Ukrainian Tractors

Published: Mar 06 , 2014
Author: Stephen White

As the current situation in Ukraine is changing so swiftly that no one has any serious ability to predict the outcome, conflict-resolution pundits should be reading the unfolding events in negotiating terms in order to make sense of what is going on, for themselves and for those who follow them.

Why in negotiating terms? Because it is inevitable that sooner or later the parties involved will sit down and talk to each other. The world will hope that this happens within days, although recent history, for example in Syria, suggests that these talks might take years, with untold human misery happening in the vacuum. Here are some easily identifiable negotiating pointers to the events of the last 2 weeks.

Deals Don’t Stick if they Don’t Resolve the Problem

The deal brokered on February 21 st  in Kiev, which would have created a coalition government and legislated for new elections quickly didn’t stick, because the Western facing constituency which had been demonstrating in the days before was unprepared to accept anything short of the immediate removal of President Yanukovich. He was the core of their problem. The deal didn’t deal with him effectively, so it failed.

All Parties Involved Must be Involved in the Negotiation

In the week after the President ran away the major focus should have been to start to resolve the known differences in sentiment and political vision between Western and Eastern Ukraine, and in particular semi-autonomous Crimea, which has a Russian speaking majority. Maybe there were multi-party negotiations behind closed doors in Kiev, but it didn’t look like it; more importantly the people of Crimea didn’t see it happening. Of course the parties are deeply divided in their political aspirations, and chasms between them might not have been bridgeable, but not being invited to the party was a certain way of ensuring that the Crimean government would go their own way. 

Preconditioning Tactics are Transparent

The Russians have played hardball many times during the Putin era, most recently in the way they have blocked level-headed resolutions at the UN Security Council over Syria. Their strategy is to use preconditioning techniques (putting fear into the hearts and minds of their opponents) so they subsequently have an easier time (a more powerful base) at the negotiating table. So the intrusion of Russian Troops into Crimea and the heightened tension as a result will give them more power at the negotiating table if and when negotiations begin. The West reciprocates with the talk of visa and economic sanctions against Russia. One has to say that the Western preconditioning is pathetically weak in terms of tension-building compared with the Russians actions. But in both cases everyone recognizes what their counterparty is doing, so the purpose is effectively neutered.

Telling Lies Might Help Diplomacy

The Russian claim that its troops have not invaded Crimean territory is laughable. As I write I am listening to Sky News journalists openly indicating incredulity at this claim – they saw and filmed the troops roll in over last weekend, and they are still there now. However, if the Russian strategy is based on the ‘What If’ technique, it might help to allow the parties to start the negotiating process. In this case the relevant sentence is ‘What if we consider the 6000 Russian troops which entered Crimea last weekend as part of the existing Russian establishment in the country? For example,  that they were simply relieving the troops already stationed there. Can you (the West) now stop protesting and start negotiating?’

But it Doesn’t Help the Negotiating Process

The downside of lying is that once at the table everyone will be suspicious of parties which have demonstrably not told the truth earlier in the process. What goes around comes around.

Having a Big Stick  - Help or Hindrance?

There is speculation that Russia would have had to deal differently with Ukraine if the nuclear missiles which were on Ukrainian territory until 1994 (as a throwback to its Soviet days) had still been there, under Ukrainian control. We will never know. But it does make for an interesting analogy with the current Iranian nuclear discussions because the world will not be a safer place if the threat of nuclear war, maybe made by madmen who have taken over the asylum,  prevents a world united against terrorism from taking effective action. 

There is no significant difference between seeing these tactics and stratagems for what they are in a big ticket negotiation and a more mundane commercial negotiation. The stakes may be higher, but the process is the same.

Stephen White


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