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Eugene B. Kogan ’03, who conducts research and teaches about power dynamics in negotiation and mediation at Harvard, discusses the ways in which Russia’s war in Ukraine might end. Kogan was the inaugural research and executive director of Harvard’s American Secretaries of State Project.
By Edward Weinman. Images by Páll Stefánsson
The U.S. and NATO implemented unprecedented sanctions against Russia, yet the war continues. Europe is making plans to wean itself off Russian energy. How isolated and economically depressed does Russia need to become before Putin no longer thinks the war is worth the cost, or does such a threshold not exist for Putin?
A: This zeroes in on what can be called “societal elasticity,” the ability of a society to withstand pressure. I expect the Western societies (higher elasticity) to give in earlier than the Russian society (lower elasticity). The question is how much punishment the different societies and economies—Russian and global (Western)—can accept without pressuring their respective leaders to change the policies that have brought on the pressure.
On the one hand, how much do the Russian people have to suffer from the sanctions and isolation before their displeasure with the war forces the decision-makers in Moscow to change course? Given the coercive grip of the Russian government over the society, I do not expect that we will soon see public protests on the kind of massive scale that would convince the Kremlin to rethink its policy. Likewise, the electoral accountability mechanism is virtually nonexistent in Russia, thus removing the ballot box as a lever for the public to influence Moscow’s Ukraine policy. On the other hand, how much inconvenience—for example, through rising food and gas prices—can the Western societies withstand before voting for policies that would adjust the punitive actions currently imposed against Russia?
Q: Russia has not fared well in the war. Thousands of conscripts have died, along with many top-ranking generals. Yet, Russia has the ability to, as it did in Mariupol, turn Ukrainian cities into rubble. Other than an attack on NATO territory or a nuclear/chemical attack, are there moral redlines that might draw the U.S. into direct military conflict with Russia?
A: For a redline “gold standard,” look at President John F. Kennedy’s speech on Oct. 22, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is the subject of my ongoing research and writing at Harvard Business School. Seeking to prevent the Soviet Union from using the missiles it secretly stationed in Cuba, Kennedy stated: “The United States will regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” Taking this definition as a baseline, a military invasion of, or attack on, NATO territory is a clear redline, as President Joe Biden has reiterated with his pledge to “defend every inch” of the alliance. Currently, there are no equally forceful deterrent threats against the use of weapons of mass destruction.
In his recent New York Times op-ed, the President stated “Any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale would be completely unacceptable to us as well as the rest of the world and would entail severe consequences.” This statement is not a redline because it lacks the credible threat that is essential for deterrence. This is a mistake for two reasons. First, strategically, the use of such weapons must be prevented, and the way to do so is to deter their use by drawing unambiguous redlines. Ambiguity—useful though it may be for other purposes—corrodes redlines. Second, morally, the use of such weapons has no place in organized intercourse (including war) among civilized nations.
Q: To avoid a mass-casualty event, what does an offramp look like for Putin, or is the only option Russian victory or Russian defeat?
A: When he chooses to do so, President Putin can already claim significant “wins” from this war: Ukraine will never be part of NATO, significant parts of Ukrainian military capacity have been destroyed and Russia has demonstrated its credibility to stand up for its conception of security by engaging in a brutal, deadly war. The “offramp” is open and available. Will President Putin take it?
Q: Numerous media outlets have reported that Russian soldiers have committed war crimes. President Biden has called Putin a war criminal. Do you foresee any scenario that ends with Putin at The Hague? If not, what does it mean to call Putin a war criminal?
A: Russia’s horrific crimes in Ukraine (for example, in Bucha) are well documented, and they speak for themselves. There is a virtually zero chance of prosecuting President Putin at the International Court of Justice, and the high-profile branding of him as a “war criminal”—along with President Biden’s use of other colorful, but less legally significant terms, such as “butcher”—is unhelpful. Whatever minimal public legitimacy such language adds to the global efforts to counter Russia’s aggression is offset by the complications such designations introduce into the long-term effort to pursue a political settlement to this deadly war. Statesmen should focus on deterring nuclear impunity and ending this war, thus saving lives. They ought to leave proclamations about war crimes to jurists from The Hague.
Q: Authoritarianism has been on the rise across the world. How important is it for Ukraine to win this war, and if Russia wins, what does it mean for democracies and the world order?
A: Complete Russian victory is morally and strategically unacceptable, while a complete Russian defeat is geopolitically unthinkable. Striking this delicate balance is the central international security challenge of the upcoming months and years. On the one hand, the civilized world cannot afford to countenance the unprovoked invasion and destruction of a sovereign country. In particular, if allowed to stand, the fact of a nuclear-armed power invading and destroying a non-nuclear armed state will create a precedent of nuclear impunity. Nuclear wannabes (here, think well beyond the usual culprits, such as North Korea) will see that nuclear weapons offer the ability to engage in international terror on a system-altering scale.
On the other hand, completely defeating Russia by driving it out of the territories it has destroyed and occupied since Feb. 24 as well as before—such as Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine—creates real dangers of nuclear escalation that responsible statesmen cannot ignore. This is where the tempting analogy to the appeasement at Munich—the trump card that President Zelenskyy pointedly used against Henry Kissinger’s recent suggestion of a territorial accommodation with Russia—starts to fall apart. History is not a buffet from which one can pick and choose the most appealing morsels. It has to be considered in all of its original—sometimes ugly—complexity. Hitler did not have nuclear weapons. Putin does.
Q: What does the end of the war look like for Ukraine?
A: For Ukraine, as President Zelenskyy has pointed out, given the suffering that his country has endured, words such as “victory” may not be applicable. Going forward—he has suggested—Ukraine has to have security guarantees that would ensure that future wars of aggression would be decisively deterred. Essentially, Ukraine needs NATO-like guarantees without formally being part of the alliance. This, no doubt, will be part of the complex diplomatic settlement to this war.
Q: So how does this war end?
A: Most wars begin militarily, but end politically. For this war to conclude, there will have to be a direct negotiation or a mediation that will bring Russia, Ukraine and Ukraine’s security guarantors (in particular, the United States and major European powers) to the table. As I argued in a Newsweek op-ed, these conversations should be high-profile, secret and continuous. Representatives from the three sides should be meeting bilaterally (Russia-Ukraine; Ukraine-guarantors; Russia-guarantors) and all together, ideally under the auspices of a truly neutral country.
Q: Why is it imperative to have security guarantors involved in the negotiations rather than just Russia and Ukraine?
A: The involvement of security guarantors is important for two reasons. First, Ukraine cannot agree to stop fighting without ironclad security promises. Second, Russia’s war—while it is being waged on the territory of Ukraine—is fundamentally an effort to renegotiate the structure of the post-Cold War security order. In this coercive negotiation, Russia made the first move. Difficult decisions lie ahead for the United States and the major European powers as they have to respond to Russia’s demands.
Eugene B. Kogan, Ph.D., who co-authored Mediation: Negotiation by Other Moves, enables international executives and their teams to be effective in high-profile negotiations.
Páll Stefánsson was born just south of the Arctic Circle, in north Iceland. His work has appeared in Time, National Geographic, Newsweek, The Sunday Times Magazine, among others. Stefánsson is working on two books of photography, one about the Icelandic landscape, the other about international refugees. Photos of displaced Ukrainians taken in Poland, Slovakia and from around Uzhhorod in Ukraine.