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Veteran US Diplomat: Moscow Unlikely to Annex Eastern Ukraine

A red flag attached to a pro-Russian separatist tank is seen near a checkpoint of the Ukrainian national guard near the town of Slovyanoserbsk, Luhansk region, Sept.10, 2014.

A cease-fire is holding in Ukraine’s eastern region.

The cease-fire halts five months of fighting between Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russian separatists, who Western nations say are directly helped by Russia, a charge denied by Moscow. Senior Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have recently stated there is no military intervention from Russia.

But the last U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union (1987-91), Jack Matlock, disagreed.

“Obviously they are intervening," he said. "I think they would say, 'look, you guys intervene wherever you want to. You even invade, like the United States invaded Iraq, which had not attacked it, and we are essentially using the same methods.'”

Will Putin annex eastern Ukraine?

Some experts have indicated that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants more than just to gain influence in that region -- that he eventually wants to annex eastern Ukraine, as he did Crimea. But Matlock said that would not be to Russia’s advantage.

“I don’t think there is an intent to add it into Russia. It would be a totally irrational intent," he said. "This is an economically-depressed area. It’s going to be a basket case for anybody who tries to help.”

Matlock said on many levels, however -- including politically, economically and emotionally -- eastern Ukraine is very important to Moscow.

“It is an area that for centuries was part of Russia, and where the ethnicity, the connections, people have close relatives on both sides of the border,” he said. "They want to live in one country and you can’t erase the history and these human and historical and economic ties. So this area is infinitely more important to Russia than it is to any of the NATO countries.”

Some NATO members fear aggressive Russia

Several NATO members, such as the three Baltic States, have expressed fear that Russia might move aggressively against them, but Matlock dismissed that notion.

“They are members of NATO, they would be protected if they were attacked," he said. "They are not going to be attacked and so it seems to me that nervousness is misplaced.”

Ukraine faces tough domestic problems

Matlock said in addition to major problems caused by the pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow, the Ukrainian government faces important domestic issues, as well.

“The basic problems in Ukraine are internal because the country was never able to establish a real sense of what it meant to be Ukrainian. And each government they had, whether it came predominantly from the west or from the east, tried to dominate the other,” he said.

Matlock said it is essential for all factions in Ukraine to work together in a unified way to tackle the country’s problems, starting with the economy.

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    Andre de Nesnera

    Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.