How to Negotiate with Putin on Anything
From drinking vodka to listening for pauses, six tips for striking a deal with the Kremlin from NATO’s former supreme allied commander.
Perhaps the most famous piece of stage direction in Western literature occurs in the third act of Shakespeare’s classic play “The Winter’s Tale: “Exit pursued by a bear.” There’s plenty of reason to think that being pursued by a bear, the most iconic image of Russia in international relations, is precisely how the United States must feel at the moment. Seemingly in every direction we turn, Russia is there, chasing our policy choices off the stage of world events. Despite valiant efforts to negotiate with Russia in Ukraine, Crimea, Syria, Iran, missile defense in Europe, NATO membership, and cybersecurity — to name just a few — Moscow and Washington have serious disagreements.
It’s tempting to think that the root of these disagreements is the difficult personality and background of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who manifests genuine personal dislike for both the United States and President Barack Obama, as well as for NATO. Much of Putin’s political DNA is oriented toward conflict with the West. But even under the former KGB colonel, the United States has found zones of cooperation over time with Russia, working together on issues as diverse as counternarcotics, counterpiracy, security issues in Afghanistan, arms control, and counterterrorism, among others. And Secretary of State John Kerry has done heroic work with his counterpart in setting up a shaky but better-than-nothing cease-fire in Syria by negotiating with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
Clearly, it’s possible for skilled American diplomats to establish a productive relationship with Russia. That’s not to suggest it’s easy — or that the outcome is entirely in Washington’s hands. But some approaches to negotiating with Russia work better than others. Here are a few tips, many drawn from the hard lessons I learned during my frequent conversations and negotiations with Russia as a NATO supreme allied commander:
Begin by understanding the Russian worldview. Russians see themselves as a powerful empire of enormous physical size with a distinct culture — a nation in every sense of the word. Russians are intensely proud of their language, the scope of their literature, and their scientific contributions. They understand that they lost the Cold War, but they also believe fiercely that the moves of the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall, especially NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet allies, was a fundamental violation of perceived agreements. Leaving aside the veracity of the latter point, in negotiating with the bear, we have to understand how they see themselves.
Accept the supremacy of Putin. Russia has always followed the “strong man” approach to leadership. Some leaders are better than others — think Peter the Great as opposed to Ivan the Terrible; or Mikhail Gorbachev instead of Joseph Stalin – but, either way, the nature of Russian psychology is hierarchical. Today, the country’s leader is Putin, and the country’s political decision-making has been centralized under him. We will not succeed with negotiations at a lower level, and we will have to show a modicum of respect to Putin and recognize his overweening influence on all decisions.
Prepare for a long and difficult process. No matter the level or significance of the issue over which we will be negotiating, Russians will make it hard. They are deeply suspicious of nontrusted partners, and the United States tops the list. (As NATO supreme allied commander, I was not a negotiating partner that most Russians were inclined to welcome with open arms.) Even the atmospherics of negotiations will be suffused by distrust, outbursts of rudeness and skepticism, threats to crater the discussion, and frequent finger-pointing. Knowing that is their basic negotiating posture can make it easier to rise above provocations. And remember that Russians go into a negotiation thinking not how they can create a win-win outcome, but rather how they can defeat the other side.
Sharpen your logic. Russians value logic and direct exchanges and quickly become frustrated and disrespectful when confronted with emotional approaches to negotiating. They do not shy away from constructing elaborate schemes with deception and complicated maneuvers, much like a chess match. It’s no accident that Russians are excellent chess players, having produced double the number of grand masters than the United States, despite having half our population.
Wait for it. Russians often think silently before jumping to answer a question or formulate a thought. It is rude to break into a silence after asking a question, and avoid the Western tendency to rush the conversation forward. Seemingly a minor point, but one that I have seen lead discussions in less productive directions if ignored.
Don’t overlook the personal. Despite all the points above, personal relationships can be important to Russians. I was able to create real openings through memorable gatherings at either my official quarters in Belgium or similar settings in Russia. Vodka helps, although the stereotype of constant drinking and having to live up to the challenge of consuming more alcohol than an interlocutor is overstated. On the other hand, making meaningful, moving, and even poetic toasts is appreciated and remembered. There is a phrase in Russian — bratskiye otnosheniya — that is hard to translate, but it means roughly a deep level of trust sufficient to exchange truly meaningful information and views. It takes time to develop it, and you cannot surge otnosheniya for a crisis: You must invest in it over time.
Overall, we should remember Putin’s famous if somewhat ambiguous comments in December 2014 about Russia as a metaphoric bear. He said, “They will always try to put him on a chain, and as soon as they succeed in doing so they tear out his fangs and claws.” A bear in a corner is a dangerous thing. That’s why the United States needs to think carefully about not only its policies, but also about its approach to negotiations.
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