Without Giving In, a United West Needs to Offer Putin a Face-Saving Way Out | Opinion

By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has attacked the very principles of sovereignty and freedom that undergird the post-1945 international order. The case for publicly castigating, militarily resisting and economically punishing him is both strong and morally satisfying. But it also carries enormous humanitarian costs, while holding out a very slim chance of success.

The current approach to Putin adopted by the United West—Ukraine and the Atlantic alliance—has two problems. First, the United West has mismatched the means it is utilizing to resist Russia's invasion—which have consisted of Ukraine's valiant self-defense and American and European economic/financial punishment—with political ends of this resistance. On their own, these means are much more suited for deterring war—meaning they are being deployed too late to bring about the end goal. That end goal is coercing Putin to cease the invasion and withdraw from Ukraine and precluding him from decapitating the Ukrainian government or engaging in mass atrocities against civilians.

What's necessary now is to change Putin's calculus, to make a negotiated settlement more attractive than continued military action. To do this, the United West must raise the costs of war while also improving the attractiveness of a ceasefire and a diplomatic solution.

The second problem with the current approach is that it has denied Putin the ability to wage a decisive regime change war and punished his key lieutenants with heavy sanctions, humiliating him domestically and leaving him vulnerable. Mortified, Putin may resort to increasingly dangerous means to "win." Use of cluster munitions and thermobaric bombs against civilians, as well as nuclear threats—meant to coerce Ukraine's President Zelenskyy into surrender and deter NATO from further involvement—are indicative of his approach of upping the ante when his plans are thwarted by realities on the ground. Washington and Moscow are now facing the potential of nuclear escalation and miscalculation.

What's needed now is for the United West to translate the military defense and economic punishment into an opening for negotiations with Putin, who—given how slow the invasion is proceeding—must now be reconsidering his options. The key question is this: How to change the cost-benefit calculations of such an obstinate and brutal adversary—in order to avoid massive civilian bloodshed or, worse, nuclear brinksmanship?

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with the head of Russia's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, a big business lobby group, at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 2, 2022. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

This was precisely the dilemma that John F. Kennedy faced 60 years ago, confronting Nikita Khrushchev's deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba. JFK's approach of using a "carrot" after employing the "stick" can work against Putin.

Here's how we should proceed: First, fight Putin's army and negotiate with him at the same time. Let us remember that while JFK implemented a maritime "quarantine" of Cuba, he also negotiated with Khrushchev, both directly and through back-channels. As his conquest proceeds, Putin's diplomatic leverage will increase, so multilateral negotiations must start as soon as possible.

Second, as in 1962, high-level, discreet contacts need to be established with the Russian leader. Angela Merkel, Tony Blair or former U.S. Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Rex Tillerson—to whom Putin awarded the Russian Order of Friendship—would be well-placed to lead such discussions.

Third, these interlocutors need to offer Putin a structured choice—à la the options that Attorney General Robert Kennedy proposed to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on October 27, 1962, the penultimate and most dangerous day of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Meeting that evening, the President's brother told the Soviet envoy that if Moscow did not commit to withdrawing the missiles within 24 hours, the United States would take them out by force. If the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles, however, the United States would promise to abandon long-standing U.S. efforts to invade Cuba—and secretly pledge to withdraw U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

Applying this lesson to the present day, Putin needs to be offered a limited but tangible "win" which will contrast—publicly and dramatically—with the escalating military and economic costs he will bear if he persists with aggression. This is the only way to stop the current conflict while avoiding further bloodshed and escalation.

This is not to say that it's going to be easy; making any compromises with Putin will be geopolitically painful and morally challenging not in the least because they will enable Putin to solidify his internal grip within the Kremlin. Incentives will in particular be open to charges of rewarding aggression and "selling out" Ukraine.

And yet, critics quick to invoke the infamous example of Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler would be well advised to recall the case of Adlai Stevenson, JFK's Ambassador to the UN, who was a stubborn voice for compromise during the Cuban Missile Crisis. 60 years ago, when facing a direct, nuclear threat against the U.S. homeland, John F. Kennedy had the wisdom to offer Nikita Khrushchev a face-saving resolution, reducing the humiliation of the Soviet leader and thus stepping back from the nuclear brink. This lesson applies to today's coercive negotiations with Vladimir Putin.

Putin needs a way out. A United West needs to help him find it.

Eugene B. Kogan, Ph.D., is a negotiation strategist who enables senior executives globally to achieve outcomes in high-impact environments. He conducts research on crisis leadership at Harvard Business School and is a former Executive Director of Harvard's American Secretaries of State Project. He coined the term "coercive negotiation." He is the co-author of Mediation: Negotiation by Other Moves (Wiley 2021).

The views in this article are the writer's own.