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: 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.
When Reagan’s ambassador to the USSR is telling us that US policy is over-aggressive, unrealistic, and counterproductive, we should listen.