Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley recently sparked an uproar within the Biden Administration and strained U.S.-Ukrainian relations when he suggested that the potential stalemate in the Ukraine-Russian War provides a “window of opportunity for negotiation.”
Gen. Milley is right – and he is wrong.
Russia and Ukraine have actually been negotiating over land ever since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 and, in February, started its so-called “special military operation.” Sometimes this negotiation has involved the parties formally sitting across a table from each other. At other times it has taken place solely through public statements.
But make no mistake: this entire conflict needs to be strategically evaluated as one holistic negotiation. And this negotiation involves the full panoply of diplomatic, military, economic and social factors and multiple players from around the world.
For instance, actions like India’s decision to buy huge amounts of discounted oil from Russia and provide it with an economic lifeline strengthens Russia’s ability to withstand the West’s economic sanctions. This increases Putin’s negotiation leverage over Ukraine. The better Russia’s alternative to a negotiated agreement, the stronger its negotiation leverage.
Other actions like Ukraine’s ongoing military aid from the West and its recent battlefield successes to reclaim its land and degrade Russia’s military increases its negotiation leverage.
Since negotiation leverage is relative and changes, it ebbs and flows depending on what all the interested parties say and do.
Crucially, this works together in one negotiation.
“Hold on,’ some might say. “The simple act of viewing it all as one negotiation is just semantics. Regardless of how you define it, the negotiation is really just the back-and-forth between the parties sitting at the table.”
Not true. If you only consider this one element of the negotiation, you will misevaluate the true situation and disconnect important interrelated foundations of the negotiation from each other. Your attitude and approach will also change, both of which can make-or-break negotiation success.
The U.S. made this very mistake when it tried from 1968 to 1973 to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. As noted by Alpha History, the U.S. viewed these negotiations as “a way of extricating themselves from Vietnam, while avoiding the humiliation of defeat.” By contrast, these “peace talks were a military tactic [for the North Vietnamese], a device to stall and frustrate the enemy and prolong the war.”
The current narrative that you either have negotiations or aggressively fight the war – which underlies the controversy stoked by Gen. Milley’s statement as it presumes this false dichotomy – is thus a dangerously problematic approach. The U.S. and Ukraine must do both in parallel at the same time.
Reaching out and starting at-the-table negotiations, while some might perceive it as a signal of weakness, will be viewed as the opposite only if combined with fresh military aid to Ukraine and continued Ukrainian success on the battlefield.
Bottom line: it’s time to talk. There’s no downside to dialogue right now. Gen. Milley was correct that “you want to negotiate from a position of strength. Russia right now is on its back. The Russian military is suffering tremendously.”
Critically, however, this must be done in conjunction with intensified military pressure. Only by doing both will Ukraine achieve its true negotiation goals – a peaceful country with maximum reclaimed territory and a minimal loss of life.
* Marty Latz is the founder of Latz Negotiation, a national negotiation training and consulting company that helps individuals and organizations achieve better results with best practices based on the experts’ research. He can be reached at 480.951.3222 or Marty@LatzNegotiation.com.