What it’s like to negotiate with Putin
Presented by the Renew Democracy Initiative
Welcome back to Global Insider’s Friday feature: The Conversation. Each week a POLITICO journalist will share an interview with a global thinker, politician, power player or personality. This week, POLITICO’s Daniel Lippman talks to former European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton about Vladimir Putin, Russia’s relationship with the West and Ukraine.
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Catherine Ashton still remembers being woken up at 3 a.m. in late 2013 — when she was the European Union foreign policy chief — to call Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s office and urge him to not disperse peaceful protestors at the Maidan. She said she would go down there in the freezing cold temperatures to try to protect the demonstrators unless the president promised not to hurt them. (The government didn’t touch the protestors that night.)
Ashton has a new book out called “And Then What?: Inside Stories of 21st-Century Diplomacy” which covers the myriad issues she dealt with, from Iran nuclear talks to the Arab Spring. Instead of keeping a written diary, she recorded conversations she had with her husband Peter Kellner about what had happened in her job and on her foreign policy travels.
Ashton, who recently joined the Eurasia Group as a senior adviser and is also a fellow at the Wilson Center, thinks she and the European Union didn’t think enough about the internal politics of Ukraine as the EU negotiated with Yanukovych for the Association Agreement (which would have made it easier for Ukraine to trade with Europe, and which he ultimately did not sign). She also thinks that while President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has to decide when negotiations happen to end the Ukraine war, the West should start planning how to support any such talks since “in the end you always have to negotiate something, even if you win everything.”
I recently talked to her about the lessons she’s drawn from her career at the highest levels of foreign policy with a particular focus on her interactions with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the West’s relationship with Russia. This interview has been edited.
What was it like to deal with Putin and negotiate with him?
He is somebody who, when you go into a room, you know he’s the person who’s in charge. It’s not because he’s a huge presence. It’s because he’s somebody with enormous confidence. He’s not warm, and he doesn’t try and welcome people in an effusive way. He rarely smiles, but he’s not unpleasant. It’s very businesslike, and he controls the agenda. So we decide when it begins, and he decides when it ends.
When you are presenting to him, he will often look as if he’s not listening. But at the end, he will always ask you the one question that you wished that he hadn’t. He’s just really good at picking up the information that you’ve given him. And I presume, he’s also well-briefed beforehand. So he will ask pertinent and interesting questions. Always.
The big impression, when I reflect on him, is that a meeting is interesting to him only insofar as he can see that there’s a value or a benefit to the conversation. His relations with the EU were not looking for a long term strategic relationship. It was “this is quite useful to me now.” But when it ceases to be useful, well …
Did you notice a change in Putin from your first meeting with him to your last meeting, and today as an observer?
In the six years that I dealt with him, there wasn’t a dramatic change. But I saw a level of anger from him and [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov and others about what was happening in Ukraine in 2014. Looking back, it really stood out.
The anger that he clearly felt at the audacity, really, of Ukraine to want to look elsewhere [and align with Europe] could only be explained by interpreting the people in charge as extreme in their views — and wanting to be part of Europe in a way that the rest of the country didn’t.
The big bet that the Europeans and Americans made was that increasing business ties and cultural ties with an adversary like Russia, would keep them in the fold and prevent them from doing something crazy, like invading Ukraine. Should you have tried harder to get European countries to rely less on Russian gas, for example? Looking back now, was that the right approach?
In the context of Russia, yes, I do think we should have diversified energy supplies earlier. It’s easy to say; it’s quite complex to do. And I think that’s something now that for all sorts of reasons, including, of course, looking after the planet, we’ve got to do more and more. We probably should have started that process earlier for some countries that were very heavily reliant on Russia, but options and alternatives are not so easy.
It’s what I describe as the freezer and the oven. We put people in the freezer, because they’re impossible to deal with and the situation is terrible. And you’re always trying to eventually move to the point where you make a nice recipe together and kind of bake something good that sort of binds countries closer together. And the EU is a good example of that.
Do you think letting Ukraine into NATO or the EU would have prevented this?
I don’t know that it would have made a difference in terms of the relationship or whether it would have made President Putin act more quickly. But I do think that what he’s managed to achieve might not have happened, which is that Ukraine is now looking very much to become part of the EU, and I think considering the same as NATO, whereas they might not have done had this not happened.
No diplomat is perfect. What regrets do you have in your dealings with Russia?
Looking back, and I felt this when events happened after Yanukovych left: Although there was no reason to think this was going to be a big issue, we should have looked harder at politics.
We had a lot of live issues and that meant that we didn’t look more closely at the politics of what was happening as institutions and probably as member states, and think: How is this going to be viewed from the other side, in terms of what’s happening in Ukraine. You asked me if I look back and think was there anything we could do? The answer is, maybe we should have focused harder on whether we could see any danger signs or warning signs coming or that there were issues that we were not noticing.
What else should readers know about Putin? Most of them haven’t met the guy.
There are lots of moments when it’s very clear that his version of what’s going on and your version of what’s going on are very different. That’s been especially true over what’s going on in Ukraine. It’s a kind of looking glass moment where you realize that what somebody else is seeing is an almost mirror image of what you’re seeing.
What do you think his motivations are? Is it to recreate Mother Russia and the Soviet Union?
I think he’s driven by history and legacy. He certainly wants Russia to be, in his terms, this strong, powerful nation. He certainly believes that it has a very strong role to play. And he wants his legacy to be that he didn’t lose Ukraine.
Thanks to editor Heidi Vogt and producer Andrew Howard.
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