Jack Matlock: Current tension in U.S.-Russia relations is result of political mistakes on both sides
(Interfax – November 7, 2017)
Famous diplomat and political analyst, last U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock has given an interview to Interfax in which he speaks about the first year of U.S. President Donald Trump in power and relations between Russia and the United States.
Question: Mr. Ambassador, you have been following Russia-U.S. relations for almost 60 years and have written several books on this subject. Could one speak about a new Col War?
Answer: Statements by both Russian and U.S. information media, as well as those by representatives of our governments resemble the attitudes and rhetoric which was frequent during the Cold War.
Q.: Just resemble? And what is it in deed?
A.: The Cold War was caused by genuine and basic ideological differences which brought on a futile and expensive arms race. The current tension is the result of political mistakes on both sides. The current situation does not serve the genuine interests of the people in either country. In fact, the most basic Russian and American interests are compatible and should be the basis of cooperation rather than confrontation.
Q.: And what are the spheres of these genuine interests?
A.: First of all, the prevention of the use of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Then there is the threat of environmental degradation and terrorism, of failed states and the spread of disease. The future will not be determined by where political boundaries are drawn or by which countries influence others. We must all stop acting like the countries of Europe did before the war that began in 1914.
Q.: You have already mentioned that the current state of affairs is the result of mistakes on both sides. Let’s start with American ones.
A.: The U.S. showed insufficient sensitivity to Russian attitudes in several actions, most of which were not in fact directed against Russian interests but were interpreted by Russia as hostile or demeaning. This prompted overreaction on the Russian part and actions that were in fact damaging to Russia’s true interests.
Q.: And an opinion is coming to shape in Russia that Moscow and Washington support normal relations for no more than two years, and then a new presidential cycle begins in the U.S., and we again turn into adversaries.
A.: That is pretty ridiculous. Most Americans pay little if any attention to relations with Russia. The current “investigations” are quite exceptional. The Democratic Party seems unable to face the fact that they lost the election – I regret that they lost – and are looking for scapegoats.
Our military-industrial complex, powerful in both parties, wants an excuse for high defense budgets. They certainly don’t want war, but they want the profits from the defense industry. Russian reactions have strengthened our military-industrial complex and the result has been damaging to both countries. We are wasting money that is needed for other things and Russia is being rapidly surpassed in power not only by China but even by India.
If we keep up the current competition, the U.S. can take care of itself even as its relative power declines, but Russia will be faced with choosing whether it wishes to be a junior partner with the U.S. and EU, or else a junior partner and tool of China.
Q.: And where in your opinion was Russia wrong?
A.: The treatment of Ukraine has been very damaging to Russian interests. No other country is as important to Russia’s security and future as is Ukraine. Nevertheless, Russian actions have intensified anti-Russian feelings in Ukraine and the seizure of Crimea (even with a referendum) has created an irredentist claim that can persist for generations if not corrected. The main victims of the fighting in the Donbas are Russians.
Q.: Was the introduction of economic sanctions against Russia legitimate?
A.: So far as economic sanctions are concerned, the Russian annexation of Crimea and support for violent separatism in Ukraine were in violation of international law and previous agreements with the United States including especially the Budapest Memorandum which provided that Ukraine would transfer its nuclear weapons to Russia while Russia re-affirmed its respect for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
The United States and other countries could not recognize the legality of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Sanctions were declared rather than more forceful measures. I personally would have recommended a different reaction, but as the fighting in the Donbas continued with Russian support for the rebels it was impossible politically in either the U.S. or the European Union to lift them.
Q.: Congress and the special counsel are now probing the ‘Russian trace’ in the U.S. presidential election. What is your attitude to this story? And in general, could political contacts with representatives of a foreign embassy be a subject to criminal investigations?
A.: Speaking to a foreign diplomat does not break any law and I do not expect anyone to be indicted for that. Revealing classified information to an unauthorized person is an infraction of the law whether the person receiving the information is a diplomat or anyone else. However, there is no evidence so far that there was any unauthorized disclosure of classified information.
I have confidence in the integrity of our courts and doubt that anyone will be charged with a crime for discussing political issues with foreign diplomats. It is possible, however, that some of the people involved broke other laws such as not registering as a foreign agent after receiving money to represent a foreign government.
Q.: Do you personally believe that Russia tried to influence voters in Trump’s favor and succeeded in it? Is such a thing possible?
A.: I think Russian sources with government connections did try to participate in the campaigns, often with assumed names. I don’t think it had any significant effect on the final vote, but the fallout in the U.S. makes it politically difficult (maybe impossible) for President Trump to take steps to improve relations.
There is widespread feeling that Russia has blackmailed him. I believe there is no real basis for this, but it is a political fact. That weakens his ability to settle current disputes, particularly in the absence of any Russian effort to end its proxy war with Ukraine.
Q.: One year ago Donald Trump was elected U.S. president. Was the choice of your country to elect as president a non-systemic person without his own team justified?
A.: I did not vote for Trump, but he won the votes in the Electoral College in accord with U.S. constitutional procedure. We do not live in a “directed democracy” with a “vertical of power.” However, our system severely limits what a president can do. Both the Congress (when it wishes) and the courts (when they judge an action unconstitutional) limit a president’s power.
One final thought: we would have had better prospects for convincing a President Hillary Clinton to improve relations with Russia (despite what she had said earlier) than we have now to enable President Trump to do so. The idea that many Russians had that Trump would be a better candidate not only misunderstood the defects in Trump’s character but also showed a profound misunderstanding of the American political process.
Q.: May be, a personal meeting between President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump could ease the situation in bilateral relations?
A.: Given the political atmosphere in Washington today, it is hard to believe that an immediate personal meeting would be helpful. To be fruitful, these must be well prepared. Don’t forget that, following the first meeting of Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson and Minister [Sergei] Lavrov, the secretary of state stated that relations between the U.S. and Russia were bad and that this is ‘unacceptable’ for the two principal nuclear powers.
I am sure that both he and President Trump wish to improve the relationship. It would help, of course, if the Russian media would tone down their shrill anti-American stance.
I do think that it would be helpful if both presidents were to state publically that they see no valid reason for the U.S. and Russia to consider the other an enemy and see compelling reasons for the two countries to cooperate to serve common interests.
Now that Russia and the U.S. seem to be cooperating more in Syria, it is time for Russia to end the fighting in the Donbas. That would greatly facilitate a rapid improvement in relations.
Q.: There are new U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman in Moscow and new Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov in Washington. What could be their role in improving bilateral relations?
A.: Let me say first of all that our previous ambassadors were fine diplomats who were in no way responsible for the deterioration in relations. Our governments and some elements of our information media bear the responsibility for that. Both of the new ambassadors are experienced statesmen. I hope that the governments of both countries will make full use of them to end the confrontation which is damaging to both countries and dangerous for the entire world.