By Dora Mekouar
As Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its third month, questions have swirled about whether a negotiated solution with Russian President Vladimir Putin is possible.
Kenneth Dekleva, a psychiatrist who previously worked with the U.S. State Department, dismisses any speculation that Putin is unstable and therefore impossible to deal with.
“He’s not crazy. He’s a rational actor, and in his mind, he knows exactly what he’s doing,” says Dekleva. “He is an extremely savvy, highly intelligent and ruthless longtime leader who’s now been in power for over 22 years.”
Dekleva, a senior fellow at the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations in Texas, has studied the former Russian intelligence agent for 20 years. He describes Putin as single-minded, resilient, a master manipulator of people, and hyperfocused, due to his training as a KGB officer.
Putin, however, is 69 and his recent actions could suggest a less flexible style of leadership that is sometimes seen in aging leaders.
“You’re more rigid. You see things more in black and white, and you have less tolerance for nuance and ambiguity,” Dekleva says. “That’s certainly a possibility, although I don’t know that we can say that just from his current decision-making regarding the Ukraine war. That being said, he appears to be very, very deliberately focused and a bit of a man in a hurry.”
The key to negotiating with someone like Putin, Dekleva says, is to try to understand his mindset and be empathetic, even when you don’t agree with him.
For Jason Pack, a senior analyst at the NATO Defense College Foundation in Italy, reaching an agreement with Putin requires decisive action.
“I do think we need to be extremely bold, right up to the threshold of things that we might think would cause a big escalation … like engaging in bold cyberwarfare,” Pack says. “Like, ‘Hey, we’re going to make the lights go off in St. Petersburg for two hours and then negotiate after that. … The next time, it’s going to be two days if you don’t meet our demands.'”
Pack says Putin had every reason to believe the West would back down if he invaded Ukraine, despite the West having “more discretionary military and economic power.”
He points to Russia’s 2008 incursion in Georgia, formerly a part of the Soviet Union and now an independent republic, which resulted in Russia occupying 20% of that country. And Putin seized the southern region of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
“He seems to respect force, and he doesn’t respect just talking. I don’t even think that he thought that we would do the sanctions that were threatened if he invaded, because it was like, ‘This is just talk, talk, talk,'” says Pack, adding that he doesn’t believe Putin will take catastrophic nuclear action.
“He wants to live. He’s terrified of COVID. He’s 20 feet (6 meters) away from his advisers (in pictures). So, I don’t think that there is a risk of his blowing the world up so long as we stick to the rules of there not being NATO personnel fighting in Ukraine.”
Putin is adamantly against Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, joining NATO. He has complained about the West edging too close to Russian borders.
“His primary goal was to take Kyiv, and he didn’t use tactical nuclear (weapons) to try to take Kyiv,” Pack says. “He’s been exposed to be a degree of the paper tiger. He thought we would back down. He wants to live. He doesn’t want to be overthrown inside Russia. He has had horrible coordination with his generals. They had no battle plans.”
Dekleva says negotiations to end the conflict in Ukraine must simultaneously address Ukraine’s security needs and sovereignty while addressing Putin’s perception of threat in terms of the expansion of NATO to Russian borders. He thinks a very senior third- party mediator that both Putin and the West can trust — possibly from China, India or Israel — could be useful to the process. And he’s very clear on what should not happen.
“Name-calling — calling Putin crazy or calling him a thug, or a murderer, or a war criminal — by senior leaders in the West, including (U.S.) President (Joe) Biden, is not helpful,” Dekleva says. “That’s not how you get your negotiating partner to come to the table.”