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The West can strengthen Zelensky’s negotiating position

The Western allies should announce that President Volodymyr Zelensky has been empowered to dial back or even withdraw elements of the unprecedented sanctions regime that has cut Russia off from the global economy.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia (center right) and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine (center left) arrive for a working session at the Élysée Palace, Paris, Dec. 9, 2019.Ian Langsdon/Associated Press

At their first meeting in 2019 in Paris, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine arrived at the Élysée Palace in a modest gray minivan. President Vladimir Putin of Russia pulled up in a bespoke limousine. Since the Russians invaded Ukraine in February, Zelensky has emerged as one of the great wartime leaders of our time. Yet Russia retains the upper hand in peace negotiations.

Representatives from Ukraine and Russia have met five times to negotiate a resolution to the war. Zelensky is seen by the Russians to be in a relatively weak position and they have thus tried to dictate terms. Putin assumes that the Russian military presence will force the Ukrainians to give up some sovereignty over borders, official languages, and domestic political institutions.


The West has supplied the Ukrainians with cheerleading and weaponry. But the Western allies have refused to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine or provide Zelensky with the armaments he says he needs to defeat the Russians. By not arming Ukraine more extensively, the West is depriving the Ukrainians of the military power they could use to improve their leverage in negotiations with the Russians. But there’s another way Western Europe, the United States, and their allies can help.

The United States and NATO are not parties to the peace negotiations, but they have leverage — leverage they can give to Ukraine. The Western allies — and especially the United States — should announce that Zelensky has been empowered to dial back or even withdraw elements of the unprecedented sanctions regime that has cut Russia off from the global economy. While Western leaders cannot literally transfer this authority to Zelensky to dial back sanctions, they can publicly clarify to the Russian government that the Ukrainian government will directly participate in decisions to relieve the Russian economy from the powerful effects of sanctions.


Strengthening Zelensky’s negotiating position would have several advantages.

Most importantly, it would create material incentives for Putin to end hostilities. With each passing day, Ukraine’s ability to prevent Russia from achieving its military objectives makes a painful stalemate more likely. The Russian president and his small circle of advisers probably believe that dragging out the war or escalating to further horrors will make the Ukrainians more desperate and strengthen the Russian negotiating position.

At the moment, Putin is willing to pay the price of deep sanctions — no matter how painful they may be for the Russian public. But the longer Russia is severed from the global economy, the more difficult it will be for him to maintain domestic stability. The Kremlin would have an incentive to end the war faster if it were clear that it would benefit from doing so. Why wouldn’t this be obvious?

The Kremlin assumes that the sanctions imposed since February are all but permanent.Authorizing Zelensky to lift or soften sanctions as conditions warrant would strengthen the Ukrainian position in the peace talks. Making it clear that certain sanctions can be lifted — by Zelensky — would turn them into a flexible tool of statecraft and alter the Russian calculus.

If Russia expects sanctions to last for a long time, expect the ruthless, reckless Russian president to double down on the military campaign to achieve his objectives. He would have, after all, little left to lose.

At the beginning of this year, Russia tried to strike a grand bargain with the United States and NATO over the fate of Ukraine. The Western response was that Ukraine would decide its own future. This way of thinking is incomprehensible to the Russian political elite. In their view of the world, great powers — of which Russia is one and Ukraine is not — strike grand bargains; smaller countries adapt as they must to those arrangements. The Russian government does not want to negotiate with Kyiv. It wants to come to an agreement with Brussels, Berlin, Paris, London, and Washington. If the United States and its allies truly believe that smaller states in the global system deserve a say in their future, then it should empower them to secure it.


The West is sanctioning Russia on behalf of Ukraine. Giving Ukraine a starring role in deciding how the sanctions imposed on their behalf are deployed could affect the course of the war. Russian negotiators would have to take Ukrainian interests more seriously if Ukraine had, for example, the power to defrost the frozen reserves of Russia’s Central Bank.

Zelensky doesn’t need a limousine. (He’s already said he doesn’t want a ride.) But the West can make sure Ukraine comes to the negotiating table with the strongest possible position.

Rawi Abdelal is a professor at Harvard Business School and director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. Alexandra Vacroux is executive director of the Davis Center.