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The Cipher Brief: Negotiate Like Putin


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January 14, 2022 

by: Kenneth Dekleva

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin never attended Harvard Business School’s esteemed negotiation course, but in the current Ukraine crisis, he has performed brilliantly, and yes, he could teach Harvard’s finest professors a thing or two. 

Putin’s masterful combination of long-term strategy, tactical gains, gray zone tactics, hybrid warfare, and management of the information space could serve as a case study in a Harvard seminar, on how to best negotiate from a position of strength while achieving one’s long-term strategic goals.  There are no Russian words for BATNA (e.g. ‘best alternative to a negotiated agreement’) or ZOPA (e.g. ‘zone of possible agreement’), but understanding such concepts can be useful as President Biden and America’s NATO allies ponder next steps.

Disruptive adversaries, such as Putin, are often easily underestimated.  Putin has described himself as “a specialist in human relations” – he was well-trained by the KGB – and is a ruthless and highly-strategic political (and yet rational) actor.  Putin has been – for some time – fighting the ‘new’ Cold War with 21st-century tools and doctrine, utilizing a formidable array of talents, assets, gray zone, and whole of government approaches.  These strategies involve uses of military, economic, political, diplomatic, cyber, informational, and intelligence tools to prevail in hybrid conflicts.  The West’s response (regarding Ukraine) has been to shore up alliances such as NATO and the EU, trusting that this diplomatic show of strength, along with threats of severe economic sanctions (including SWIFT penalties) might somehow deter Putin.  But sadly, following his 2014 land grab of Crimea, and subsequent conflict in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, sanctions have done nothing to thwart Putin’s aggressive tactics and political behavior. 

Given President Biden’s perceived – on the part of adversaries such as Putin, Xi, Kim and Iran’s Supreme Leader – political weakness, as well as liabilities on the part of the EU and NATO (note that Germany’s Chancellor Scholz is untested and new, and France’s President Macron faces re-election in 2022), Putin likely has little to fear from the EU or NATO.  Due to the staggering amounts of Russian capital invested in British and European banks and other financial institutions, Putin realizes that SWIFT sanctions are a non-starter.  He knows that he has the upper hand, and has already achieved a victory of sorts, especially following Biden’s recent comments that America and NATO will not send troops to the Ukraine; also, Biden has yet to nominate an American Ambassador to Ukraine.  The lack of progress in the current US-Russia, NATO-Russia Council, and OSCE negotiations thereby comes as little surprise, with both sides expressing tough, hardened positions and Cold War style talking points.

Putin has publicly and repeatedly drawn his ‘red line’ – that Ukraine must never be allowed to join NATO.  Therefore, his likely BATNA remains not necessarily an invasion of Ukraine, but a continuation of various hybrid/gray zone pressures as noted above, with a further demoralizing status quo.  While Putin’s ‘red lines’ are backed by resolve and strength, he runs the risk of imperial overreach, in that a military invasion of Ukraine could lead to previously-neutral neighbors such as Sweden and Finland desiring to join NATO.  This would be a huge loss for Putin and undo his significant advantage in the current conflict.

President Biden has emphasized American and NATO resolve in the current above negotiations.  Alas, the negotiations appear to be deadlocked and stalled, with both sides staking out rigid, even ‘impossible’ negotiating positions.  It is easy to be nihilistic, and to think that Putin will simply order an invasion of the Ukraine, regardless of the costs to Russia.  Such a view misses the point and over-relies upon traditional Cold War negotiating tactics.  And then there are those critics who believe that if President Trump were in office today, further negotiations might be possible and successful.  Yes, Putin could even embrace ‘The Art of the Deal.’ 

President Biden might consider borrowing a page from President Trump, and turning the tables on Putin, by way of paradox and his own, Trump-like unpredictable move.  Biden should appoint a high-level special envoy (preferably a former President, Vice-President, or Senator) in such a role, and it would show even greater resolve and bipartisanship if that person were a Republican.  This would give Putin the respect and dignity that he and Russia so desperately crave in our new, complex post-Cold War disorder, and it would allow Putin a face-saving solution which would appeal to Russia’s elites and domestic audience, none of which (according to recent Russian polls) desire war.  Putin could then pronounce in Russian, “ZOPA ni zhopa,” to borrow from the Harvard Business School’s lexicon — “a zone of possible agreement is not asinine.” 

Putin’s ‘Ukraine Gambit’ could be a case study in the Harvard negotiation course, and both he and President Biden could show the world that in today’s complex, 21st-century conflicts such as Ukraine, diplomacy – from a position of strength – is more necessary than ever.  The stakes could not be higher.

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Kenneth Dekleva is a senior fellow with the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S. China Relations.