Bilateral negotiations on cyber issues may be starting soon between Russia and the United States, following President Trump’s recent meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Beyond the substantive concerns at stake, what should U.S. negotiators expect from their Russian counterparts in terms of negotiating style and tactics?
Analysts from both the West and Russia have noticed some striking continuity in how Russia approaches international negotiations — going all the way back to Soviet times. Obviously individual negotiators’ personalities differ, and Russians no longer come to the table with a Marxist-Leninist mind-set. But there is a definite Russian negotiating style, most likely taught to generations of students at the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy and Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).
So what are the most commonly repeated observations about Soviet and Russian negotiating behavior? Read on.
1. Moscow sees negotiation as a tool to serve its interests — and is happy to junk that tool if something else would work better.
In other words, Russians don’t see negotiation as an end in itself or a way to build better relationships. A textbook written in 2014 by Irina Vasilenko of Russia’s Diplomatic Academy cites Machiavelli and Clausewitz in arguing that negotiations are in fact war by other means. She argues that negotiating can be a useful way both to get your adversary to accept your own ideas and to influence foreign public opinion during an era of information warfare.
Vasilenko approvingly cites the famous “Getting to Yes” work of Roger Fisher and William Ury, and especially their concept of BATNA, the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Western “getting to yes” acolytes use BATNA to think creatively about goals and potential alternative mechanisms to reach agreement. But Russians seem to take a different tack. Both Vasilenko and the late Soviet ambassador to the United States Yuri Dubinin instead portray BATNA as a means for deciding whether entering negotiations has any value at all.
2. Moscow generally prefers the status quo over the risks of negotiated change.
Western analysts (including Jerrold Schecter and Paul Bennett) have noted this. Vasilenko agrees. Russia is quite conservative about negotiations. It’s likely to negotiate seriously only when it feels that the United States holds some advantage that can’t be matched instead by Moscow’s own unilateral effort.
That’s in part because while the United States has a well-developed system of alliances, Russia has never been backed by a community of like-minded nations. In 1986, U.S. adviser Helmut Sonnenfeldt noted that this even applied to the former Soviet Union’s supposed Warsaw Pact allies, whose loyalty Moscow never trusted. Instead Russia feels under constant threat from outsiders — maybe because its land borders aren’t easily defended, and it has repeatedly been invaded — who might take advantage of its weaknesses if it doesn’t defend itself aggressively.
This means that Russia is rarely swayed by Western rhetoric about solving common problems for the shared benefit of humanity. There was a brief exception during Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s tenure, and early in Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s time in office. Russian leaders then hoped to join the Western world order and seemed to recognize the notion of universal values. But traditionally, and now under Putin, Russia interprets claims of “common interests” as reflecting either American naivete, or in Vasilenko’s analysis, as a backhanded ploy to further Washington’s dominance by claiming that U.S. self-interests are shared.
3. Russia rarely makes the first move in negotiations.
Rather, it tends to wait for its negotiating partner to reveal its own positions first and then reacts. Russian negotiators will then try to bargain their adversary away from what Moscow considers an opening bid and are willing to spend a long time out-waiting their opponent to get results.
That approach often makes it hard to understand what Moscow really wants from the negotiation. Russian diplomats themselves are unlikely to reveal their true goals quickly or easily. Indeed, Vasilenko sees openness and sincerity about the goals of negotiation as a uniquely American cultural trait.
4. Russians value ‘khitrost’ (cunning or wiliness).
Vasilenko writes, “It is not accidental that a chief hero of Russian mythology is little Ivan the Fool (Ivanushka-durachok), who appears simple but vanquishes everyone with his native wit.” U.S. Cold War negotiators, like Philip Mosley and Leon Sloss, observed that Soviet diplomats excelled at manipulating language, sometimes even contradicting their own previous positions, and dissembling about what already seemed agreed to trip up their negotiating partners.
Russia has a pattern of not recognizing the “spirit” of an agreement, only its letter. U.S. negotiators (like Edward L. Rowny, who led the American side in the 1970s Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) nuclear arms control treaties) have consistently counseled spending the time to make sure that the specifics of what has been agreed are spelled out in great detail, to avoid surprises later. Vasilenko describes this as an American preference for legal contracts and argues that Russian culture values informal handshake agreements — despite the one that she claims misled Gorbachev into believing that NATO would never enlarge.
5. Russian diplomats sometimes use angry tirades and insults as negotiating tactics.
A recent example is the U.N. Security Council speech of Russia’s Deputy Permanent Representative Vladimir Safronkov, who shocked Western representatives with a demeaning verbal attack on his British counterpart in a discussion over Syria.
These outbursts, though, seem neither to mean much nor to last, and often appear early on in negotiations that are ultimately successful. Dubinin argued that being confrontational was a way to test a partner and look for psychological weaknesses or cracks in the opposing team’s unity that could be exploited.
Nonetheless, successful negotiation with Russia is possible.
Even at the height of the Cold War, significant progress was made in bilateral arms control treaties. But Russia prides itself on being a difficult negotiating partner, and for the United States, forewarned is forearmed.
Kimberly Marten is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science at Barnard College and the director of the Program on U.S.-Russia Relations at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.