Never have the need and opportunity for techniques of interest based negotiation been more apparent than in the West’s confrontation with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. The geographic win-lose frame in which the conflict is stuck is a formula for a lose-lose outcome of unimaginable proportions.
It’s difficult to see how any settlement based on divvying up Ukrainian territory will provide future stability—Ukraine will always resent and never totally accept loss of sovereign territory, and Western democracies dare not accede to blatantly illegal territorial acquisition by force for fear of fueling the already dangerous global momentum toward authoritarianism. And yet, territorial concessions to end the war are all we hear being talked about.
In the heat of entrenched conflict, parties can become uber focused on the immediate object they’re fight over. Primal instincts work like a horse’s blinkers to blind them to anything that might distract from their immediate objective. The Ukrainian war now appears to be driven by Putin’s atavistic drive to rebuild a Russian empire vs. Ukraine’s determined defense of its freedom and homeland. A military loss is said to threaten Putin’s immediate political survival (and maybe his life?), and Ukraine has already sacrificed everything but their pride to resist subjugation; the stakes for both sides look to be “existential.” With both sides totally focused on military competition for territory, Ukrainian geography is assumed to be the pie negotiators must divide in compromises to end the war.
In negotiation parlance, “enlarging the pie” means finding interests valued by negotiating parties that aren’t currently on the table. It’s hard to see a stable solution to this now global conflict that isn’t padded with or based on interests other than dividing Ukrainian territory. One that comes to mind is Russia’s legitimate interest in its own physical integrity and security. Meaningful assurance of protection against Western or NATO encroachment on Russia’s physical and political autonomy would respond to Putin’s early claims that his territorial expansion was intended for Russia’s security, and would be consistent with the West’s professed valuing of national sovereignty. Whether that was his true motive or not, and whether the West had any aggressive intention or not, it could offer something else to talk about and negotiate over.
Avoidance of WWIII might well depend now on creative, outside the box negotiating we can only hope is being pursued without public knowledge by mediators and negotiation experts with deep geopolitical understanding. The interests and stakes go far beyond Russia and Ukraine.