Tough Negotiator: Insights on Vladimir Putin from Former U.S. Secretaries of State

Always a tough negotiator, Russian president Vladimir Putin has seemed even more formidable and unreachable since sending his army to attack Ukraine. A new video offers insights from former U.S. secretaries of state on how to break through to Putin.

By on / International Negotiation

tough negotiators

How should you prepare to negotiate effectively with an exceptionally tough negotiator? That’s the question the United States and its allies have faced since Russian president Vladimir Putin sent his troops to wage war on Ukraine on February 24. The experiences and insights of five former U.S. secretaries of state who negotiated directly with Putin may offer guidance, explain Harvard Business School professor James Sebenius and Harvard Law School professor Robert Mnookin in a new video titled Negotiating with Vladimir Putin: Video Advice from Five Former U.S. Secretaries of State.

As co-directors of the American Secretaries of State Project (a joint effort of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Harvard Business School), Sebenius, Mnookin, and Harvard Law School professor Nicholas Burns—the current U.S. Ambassador to China—have interviewed numerous former secretaries of state about their toughest international negotiations, including those with Putin.

In their new program, which features several video segments from these interviews, Sebenius and Mnookin analyze and crystallize advice on how to deal with the often-inscrutable and ruthless former KGB officer. Based on their lengthy personal negotiations with this challenging Russian leader, this video compilation delivers highly relevant insights into possible negotiations with Putin from Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Rex Tillerson.

Beyond Deal Setup and Design

Most diplomatic efforts toward ending the war in Ukraine have focused on two main components of negotiation: deal setup and deal design, notes Sebenius, coauthor with David Lax of 3-D Negotiation: Powerful Tools to Change the Game in Your Most Important Deals. Deal setup efforts have involved building leverage through sanctions, military aid to Ukraine, and similar measures. And deal design has centered around crafting possible agreements on issues such as ceasefires, troop withdrawals, Ukraine’s relationship to NATO and the European Union, and the status of the Donbas and Crimea.

Setup and deal design moves are crucial to resolving the conflict. But transforming leverage and deal concepts into an actual war-ending agreement requires a third component of negotiation: tactical and interpersonal skills, likely related to dealing with Vladimir Putin.

In the video, Mnookin, author of Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight, also considers the broader question of whether the West should negotiate with Putin in the first place. When someone imposes devastating harm on others, as Putin has, any negotiation that might benefit them may appear morally repugnant. But Mnookin advises us to evaluate the costs and benefits of negotiating relative to alternative courses of actions. In many cases, we may conclude we have more to gain from negotiating than from not negotiating with such tough negotiators.

Breaking through with a Tough Negotiator

In their interviews for the American Secretaries of State Project, the former secretaries characterized Putin as a tough negotiator but also identified opportunities for breakthroughs.

Putin reportedly deeply disliked Hillary Clinton, to the point that the Russian government attempted to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election to engineer her defeat. Yet as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, Clinton was able to build rapport with Putin and achieve negotiation breakthroughs, she said during her 2017 interview for the American Secretaries of State Project.

Clinton said she made headway during negotiations with Putin while visiting his dacha (summer home) outside Moscow around 2011. “He does the whole routine, insulting the United States, sending out the press,” she recalls. Clinton asked herself, “What am I going to talk to this guy about? He’s so totally resistant to any kind of serious conversation.”

Knowing that Putin was passionate about conserving Russian wildlife, particularly Siberian tigers, Clinton complimented him on his conservation efforts. According to Clinton, Putin sat up straight and said, “Yes!” He then led Clinton and their teams to a downstairs office and pointed out where the rare tigers could be found on an enormous map of Russia. Pointing to the far north, he said he would be tagging polar bears there soon as part of a conservation initiative. “Would your husband like to come?” he asked.

Bill Clinton didn’t join the expedition, but Hillary Clinton views her conversation with Putin as a turning point. “He was something other than the wooden, surly, intimidating figure that he always expresses,” she said. “You have to try to develop something of a personal relationship” with Putin, she concluded.

In negotiations that followed with the tough negotiator, the United States was able to negotiate agreements with Russia on sanctions against Iran, the Iran nuclear deal, and an air corridor over Russia to help supply U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

An Insistence on Respect

Shared interests and backgrounds helped other U.S. secretaries of state build some rapport with Putin. Colin Powell’s long military career and intelligence experience offered points of connection. The Russian president got along with Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state to George W. Bush, in large part because she was a scholar of Soviet and Russian affairs.

“He has to respect the person with [whom] he is negotiating,” Rice concluded. Like other former secretaries of state, she noted that Putin respects “toughness” and “directness” as a result of his long career in the KGB.

Similarly, Rex Tillerson, secretary of state under Donald Trump, said in his interview for the American Secretaries of State Project that Putin respects “two things: strength on the other side of the table and people who deliver on what they say.” As former chair of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson had had extensive negotiations with Putin since 1999 and knew him well. Tillerson also said that Putin expects respect from his negotiating counterparts. “If he doesn’t feel you respect him, you won’t get far with him in negotiations,” Tillerson concluded.

The value that Putin places on respect and the importance of establishing some connection with him are just two takeaways from Negotiating with Vladimir Putin. Along with actions to build leverage and design potential deals, today’s diplomats would be wise to keep these lessons in mind as they seek a resolution to the crisis in Ukraine through negotiation and third-party mediation.

What lessons have you absorbed from your dealings with tough negotiators?

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  • Chris G.

    The points in the video – be strong, respect, build connections etc – seem rather trite and obvious and hence not useful. More interesting might have been: in what ways were these advices not followed and why, what mistakes were made and how to prevent, how structurally should the quality of negotiating have been improved etc etc

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  • Josh W.

    Terrific video — really well done and useful for all to consider.

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