Ex-Diplomats Gauge Russia-U.S. Relations

This week, 10 former ambassadors from Russia and the United States gathered in Washington at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Robert Siegel talks with two former diplomats involved in the Cold War: Jack Matlock was a U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era; Yuly Vorontsev was Russia's ambassador to the United States in the 1990s.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Ten former ambassadors gathered this week in Washington at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - five former U.S. ambassadors to Moscow and five former Russian ambassadors to Washington. The occasion? This year, marks the 200th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries and they issued a joint statement calling for greater cooperation.

Two of those retired diplomats sat down to speak with us. Jack Matlock was ambassador to what was then the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era. Yuli Vorontsov was Russia's ambassador to the United States in the 1990s.

I asked each former envoy, how he would sum up in this post, post-cold war era his country's main interest in dealing with the other. Jack Matlock said, controlling nuclear weapons and fighting terrorism.

Mr. JACK MATLOCK (Former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union): Both of these are the primary threats to American security, the primary threats to Russian security, and our interests I think totally converge.

SIEGEL: Yuli Vorontsov, do you agree that, well, as far as Russia is concerned, are those your main interests and dealings with the United States in terms of nuclear weapons?

Mr. YULI VORONTSOV (Former Russian Ambassador to the United States): Absolutely. I agree with Jack. And that is foremost I would say the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, since we are now on the verge of real proliferation. After Pakistan, and after India, and after maybe Iran, the weapons will go on absolutely all over the world. It's cheap nowadays. So it's very important to stop that process and we are allies now on this matter.

SIEGEL: All of the retired ambassadors are allies. Are the current governments in Washington and Moscow allied, say, in dealing with Iranian - the Iranian nuclear program and what we should do about it?

Mr. VORONTSOV: Well, it's a very complicated problem for the United States and for Russia. We're neighbors, as a matter of fact, to Iran - pretty close neighbors, and has long history of relationship between Russia and Iran. And that's why sometimes it's easier for the Americans to say let's have some kind of new resolutions. Let's pressure Iran and so on. But we are neighbors. For us, it's sometimes difficult to have that frontal approach to this problem. But, basically, we are on the same side with the United States.

SIEGEL: Jack Matlock, do you see that same (unintelligible).

Mr. MATLOCK: Actually, it's inevitable we're going to disagree on the tactics used. And I - honestly, I must say that I think that many Americans have trouble really putting themselves in the Russian position on a number of these issues. And both governments have tended to be distracted by issues that, though, perhaps important in certain contexts, are nowhere nearly as important as the central issues. And I think that's our problem today. We're arguing about all sorts of things that are not nearly as important as the central fact that we have a joined interest in dealing with terrorism, nuclear weapons, proliferation and the horrible prospect that terrorists can get access to nuclear weapons.

SIEGEL: I'm just curious. Each of you ran his country's most important embassy - one in Washington, one in Moscow. Looking back on your time, you were responsible for informing your own government of what was going on in that country, is there anything that you regret looking back that you didn't quite get. If you'd been able to articulate something that was going on in the country where you were serving and get that through to your home government, you would feel more satisfied today? Anything like that. Jack Matlock?

Mr. MATLOCK: Not really. Because, you know, the big dispute in Washington in my day was whether Gorbachev was for real, as to whether his reforms were going to make a difference. The leading people in our intelligence establishment thought that he was certainly a more effective leader who had the same goals.

Increasingly, as we were watching the country, we were convinced in the embassy that he was different and that he was pushing the country in a radically different direction, it kept changing. And conveying that, I think, we thought was one of our principal goals, along with projecting to the Soviet people the feeling that the United States is not a threat. We need to lower arms. We need to do the things that both of our presidents were trying to do.

SIEGEL: Could you see how weak the bonds holding the old republics of the Soviet Union to Russia were at that time?

Mr. MATLOCK: Yes, we did. And I sent my first message saying that we should make contingency plans for the possible breakup of the Soviet Union in June 1990, 18 months before it happened. And the reason I did, I saw Russian sentiment moving in a direction that they wanted to get rid of the other republics because they were not going along with the reforms that Russia wanted, and that was a key thing. And that's another thing people often forget, and the bottom line, it was Russia that finished off the Soviet Union. It certainly was not American pressure, but it was really Russia that put that final nail on the coffin. I don't know whether Yuli would agree, but…

Mr. VORONTSOV: Yeah. Well, definitely, I would agree. But I always wondered when here in the United States they said the American victory over Russia. That that's the United States' doing and that kind of things, the disintegration of the (unintelligible).

SIEGEL: The triumph of the Cold War - the triumph in the Cold War was the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Mr. VORONTSOV: Yes. I mean, not at all. Not at all. We did it ourselves to ourselves, as a matter of fact, voluntarily.

SIEGEL: In your stint here as ambassador in Washington, are there things which, in hindsight, you wish you had gotten better for your cables back to Moscow? Any regret to that?

Mr. VORONTSOV: Since your country was not disintegrating, I had an easier job. But you had your problems here. In the election campaign sometimes, strange election campaigns. And - well, previously, when I was the Minister Counselor in the Soviet time, the Nixon affair and all of that happened with Nixon was difficult for Moscow to understand. And I had to - in my cables, unless there was a way at that time. I'm ambassador and I was charge d'affaires and that's why it was on my shoulders to explain the situation in Washington and disintegration of Nixon. So sometimes it takes a lot to convince your own capital that things are just like this seem.

SIEGEL: Were you here for the Clinton impeachment as well and - or did you come right after that in the '90s?

Mr. VORONTSOV: No. No. I…

SIEGEL: You were…

Mr. VORONTSOV: …I was here, and I was here during Vietnam War and that kind of things. And, my goodness, that was quite an explanation I have to make to Moscow - what's going on.

SIEGEL: Well, former Russian ambassador to the United States Yuli Vorontsov and former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, as it was, Jack Matlock.

Thank you both very much for talking with us.

Mr. VORONTSOV: Thank you.

Mr. MATLOCK: Thank you.

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