Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2007 brought his Labrador to a negotiation at his Black Sea residence with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had a well-known deathly fear of dogs since childhood. In a photo taken at the time, Putin is seen smirking while Merkel looks apprehensive, at best. Putin said he didn’t know Merkel was afraid of dogs. Right!
Merkel later said of Putin “I understand why he has to do this — to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”
Of course, Russia does have a large military force and has now invaded Ukraine in the first significant ground war in Europe since World War II. In the run up to the invasion, the U.S. and the world furiously negotiated to try to prevent this.
Given that Russia basically ignored the negotiation track – and it miserably failed – how can we effectively engage with Putin and Putin-like negotiators now and in the future?
1. Negotiators like Putin respect raw power – and that’s about it.
The most powerful element in most negotiations revolves around leverage – what will occur to you and your counterpart if you don’t reach agreement (your Plan Bs as Plan A would be an agreement). The better your Plan B or walk away, the stronger your leverage. The worse your Plan B or walk away, the weaker your leverage.
Since the parties in the Ukraine negotiations obviously failed to reach a diplomatic solution/Plan A, each ended up going with their respective Plan Bs – the current war.
So what did Putin believe was his strong leverage, or not-so-bad Plan B during the run up to war? We don’t know for sure, but we can take an educated guess that it included:
- a relatively quick Russian military victory without much loss of Russian lives and insufficient and untimely Western lethal military aide to Ukraine (if any);
- weak economic sanctions by a divided West that Russia could easily withstand in the long run, likely similar to what the West imposed in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea; and
- a pliant vassal state in Ukraine that will never join NATO nor illustrate to the Russian people a viable democratic alternative to Putin’s autocratic rule.
Bottom line: if Putin thought his Plan B was really bad, he would have preferred a negotiated solution versus war.
If you’re a power negotiator like Putin and believe your Plan B is much better than any feasible Plan A deal, it makes perfect sense – and is completely rational – to go with your Plan B and invade.
This is exactly what Putin did.
So what could the U.S. and world have done differently to prevent the invasion – and how can we negotiate more effectively with him now?
2. The surest way to fight Putin-like power negotiators is to aggressively strengthen your leverage.
Power negotiators respect strength, take advantage of perceived weaknesses, and largely discount rhetoric.
How did this play out in the run up to the war? The U.S. and West failed to aggressively and effectively strengthen its leverage. Putin took advantage of this.
Specifically, the U.S. and West took a hard line diplomatically in the weeks before the invasion and repeatedly promised to impose severe sanctions if Putin started a ground war. But this was almost all just rhetoric.
Putin almost certainly didn’t believe it – and we should have known this would be ineffective. First, Putin regularly lies in negotiations (he promised in 1994 to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty when it committed to full nuclear disarmament, yet this made no difference for Crimea). And liars like Putin believe everyone else lies in negotiations, too.
Second, Putin undoubtedly considered the West divided and weak given our chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the world’s worsening inflation and rising oil prices, the polarized nature of U.S. politics, President Joe Biden’s extremely low domestic political standing, and the mixed signals sent by Germany and others regarding sanctions.
Third, he likely felt his long-time ally China would bail him out if sanctions hit harder than expected.
And most importantly, our actions did not match our rhetoric and diplomacy. We pounded the table, but did little to actually change the leverage prior to the invasion.
In fact, one action early on that almost surely would have changed Putin’s strategic calculus of his Plan B would have been immediate, significant lethal military aid to Ukraine (other than committing military forces, which no one believed was on the table).
We and our allies could have also passed severe economic sanctions that would have caused great hardship on Putin and his oligarch allies and conditioned their implementation on an actual Russian invasion.
Had either of these occurred as a result of Russia’s buildup (or even earlier), Putin would have known that an invasion would have been much more protracted, difficult and economically and militarily costly (making his Plan B much worse and weakening his leverage).
Power negotiators understand bad Plan Bs and weak leverage. But we did nothing to really change the leverage on the ground.
In fact, Congress in response to the buildup simply passed a non-binding resolution condemning it. More rhetoric!
Frankly, the West’s diplomatic efforts in the run up to war were practically doomed from the start.
Of course, some might argue that arming Ukraine would have pushed the world closer to a direct U.S-Russian military conflict. This is just not accurate from a negotiation perspective. A Ukrainian military buildup would have actually reduced the likelihood of an invasion and provided a real deterrent to Putin.
The foundation of President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy that ultimately led to the end of the Cold War was “peace through strength.”
Ironically, the U.S. and West – including even Germany – have now imposed the promised severe economic sanctions and are delivering significant lethal military aid to Ukraine. Too little too late? This would have been far more effective negotiation-wise weeks ago. But better now than never for our current negotiations.
Will this get Putin to negotiate a cease-fire and pull back? Unlikely in the short-term but possibly in the longer-term. Remember, the Soviet Union eventually withdrew from Afghanistan when the costs became too high.
But power negotiators like Putin have big egos. So even if his strategic leverage takes a deep dive due to the West’s unified albeit late actions, power negotiators hate to admit failure.
Unfortunately, the result here will likely end up as a lose-lose negotiation for the world.