Negotiating Power and Principles in the Wake of Russia’s War on Ukraine

By Mikhail Troitskiy, Professor of Practice at University of Wisconsin-Madison

Although Russia’s war in Ukraine is ongoing, how it ends will influence lessons on negotiation and conflict resolution. A key emerging question from the conflict is to what extent threats of the use of force will become the norm in international negotiations. So far, we have not seen a slide to power-based international politics as the key players continue to ground their positions in the principles of fairness. These stances indicate that global public opinion still matters, so attempts to ignore it are likely to backfire.


The opposite of negotiation outcomes based on the relative strength of the disputants are solutions based on negotiated formulas: sets of principles that the conflicting parties agree upon. Negotiation scholars and practitioners teach us that to avoid a self-perpetuating and escalating diktat of force, negotiators should anchor their positions on the ethical principles of justice. Thus, parties can debate the relative validity of those principles rather than overtly threatening the use of force should negotiations fail.

What is now at stake is the future of principled negotiation, which theorists have contrasted to “positional bargaining:” maneuvers based on direct threats of force, expectations to wait out the opponent, or attempts to lure them into a trap. The classical example of positional bargaining is the famous dialogue between the Athenians and the Melians during the Peloponnesian War. During a brief negotiation, the Athenians, secure in their military superiority, presented the Melians with a stark choice of either surrendering or dying.

Compared to deals imposed by one negotiating party, solutions based on principles of fairness last longer. In addition, choosing principles that resonate with third parties may help negotiators expand support for their position and cause. Such rallying effects were used by the supporters of NATO enlargement after the end of the Cold War. The case for NATO enlargement, and its continued existence, presented a strong case even for initial skeptics when framed as an effort to honor postcommunist societies’ legitimate aspirations for security. Thus, opponents to the accession of new members to NATO could only criticize the enlargement from the position of selfish or parochial interests. Moscow’s rhetoric of “dividing lines” failed to impress the public in Europe, Eurasia, and North America. Unlike freedom to choose alliance affiliations, “indivisible security” was not grounded in the broadly recognized norms of international law. Accordingly, even the most dramatic of Russia’s demands for limits on the enlargement of NATO fell on deaf ears.

The combined power of NATO countries far exceeded Russia’s post-Cold War military and diplomatic capabilities, which were major factors deterring Moscow from a frontal assault on the European security architecture until February 2022. However, principles played a significant role in maintaining consensus—at least among NATO members and partners—around the viability of that architecture. Such consensus involved not only NATO members and aspiring candidates, but also most of the former Soviet republics that—except for Belarus—were never nearly as critical about “divisions” in European security as Russia.


As principle-based negotiation became increasingly widespread globally in the twenty-first century, it was not unreasonable to expect—at least before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine—that parties to international negotiation and conflict mediation would need to compete vigorously for public support of the principles underlying their positions. For example, the discussion on reforming the United Nations Security Council largely boiled down to reevaluating the meaning of equity eighty years after the establishment of the UN: how long would the five states that made the greatest contribution to victory in World War II hold on to their exclusive positions? As the antinuclear movement was gaining momentum, using history to justify inequality in possession of nuclear weapons was also likely to become an uphill battle.

Running against this trend, Russia’s war against Ukraine struck many observers as a manifestation of utter disregard for ethical principles and an act that was undertaken just because the Kremlin thought it could get away with it, given the perceived disparity in power potentials between Moscow and Kyiv—much like what happened between the Athenians and the Melians.

In the years preceding the war, Russia’s reading of principles of fairness was built on its growing opposition to the established rules regarding interference with what Moscow considered its entitlement. Most notably, the Kremlin aspired for unchallenged authority over the international alignment preferences of Ukraine and other Russian neighbors. In the run-up to the invasion, Russia showed almost no interest in negotiating serious principles that would include the sovereign equality of all internationally recognized states.

Proposals for cessation of armed hostilities made by the Kremlin so far have been based on what Moscow calls “realities on the ground,” not fair principles. For Kyiv, justice would include holding Russia accountable for the mass casualties and tremendous destruction it inflicted. For its part, Moscow has never tried to explain either the annexations or the actions it has been condemned for, such as atrocities committed by Russian troops against civilians outside of Kyiv in March 2022 or the large-scale resettling of Ukrainian children to Russia.

But how much immediate damage did the Russian war in Ukraine do to the culture of principled negotiations?


Russia’s invasion initially reinforced skepticism about the usefulness of principles in negotiations between unequal partners. However, the rallying power of ethics, including the notions of justice and fairness, has remained surprisingly strong.

Russia’s use of brute force did not strike a chord with almost any stakeholder in European and Eurasian security, including members of the Russia-led defense bloc in Eurasia. The Kremlin’s attempts to justify its invasion of Ukraine in the quest for “equal security” have not weakened public condemnation of the invasion in Europe and North America. Popular outrage forced European Union countries that had previously favored a pragmatic course toward Russia to throw much of their weight behind Ukraine.

The principles that shaped uncompromising Western responses to the war also forced the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to disavow knowledge of Russia’s plan to invade Ukraine, minimize the importance of the February 2022 declaration of a Sino-Russian “no-limits partnership,” and refrain from providing substantial military aid to Moscow. The PRC could not afford to ignore Western appeals to principles because Beijing had its own record of trying to anchor key foreign policy pursuits in the broadly accepted principles of fairness, such as historic entitlement to special rights in the surrounding seas or collective benefits to be derived from the PRC’s rise as a regional leader. 

Moreover, mediation between Russia and Ukraine required from Beijing a realistic vision for ending the conflict. When the PRC put forward its twelve principles for settling the conflict, Ukraine’s supporters pressed Beijing to set priorities among those principles and provide a detailed blueprint for a settlement. The PRC never directly responded to those demands, refusing to unequivocally commit to the inviolability of Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders. However, PRC President Xi Jinping could not dodge the fairness question completely and had to reassure French President Emmanuel Macron that the PRC “never handles the issue out of self-interest, but always stands for fairness and justice.”

Some of the notable reactions to the war by the developing world were equally based on principles. For example, at the beginning of the war, Kenya rejected Russia’s bid for leadership in the anti-colonial movement. Nairobi argued that many post-colonial states chose not to open the pandora’s box of complaints about the unfairness of the borders drawn by the colonial powers and territorial claims vis-à-vis their neighbors because post-colonial states had a stake in the stability of their own regions. Many non-aligned states, such as India, the United Arab Emirates, or Brazil, too, have refrained from taking sides in order to seize new business opportunities while voicing commitment to fairness principles.

Aside from Russia’s closest partners, there hardly has been a country that has pushed back vigorously against demands by the pro-Ukraine coalition to fall in line at least with the key sanctions against Russia. The few countries, such as Iran or North Korea, that have been openly assisting Russia’s war effort have not been citing any principles to justify their behavior. While Pyongyang has been mainly looking for cash in return for supplies of munitions, Tehran has been working to improve its bargaining position vis-à-vis regional rivals and the West. Trying to secure relief from Western sanctions—at least until the attack by Hamas on Israel in October 2023—Iran has been careful not to destroy its own negotiation channel with the United States by framing Iranian exports of kamikaze drones to Russia as a principled anti-American effort.

Toward the summer of 2023, Ukraine’s uncompromising pursuit of full restoration of its territorial integrity began to draw criticism from some observers who called this goal unrealistic. Alongside experts, high-ranking members of the U.S. military recommended that Ukraine start negotiations with Russia on a settlement that would leave parts of Ukrainian territory in Russia’s hands. Former U.S. officials traveled to Moscow to test the waters for Russia-Ukraine talks. 

These overtures, however, did not significantly constrain Ukraine’s freedom to decide if and when to engage in talks with Russia. Neither did the calls on Ukraine for more flexibility imply surrender: an end to armed hostilities carried the clear promise of Ukraine’s expedited admission into NATO—the main source of Russia’s discontent that triggered the war in the first place. There was hardly a politician of importance in NATO countries who would not advocate a formula that would honor Ukraine’s right to choose alliance affiliations.

Overall, we have not so far seen a renaissance of power-based negotiation, despite the current skepticism about Ukraine’s ability to immediately recapture all of its internationally recognized territory. What is the outlook for principled negotiation going forward?


On the global scale, the future of international negotiations and hence the durability of peace and the amount of violent conflict will depend on the lessons learned from Russia’s war in Ukraine. If observers conclude that the Kremlin’s own choices for unprincipled and arbitrary action instead of engagement on the basis of negotiated formulas have brought Russia into an impasse and created significant risks of a domestic political crisis, unilateral blackmail and use of force in major disputes around the world will be discouraged. The existing formulae, however precarious they may seem, are likely to stand keeping the current positive trends in place. For example, there would be no increase in the likelihood of the use of force against Taiwan by Beijing short of a declaration of independence by Taipei, while multilateral economic ties in the Middle East will be gradually rebuilt if Iran chooses not to acquire nuclear weapons.

Should the use of force in response to largely concocted threats become a viable alternative to fair formula-based solutions, many of the existing tacit global and regional arrangements, such as the two described above, will be imperiled. One major global casualty would likely be the nuclear nonproliferation regime. If nuclear-threshold states assess that Ukraine’s decision not to pursue nuclear weapons was the key mistake facilitating the Russian invasion, they will prepare to obtain a nuclear bomb quickly—if not immediately—should threats to their security intensify. If the outcome of the Russian war in Ukraine shows that there can be no safeguard in the form of international legal principles against diktat by stronger states to weaker ones, arms races will become widespread and coalitions will become volatile. 

The future of conflict and multilateral cooperation will depend on how much parochial and revisionist policies can be framed in terms of widely recognized principles of fairness. For example, can the PRC’s promotion of its own rules governing maritime navigation be cogently backed up by such principles? Can any country’s bid to explain why it can be fair to acquire nuclear weapons muster enough international support? If they can, we are in for a much more turbulent world because pursuing and supporting a principled policy has always been an irresistible temptation. For example, recognition of the Athenians’ power-based approach to negotiation as fair and acceptable would result in a crisis of coalition politics and escalate many dormant disputes that have been kept under control by reliance on allies. 

Finally, overcoming the gravest consequences of Russia’s war against Ukraine and revitalizing European security will require commitment to principled diplomacy by all parties to a postwar settlement. Russia will need to redefine the concepts that artificially limit the choices available to Moscow in its relations with its neighbors and much of the rest of the world. Such a change will allow for a lasting solution based on a formula that would be acceptable to all stakeholders and would square security and justice for Ukraine by solving the manifold postwar social issues that will inevitably arise between Kyiv and Moscow. 

(This post is republished from The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.)

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