What to Do about Russia

What to do about Russia
Introduction of Ambassador Jack Matlock to a salon of the Committee for the Republic

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
The National Press Club, Washington, DC February 11 2015

We are here to consider some very consequential and timely questions.  Is Russia on the prowl or in a corner?  Where does Russia fit in the European state system?  What kind of Ukraine would serve the interests of peace and stability in Europe and might Russia be persuaded to cooperate in creating such a Ukraine?  What is the risk of war with Russia?  What would be the consequences of such a war?  Might it be nuclear?

It makes a very big difference whether Russia is on the rise, on a roll, and on the make or in decline, fearful, and on the defensive.  Which is it?  Compromising with a confidently ambitious Russia might stimulate it to seek further concessions.  Compromising with a Russia desperate to fend off perceived threats to its vital interests might help allay its anxieties and enable cooperation with it.

The nature of the Russian role in the European state system is hugely important.  In 1815, reintegrating a humiliated France into Europe on terms that respected its interests ushered in a long period of peace.  In 1919, writing a humiliated Germany out of any role in managing European affairs didn’t work out so well.  What relationship do we and our European allies see Russia having with the rest of Europe? What relationship does Russia seek?

Which is more likely to enhance European and Russian security, a Ukraine that is neutral between NATO and Russia or one that is aligned with one or the other of them?  Is it better for the EU or Russia to leave this question open or to resolve it once and for all, one way or the other?  If a viable and prosperous Ukrainian state aligned with neither Russia nor the EU and NATO is in the best interest of all (including the Ukrainian people), how can we create such a Ukraine?  Is the Austrian State Treaty of 1956 a relevant precedent?

Hotheads in Washington and Moscow seem to be pushing the US and Russia toward a new Cold War.  Is the United States prepared to fight a hot war with Russia?  Is Russia prepared to fight the United States?  Given the danger that war between nuclear powers entails, we were careful to avoid armed conflict with each other during the Cold War.  Is such conflict somehow less dangerous now?

These are tough questions.  There is no one better qualified to lead us in a discussion of them than Ambassador Jack Matlock.  Jack is one of the great men of US-Russian relations and the dean of America’s Russia-watchers.  He is a statesman, which means he is a problem solver.  He is a professional diplomat, which means he is a specialist in solving problems through measures short of war.  He is a realist, which means that he has always seen the difference between the glories of Russian literature and the beguiling disinformation of the Kremlin.

Jack Matlock spent thirty-five years in the foreign service of our country, culminating in tours of duty as Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to both Prague and Moscow.  In both posts, he was famously open to a wide range of political contacts.  He knew that one should always be in with the outs.  This served the United States well when first the Soviet empire and then the Soviet Union itself collapsed.

Jack provided the USSR with an elegant but critical eulogy in “Autopsy on an Empire,” his magisterial book on its collapse.  In “Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended” he gave us a gripping eyewitness account of the transformation of US-Russian relations.  In “Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray – and How to Return to Reality,” he offered a penetrating analysis of how we squandered the opportunities the end of the Cold War brought and how we might yet seize them.

William Tecumseh Sherman famously said that: “the purpose of war is a better peace.”  Tonight we call on Ambassador Matlock to help us consider how to achieve a better peace rather than a cold or hot war with Russia.