Is Negotiating with Putin even possible at this point?

By Kenneth Dekleva

Dr. Kenneth Dekleva is a former physician-diplomat with the U.S. State Dept. and Professor of Psychiatry and Director, Psychiatry-Medicine Integration, UT Southwestern Medical Center and senior Fellow, George HW Bush Foundation for US-China Relations.  He is the author of two novels, The Negotiator's Cross and The Last ViolinistThe views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government, State Dept., or UT Southwestern Medical Center.

By Jason Pack

Jason Pack is the author of Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder and is a Senior Analyst for Emerging Challenges at the NATO Defense College Foundation.

Is Negotiating with Putin even possible at this point?

OPINION — The war in Ukraine has now moved into its second, more protracted, and likely more violent phase. Unsurprisingly, given the extent of Russian atrocities, ongoing negotiations have borne little fruit. Many question whether existing Western strategies can impact Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision-making calculus. 

A radically different approach is needed to successfully encourage a negotiated solution and to avoid further economic contagion which a protracted war could inject into global markets. 

Negotiation psychology is critical in understanding Putin’s desires.  At present, Putin’s strategy is driven by a combination of maximalist goals and self-righteous ideology. It also appears that he is employing negotiations as a feint to regain his equilibrium. By publicly claiming to refocus his campaign on the East, withdrawing troops from Kyiv, and repositioning them to take the land corridor connecting it to Crimea, Putin may be bluffing as to his actual real objectives and future tactics. 

Negotiation strategy requires a clear sense of strategic goals and can be perceived as an art form encompassing ideas from psychology, game theory, Poker, hostage negotiations, market analysis, and in Putin’s case, judo; and lastly, the concept of shi (in Chinese philosophy, understanding the relative nature of things and having situational awareness). If the West had a better sense of what concessions are morally and strategically unacceptable, such as compromises of Ukrainian territory or sovereignty, and what stratagems we were willing to employ, like calculated conventional escalations, information warfare, or a cyber offensive, we would be more likely to incentivize a negotiated resolution.

Putin is recognized as a risk taker and disruptor.  To negotiate with Putin, boldness, calculated aggression, paradox, and surprise are required.  Given Putin’s role as global ‘hostage taker’ –clear, disciplined use of language and messaging is critical.  Name-calling, such as when President Biden called Putin a “war criminal” and re-hashing of old theories, like the canard that “Russia must come to grips with a new world order,” are counterproductive and may make further negotiations impossible. 

Interestingly, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has been cautious in this regard, even while condemning Russian war crimes and genocide against his country.  Zelensky’s adopting of a hardline stance toward the West as he demands more weapons and a no-fly zone, while avoiding offensive remarks toward Putin, and signaling his willingness to forgo potential future NATO membership and accept neutrality, highlights the importance of ‘tactical empathy,’ as pioneered by the FBI in hostage negotiations.

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In short, despite seeing Putin as a genocidal war criminal, Zelensky’s empathy does not imply agreement or assent, but rather an understanding of the opponent’s position, even where the opponent has committed horrible, unpardonable acts.

Brinksmanship always plays a role in high-stakes negotiations.  Putin has expertly used such tactics, both with his nuclear threats, and in relying upon his long-time Press Spokesman Dmitry Peskov (a former KGB/SVR officer) to convey ambiguity involving said threats.  But the West has many more cyber, financial, and conventional military cards it could play. Maybe the time has come to deploy them.

Many have skin in the game.  Zelensky is risking his life. Western leaders are fighting to save democracy and avert nuclear holocaust. Putin is at risk of losing his power, or worse, if he ‘fails.’ As a result, there is a need by the West and other parties to offer off-ramps.  There is no complete victory possible here by any side.  The U.S. ‘won’ the Cold War, but it was clearly a Pyrrhic victory. It left Russia with the bitterness and shame that led to the current war.

To avoid future struggle (as in the case of judo) the West must allow Putin to ‘tap out,’ rather than keeping him in a chokehold till he loses consciousness.

What now?  A best-case scenario involves the role of an outside mediator, trusted by Putin, Zelensky, Biden, Xi, and America’s NATO allies.  A similar approach was utilized successfully in ending the Kosovo conflict in 1999, with former Finnish President Martti Ahtissari playing a key role.  While the run-up to the war has seen France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett play unsuccessful roles, the key to a genuine resolution is more likely to emerge from a senior-level third-party negotiator from China.

As representatives of China’s President Xi Jinping, their success, would be his success. But at present, China is benefiting from the conflict protracting.  A successful Western negotiation strategy must help China to see that if they can mediate a conflict between the two superpower blocs of a prior world order, then China is implicitly a guarantor of a new form of ‘multipolar’ world order — a term used not only in official Chinese parlance, but recently even referenced in the US Intelligence Community’s 2022 annual threat report.  American leaders have adopted this nuanced term to let the Chinese know that the U.S. does not oppose their vision for the world.

The war’s second phase will likely involve not only further military strategy – highlighted by the appointment of Russia’s General Aleksandr Dvornikov, known as “The Butcher of Aleppo,” to a command role – but also political change like Marie Le Pen’s potential election victory in France, and higher-order economic impacts, such as prolonged sanctions, currency volatility, elevated gas prices, inflation, supply chain disruptions, and possible Russian economic default. 

If the West sticks to a purely reactive approach to negotiations, lacking an overarching strategy, it risks spreading profound economic contagion to global markets.  An unmediated, unresolved Ukraine conflict creates a negative feedback loop of heightened coordination challenges among the main players and decentralized drivers of volatility. Such a death spiral makes exiting the disorder progressively harder.  Faced with this profound threat, Western leaders may need to consider the least-worst option – a mediated solution which denies Putin his war aims, while incentivizing him and Xi to nonetheless prefer resolution to continued conflict. Only through astute leadership analysis and negotiation psychology can our leaders steer the ship of state to calmer waters.

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