What is the risk that the Ukraine situation is being approached by the West in a binary, dualist way? We cannot control President Putin but how we, or at least our politicians and diplomats, respond will influence him. By binary or dualist, I mean adopting inflexible, black or white, right and wrong thinking.

This may result from seeing the Russians, or rather their leader, as an “enemy”. It may lead us to perceive his strategy as purely aggressive, necessitating a similar response. The trouble with this, as we see, is that matters can become more inflamed, the threat of force can escalate and, crucially, there is less room for backing down or saving face.

The latter is likely to be important to the Russian leader. But there could be a danger that, by our own actions, we might create the very situation (invasion/war) that we say we wish to avoid. Paradoxes abound. It is of course possible that the West’s strategy is to provoke Putin into acting — or retreating in humiliation. Long term, it is not clear either would lead to greater stability.

What might be done? It is possible to engage constructively with your antagonist while still expressing your own position clearly and robustly. It’s all about how you do it. First, the astute negotiator can acknowledge the perspective of the other, accepting that they see things differently. That is obviously true in this case. As viewed from Moscow, Ukraine presents a strategic risk to Russia. We do not need to agree with that proposition to recognise that Russians may feel vulnerable if their nearest neighbour elects to join the defence pact of its adversaries. Think of Cuba, Mexico or Canada joining the erstwhile Warsaw Pact.

Next, the negotiator can offer reassurances that they wish to work this out in a sensible way, addressing the concerns of all those involved. (Let us hope this is what’s happening behind closed doors — it is exactly what happened in the Edinburgh Conversations in the early 1980s, which helped to end the Cold War.)

Throughout, we can engage and maintain respectful communication with Russia and all others with a stake. Having acknowledged and recognised their concerns and viewpoint, we must describe clearly what matters to us, and why, setting clear parameters that underscore our interests, and explain what we can and cannot do.

No concessions for concessions’ sake but a mature conversation designed to reduce fear and find a constructive solution. This is not weakness but strength, courage and leadership. What is the alternative?


John Sturrock, The Times, 9 February 2022



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