“The West's top priority should be to reestablish civil relations with Russia - and ease tensions to minimize the risk of spiraling confrontation,” Matlock said.
On Thursday, following all-night talks in Minsk, Belarus brokered by German president Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko agreed to a cease-fire starting at midnight Sunday, and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front lines within two weeks.
However, a previous cease-fire signed last September did not last, and Poroshenko said Friday that “we are still a very long way from peace.”
On Monday, President Obama refused to rule out the possibility that the U.S. would supply Ukraine with arms to use against pro-Russian separatists if diplomatic efforts failed.
But during a lecture he gave at the National Press Club on Wednesday entitled “The Mistakes We Made with Russia - And How to Stop Making Them", Matlock said that providing weapons to Ukraine would just “enable Putin” and “end up killing more Ukrainians.”
“Merkel and Hollande made it very clear that weapons should not be supplied to Ukraine. I think we should listen to them. It’s their continent. Let them have the lead,” the former ambassador said.
“The fact is, Ukraine cannot have a united and successful society unless it has a reasonable relationship with Russia,” he explained.
“People say, oh he’s an apologist for Putin. I’m not an apologist for Putin. I don’t like what he’s doing. Russians shouldn’t like it either. It’s bad for Russia.” But it is not in America’s best interest to intervene and risk another nuclear arms race, added Matlock, author of Reagan & Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended.
“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.
“Now let’s face it, much as I respect and love the people in Ukraine, and I do know them - I was probably the only American ambassador to the Soviet Union who could and did make speeches in Ukrainian when I went to Kiev, as well as in Russia when I was in Moscow. I do know that country. I know its literature and its culture. My heart goes out to the people who are going through hell in eastern Ukraine this winter," Matlock said.
“But I’ll tell you, if the United States gets further involved, then what is in the minds of the Russians [regarding] territory which historically has been part of their country? Given the present atmosphere, I don’t see how we are going to prevent another nuclear arms race. And that’s what scares me.”
Matlock said President Obama should not engage in a “public duel” with the Russian president, whom he mentioned by name in his most recent State of the Union address.
“Some suggested that Mr. Putin’s aggression was a masterful display of strategy and strength. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters,” Obama said.
“It seems to me that if you really want to settle a situation, you don’t set up an effective public duel between your president and another person, particularly when the other president has most of the marbles in the sensitive issue,” Matlock pointed out.
“Now, I’m one who actually thought the president did fine in the State of the Union address as long as he was dealing with domestic issues… But his comments about President Putin, it seems to me, are totally out of place and I know they have a negative effect.”
In contrast, he said, President Reagan never publicly denigrated his Soviet adversaries, and always treated them respectfully in his numerous diplomatic attempts to find common ground in ending the nuclear arms race.
“One thing he [Reagan] never did – he called the [Soviet] system an ‘evil empire’ once, and people would never let him forget it; he also later said it wasn’t any more – but he never denigrated any Soviet leader by name. He would begin every conversation, whether it was [with] a foreign minister or the president: ‘We hold the peace of the world in our hands. We must cooperate.’
“In other words, he met them as human beings. Even though he disliked the system for very good reasons, he dealt with them with respect.
“What do we see now?... Obviously we’re in an entirely different mode with Russia. And I would say it’s not just the president. In fact, the worst offender by far is the U.S. Congress.”
With the current “poisonous relationship” between President Obama and President Putin, it will take time to restore trust between the two nations, Matlock pointed out.
“How do we get out of this mess? We’re not going to get out of it quickly,” he said. “For the time being, we need to restore the trust we had. It took three years, with [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev on one side and Reagan on the other. We’re starting now with a very poisonous relationship between our presidents. We can’t undo the hostility in just a few weeks or months.
“The thing we can do is ease it with a lot more back channel diplomacy, and a lot less public declarations and debate over what’s going on by State Department spokesmen and our ambassador to the U.N. constantly answering Russian propaganda. Let the media take care of that.”
Matlock added that he was confronted with a similar situation while he was ambassador to the Soviet Union.
“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,” he said.