a rearmament of the other. That is just, I think, almost common sense. But, however, the — yes, the incentive came from there, and, I must say, domestically, the pressure came domestically, because there were many voters in key states, often, you know, children of immigrants from Eastern Europe, who were pressing for this. But at the time, we thought that that was unnecessary.

I would add, however, that the problems with Russia are not just NATO expansion. There were also a process that began with the second Bush administration of withdrawing from all of the arms control — almost all of the arms control agreements that we had concluded with the Soviet Union, the very agreements that had brought the first Cold War to an end. There was a step-by-step withdrawal of those. And there was a decided direct intrusion into the domestic politics of these newly independent countries, attempts to — directly to change the government. This gets, I would say, very complicated in a way, for one who hasn’t been able to follow it step by step. But, you know, in effect, what the United States did after the end of the Cold War was they reversed the diplomacy that we had used to end the Cold War, and started sort of doing anything, everything the opposite way. We started, in effect, trying to control other countries, to bring them into what we called the “new world order,” but it was not very orderly. And we also sort of asserted the right to use military whenever we wished. We bombed Serbia in the ’90s without the approval of the U.N. Later, we invaded Iraq, citing false evidence and without any U.N. approval and against the advice not only of Russia but of Germany and France, our allies. So, the United States — I could name a number of others — itself was not careful in abiding by the international laws that we had supported. So —

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Matlock, I wanted to go back in time. It’s very interesting, as you take us forward. But 30 years before you testified, you write in your recent piece about how, quote, “in my lifetime, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis — something I remember vividly since I was at the American Embassy in Moscow and translated some of Khrushchev’s messages to Kennedy.” You continue, quote, “At the end of the week of messages back and forth — I translated Khrushchev’s longest — it was agreed that Khrushchev would remove the nuclear missiles from Cuba. What was not announced was that Kennedy also agreed that he would remove the U.S. missiles from Turkey but that this commitment must not be made public,” unquote. This is President Kennedy’s address November 2nd, 1962, announcing the dismantling of Soviet missile bases in Cuba.

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: My fellow citizens, I want to take this opportunity to report on the conclusions which this government has reached on the basis of yesterday’s aerial photographs, which will be made available tomorrow, as well as other indications, namely that the Soviet missile bases in Cuba are being dismantled. Their missiles and related equipment are being crated, and the fixed installations at these sites are being destroyed.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s President John F. Kennedy in 1962. How relevant that is today. I’m looking at the front page of The New York Times, and one of the headlines is “Ukraine? Putin’s Bigger Fear May Lie in Poland,” with a sub-headline, “New U.S. Military Base Is a Mere 100 Miles From Russia.” That’s about how far Cuba is from the coast of Florida, right? About 90 miles. If you could address this? And I also just want to comment. I mean, you are 93 years old. Your experience through — you’re 92. Your experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis, being the ambassador to the Soviet Union under Reagan and George H.W. Bush, we would think you would be plastering the airwaves, and everyone would be inviting you on. But I dare say I wonder if it’s your antiwar point of view, even with this wealth of experience, they are simply not inviting you. But I want to ask that question about the comparison of the weapons that are being poured in right now, encircling Russia, and this point about Poland, with what happened with Cuba and why the U.S. felt it was critical for those missiles of Russia to be removed, even though Cuba was an independent nation, could do what it wanted.

JACK MATLOCK: Well, obviously, we saw it as a threat to put nuclear weapons close to the United States. At the time, we didn’t admit publicly that we had placed nuclear weapons that could reach the Soviet Union. And that’s one of the reasons Kennedy kept it secret that he had agreed to remove the weapons in Turkey. Yes, and at the time, most of us who were involved were not only pleased at the outcome; we Americans felt that, well, it really made no difference how we took them out, it was necessary to remove them.

But we learned later, with conferences we had with people involved on their side, that, actually, if we had bombed the missile sites in Cuba, as the joint chiefs had advised Kennedy, but he refused, those officers in charge could have launched the missiles if they were under attack. So we could have lost Miami and maybe other cities right at the start. And if that had happened, how would the U.S. react? How could we politically do anything except strike the Soviet Union in some fashion? And when that sort of thing starts, there was no theoretical way — we ran a number of war games — that you could be sure that this process would stop. Now, we also learned later that when a U.S. destroyer was keeping a submarine, a Soviet submarine, submerged, that the commander of the submarine actually at one point ordered an attack on the destroyer with a nuclear torpedo. He was overruled by a superior officer. We came very close, though we did not know it at the time, to a nuclear exchange during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

That’s one of the reasons now — now I’m not saying that we have a precisely comparable situation. You know, moving the 82nd Airborne to Poland is not like moving nuclear weapons. I think it is totally unnecessary, and I don’t know how we’re going to use them. But what the Russians have objected to was deployment of anti-ballistic missiles sites. And they say that — in Eastern Europe, they say that, although these are anti-ballistic missiles, the same sites can be used actually for short- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles, just by a change of the software. Now, again, I am not technically competent, but I think there is an issue here that we have refused to address, and that is, obviously, since we pulled out of the ABM Treaty and a number of other arms control treaties that had brought the end of the Cold War, I think that it is maybe understandable that the Russians would have fears here. I would also add that it’s not just a matter that one side or the other might suddenly launch a nuclear attack. I don’t see that happening. But the thing is, as the Cuban Missile Crisis explained to us, accidents can happen when you put yourself in this position. And when they happen, how do you keep it from escalating?

A second thing is that maybe the greatest threat that nuclear weapons possess today is that though it may be irrational for any government actually to use them because it could bring about a suicidal effect, if they get into the hands of terrorists, of nonstate actors, they can be used with perhaps impunity. And at the end of the Cold War, we had cooperative agreements with the Russians to secure their nuclear weapons, in what we call the Nunn — Sam Nunn and other senators sponsored this. These have all broken down now.

And what worries me is there could be a creeping up of another nuclear arms race, because if the Russian government, if President Putin feels he is being pressed and his security threatened — rightly or wrongly, because it’s perceptions that count — then what’s to keep him, since we have walked out of most of the other agreements, from putting, say, intermediate-range missiles in Kaliningrad or bringing them close to the border? Then what are we going to do? So, to get into another insane arms race, when we have so many other common problems we need to deal with, I think, is extraordinarily unwise.

AMY GOODMAN: Jack Matlock, we want to thank you so much for being with us, served as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991 under Reagan and George H.W. Bush. His latest piece, that we’ll link to, “I was there: NATO and the origins of the Ukraine crisis.” His books include Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended and Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray.

Next up, we speak to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Atlantic reporter Ed Yong about the millions of people stuck in pandemic limbo. What does society owe immunocompromised people? Stay with us.

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