Negotiating with Vladimir Putin: Video Advice from Five Former U.S. Secretaries of State

The horrific Ukraine war will almost certainly lead to negotiations with Vladimir Putin. To prepare to deal successfully with this challenging Russian leader, many analysts offer useful insights into his background, personality, and motivations. Yet direct advice from officials who themselves have extensively negotiated with Putin should inform any future approach. Along with Nick Burns and Bob Mnookin, I have conducted lengthy videotaped interviews with five former U.S. Secretaries of State that provide the basis for exactly this kind of advice.* In the video program linked to this post, Bob and I present memorable excerpts from these interviews and distill their most important prescriptions.

By itself, advice on effective approaches to Putin “at the negotiating table”—what the five former secretaries present in these videos from interviews before the Ukraine war—certainly won’t produce the kind of outcome we seek and does not add up to a negotiating strategy. Instead, forging a diplomatic end to the war in Ukraine requires determined actions to build sufficient leverage (e.g. via sanctions on Russia, military aid to Ukraine, Ukrainian battlefield success, strengthening NATO, etc.). It calls for creatively designed agreements (e.g. whose provisions might include ceasefires, troop withdrawals, Ukraine’s relationship to NATO and the EU, the status of the Donbas and Crimea, the International Criminal Court’s role, etc.).

Yet transforming such leverage and deal concepts into an actual war-ending accord demands tactical and interpersonal skill. Based on their lengthy personal negotiations with Putin, this video compilation delivers highly relevant insights from Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Rex Tillerson.**

You can watch this program below, or by clicking here; a transcript is here. (If you prefer a slightly earlier version of this program with “chapters” linked to the introduction, the segments featuring each secretary, and our summary and takeaways, you’ll find it here.***)



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* These unique video segments are excerpted from our in-depth interviews as part of Harvard’s “American Secretaries of State Program,” a joint effort of the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, and Harvard Business School. Since 2014, Bob and I have co-directed this program together with Nicholas Burns (now U.S. Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, who did not participate in creating this video). Thus far, we have conducted lengthy videotaped interviews, mostly at Harvard, with Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Rex Tillerson. We have probed the most challenging negotiations undertaken by these men and women in the Soviet Union/Russia, in Asia/China, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

**We thank Alex Green whose extraordinary production efforts made the present video possible.


***For reference here’s the timing of the “chapters:” Introduction (00:00), Colin Powell (10:26), Condoleezza Rice (16:03), Hillary Clinton (21:15), John Kerry (32:12), Rex Tillerson (37:30), Summary and Takeaways (46:20).