What Kissinger Teaches Us about Negotiating with Russia

What Kissinger Teaches Us about Negotiating with Russia

As the United States works to develop a coherent strategy toward Russia, the lessons of the Kissinger and Reagan period suggest a good place to start in our current negotiations is with serious engagement with Russia on specific nuclear risk-reduction measures.


First, we can adopt certain key nuclear risk reduction measures. There are several nuclear risk-reduction policies that the United States could once again prioritize to avoid “the great evil of nuclear war.” Former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and former Senator Sam Nunn, for instance, have recently called upon the U.S. administration to make the declaration, as Reagan and Gorbachev did in November 1985, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” They argue that this act was “essential to ending the Cold War.” The declaration did not remain “just words”—it was followed by real changes in nuclear force structure and policy.

In December 2018, Putin made statements that some accept as equivalent to the Reagan and Gorbachev declaration. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has stated that in October 2018 the Russian side sent a draft joint statement to the Trump administration on the prevention of nuclear war but received no response. It included the statement “A nuclear war cannot be won and must not be unleashed.” To date, Trump has spoken of how nice it would be not to spend the money on weapons, but has expressed little real visceral awareness of the nuclear threat or its consequences. On the contrary, he has taken the United States further in the direction of a war-fighting stance, as seen in the latest Nuclear Posture Review.


There is also legislation currently before the U.S. Congress calling on the United States to adopt a No First-Use of nuclear weapons policy. The argument is that, if the United States commits to never initiating a nuclear attack, this would have a stabilizing effect during a crisis, relieving pressure on Russia to launch first before the United States does, and reducing the risk of launching on false warning.

A measure that is not before Congress, which Kissinger and his colleagues called for in 2011, and which has been supported by Republicans and Democrats (including George W. Bush and Barack Obama), is a feasible and serious confidence-building step: de-alerting icbms—i.e., taking them off hair-trigger alert. This step involves not “merely” declarations but an actual physical change to nuclear forces. There are several ways to “de-alert” a missile. A highly verifiable way is to de-mate the warheads from the missiles and store them a short distance away—as China has done for decades with its deterrent of only about three hundred weapons. Verification can be conducted without on-site inspection by satellite. De-alerting increases the decisionmaking period in a crisis and arguably immediately reduces the risk of miscalculation and unintended nuclear war.

From a negotiation point of view, the de-alerting initiative could be implemented by the United States and Russia through reciprocal unilateral commitments, with each side initially removing the warheads from a small number of icbms, verifying that the other side has fulfilled its pledge, then (in stages) de-alerting the remaining silo-based icbms. Each successful step would help build confidence and trust—always subject to the Russian maxim, which Reagan liked to quote, “Trust but verify.” The confidence-building process of de-alerting icbms could potentially assist the revitalization of arms control and reduction talks, as did the initial agreement to cooperate on NRRCs in the 1980s. And the Centers themselves could serve as the forum for information exchange on this staged de-alerting and subsequent compliance. The process of reciprocal unilateral commitments also has a successful precedent in steps taken by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin in the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, when both sides fulfilled reciprocal unilateral pledges to substantially limit and reduce their tactical nuclear weapons.

SECOND, WE drive toward rebuilding a long-term U.S.-Russian working relationship that allows the cooperation on nuclear risk reduction. Both countries currently occupy a multipolar nuclear world vastly different from the old bipolar world of the U.S.-Soviet era. Along with the challenge of overcoming the accumulated mistrust in current U.S.-Russian relations. Even in situations not characterized by overt hostility, negotiation research by Harvard Business School professor James K. Sebenius shows a typical human bias: to perceive one’s own side as more “honest and morally upright,” while seeing the other as untrustworthy, dishonest and seeking unilateral advantage.

This could be seen by 2014 in some assessments of Putin’s/Russian negotiating styles as being practically the same as U.S. views of Soviet negotiation tactics from the worst days of the Cold War. James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, wrote in 2016 that “Russians go into a negotiation thinking not how they can create a win-win outcome, but rather how they can defeat the other side.” Stavridis cites “distrust, outbursts of rudeness and skepticism, threats to crater the discussion, and frequent finger-pointing.” I recall the short list of American assessments of Soviet negotiating behavior from the 1950–60s. These are:

  • Use rudeness and vilification

  • Use the negotiating process for propaganda purposes 

  • Maintain an adversary attitude toward those with whom the Soviets are negotiating 

  • Be stubborn; attempt to wear out the opponent

  • View compromise as weakness

  • Be devious; use deceit with little or no regard for the truth 

  • Refuse to make concessions; see concessions as a sign of weakness rather than goodwill 

  • Emphasize grievances the Soviet Union has with the opponent

Events since the Reagan-Gorbachev historic breakthrough have brought us to this point of deep-seated mistrust and hostility. Many Russians point to the expansion of NATO to the Russian border and their belief that the United States took advantage of their weakened state after Gorbachev’s magnanimous acts to allow the reunification of Germany—as well as the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq, Libya and Syria. On the U.S. side, most see the cause of the crisis in relations as due to events in Ukraine, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and Russian meddling in U.S. and European elections.

In his analysis of U.S.-Russian relations, Kissinger highlights the importance of dignity, a factor that most political figures consider intangible and elusive yet many in the field of negotiation consider to be a key element in creating successful negotiation outcomes. In 2016, Kissinger asserted to this magazine’s editor that the West must actively pursue a long-range purpose to integrate Russia into the European security community, and that the United States had put forth no strategy—“no concept of its own except that Russia will one day join the world community by some automatic act of conversion.” He later argued to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that “Russia must be dealt with by closing its military options but in a way that affords it dignity in terms of its own history.” As U.S.-Russian relations fell further into bitter confrontation after the annexation of Crimea, Kissinger repeatedly emphasized that “Russia is a vast country undergoing a great domestic trauma of defining what it is. Military transgressions need to be resisted. But Russia needs a sense that it remains significant.”

Few in the West realize that Russian president Yeltsin was in fact deeply angry by the end of his presidency, saying that President Bill Clinton was treating Russia “like Haiti.” “Russia will rise again,” Yeltsin affirmed bitterly. Seeking to fulfill that vow, Putin was chosen by Yeltsin and elected with the promise to “lift Russia from its knees” and to restore its status as a great power. And ever since Putin gave a stinging speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, the Russian leader has repeatedly expressed visceral anger at being wronged, often with a tone of desiring vengeance. Even pro-Western Gorbachev supported the annexation of Crimea, and has bitterly complained of Western efforts to “push Russia out of geopolitics.” Responding to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, President Obama could not have offered a greater affront to Putin’s sense of Russia’s national greatness by saying that Russia was “a regional power threatening some of its neighbors not out of strength but out of weakness.” In March 2018, Putin whipped up Russian national pride with a speech showcasing the country’s nuclear modernization and status as a great military power that had to be reckoned with, chiding the West: “You didn’t listen. So listen to us now.”

In 2019, we have reached a point where the United States and Europe have failed to integrate Russia into the European security system. Who is to blame for this is a matter of some debate. Former Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock has argued that integration of Russia should have been a priority strategic goal in the 1990s, but the Clinton and subsequent administrations implemented a “reversal of the Bush policy of not ‘taking advantage’ of the democratization of Eastern Europe.” Kissinger has argued that this was a failure due to the fact that U.S. foreign policy was disconnected from history and geopolitics, and overly guided by moral impulses, resulting in a counterproductive national strategy toward Russia.

What is to be done now that we have reached this point in U.S.-Russian relations? The United States and Russia rank as the top countries in terms of nuclear weapons, possessing over 92 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Few would dispute that this carries a responsibility to cooperate on nuclear risk-reduction for the safety of their own populations and for the larger global community. Moreover, not cooperating carries a momentous geopolitical cost in terms of the progressive Russian shift toward China; one of Kissinger’s top three strategic priorities was to create a more stable “structure of peace” in U.S-Russia-China relations, avoiding a Russo-Sino alliance.