No room for "plan B" or old protocols. Seven principles of Ukraine's wartime diplomacy

Monday, 15 April 2024 — , Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine
Ukraine has had to develop principles that contradict the conceptual basis of Western diplomacy. Photo from Minister Kuleba's Twitter account

On Friday, 12 April, the first Wartime Diplomacy Forum was held in Kyiv and discussed both the success and the problems of Ukraine's work at an international level.

It is worth taking a closer look at this event and at the keynote address given by Minister Dmytro Kuleba. In his speech, the Foreign Minister outlines in detail for the first time the rules and principles of Ukraine’s diplomacy during the full-scale war.

It is well known that since 24 February 2022, Ukraine has rejected key principles of "peaceful" diplomacy. An aggressive style of negotiation, one that is far from diplomatic sincerity in statements, has changed but is still prominent.

The speech (summarised below) sets out and explains Ukraine's approaches to diplomacy.


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What is the key difference between wartime diplomacy and peacetime diplomacy, he asks, other than the fact that diplomats all of a sudden start using military jargon and military acronyms? There are several principles that distinguish wartime diplomacy from classic diplomacy. Before I begin, let me just say that wartime diplomacy would have been impossible had Ukraine not had any allies in this war. And I would like to thank all our allies and partner countries. But it would also have been impossible if there was nobody to convince. Some countries still need convincing and need more advocacy. Ukrainian diplomats have their key points down when it comes to talking to Brussels and Washington, as to the right theses and arguments. But finding arguments and approaches in Africa, Asia, South America, is an art that we have begun to master, primarily thanks to wartime diplomacy.

Our president laid the very foundations of Ukraine's wartime diplomacy, literally from the first hours of the full-scale invasion. In his telephone conversations, his first engagement with foreign leaders, he might have come across as a bit too stern and a bit too harsh, controversial to external observers, they violated stereotypes, but it did bear some good results.

Any person may behave one way in a normal situation, but in times of crisis, behaviour changes. We, too, just walk the streets differently than when we defend ourselves against attackers, right?

Similarly, states may come across differently in war. Those who may seem strong in peacetime sometimes turn out to be cowardly and weak, unfit for battle. We have such examples. And conversely, those who seemed weak may suddenly show themselves in the best light.

Hence the basic rule: one must pay attention to the fundamental changes in behaviour that occur between peace and war.

We have formulated seven principles of wartime diplomacy for ourselves over the past two years. They were all developed, as they say, not out of choice but of necessity. But they work.

The first principle is stubbornness.

All of Ukraine's negotiations to secure more weapons for Ukraine started out with a firm and unequivocal "no" from its partners. All of them. But where a classic diplomat in peacetime, hearing "no" several times, would have long since stopped and postponed negotiations, a wartime diplomat does not have that right, but has to persevere and keep looking for that positive answer.

So time and again, we broke through these walls of misconception and artificial barriers until we finally heard a positive response. Anti-tank weapons, NATO artillery, rocket artillery systems, modern air defence systems, tanks, long-range missiles, and advanced aviation – all these types of weapons were eventually unlocked at the political level.

The persistence of wartime diplomacy applies not only to weapons but to almost any international initiative or negotiation.

The second principle: not being afraid of placing friends in uncomfortable positions. 

Normally, we treat our friends with special respect. 

But in times of war, the key difference is that if you die, your friends may lay flowers on your grave, remember the friendship and continue living their lives.

And you will be dead. 

So if the price of your survival is to push your friends outside their comfort zone, then you need to do it.

This is the most controversial issue, one that raises the most questions. People say, "How can you speak like this, say things like that?" We can. Because the very survival of our country is at stake. And so if a friendly, quiet conversation behind closed doors doesn’t work, you need to speak your mind with friends and in the presence of others until you achieve a result.

The third principle is that we don’t need a "plan B."

This approach also sparked lively discussions after one of my quotes. Because classic diplomacy assumes that a diplomat must always have an "exit strategy", a way to retreat if an initiative fails. 

But the issue of there being no "plan B" is not about our being stupid and not having come up with a backup plan. It's just that wartime diplomacy assumes that you either achieve the result or it's over for you.

I once talked to an officer in the Ukrainian military, a company commander, and he told me an interesting story. He said: "When I gathered my platoon leaders and presented them with "plan A," for example, to capture a bridge, they asked, what if we fail, what do we do then?" And he said: "Well, in that case we will all meet at the crossroads a kilometre away from the bridge." 

Every single time it ended with them retreating to the crossroads, because they couldn't accomplish the task immediately, and the platoon leaders chose the backup plan. 

Each time! 

Then he changed tactics and only presented "plan A" to his subordinates. This doesn’t mean he didn’t have a backup plan. This is all about psychology. War is an extremely violent activity. And under these conditions, it is important to focus solely on achieving "plan A".

Last night, on my way back from Slovakia to Ukraine by train, I was exchanging messages with an acquaintance who asked me when the war would end and how.

I replied, "I don't know when, but I know how. it will end with our victory."

He sent another message: "Okay, but do you have a real plan? Privately?" I said: "I do. Victory. That's the real plan, the only plan." He asked: "Are there any compromises in the pipeline?" No, there are no compromises.

This correspondence illustrates the peculiarity of wartime.

Whenever you have a "plan B", then, just like in the story from the front, having that safe place to retreat to affects you.

I see this among diplomats as well. I recently had a meeting with a group of ambassadors and we were talking about the supply of Patriot systems, and I could tell immediately who among the ambassadors is focused on "plan B." Instead of focusing solely on the task which is to "get that damn Patriot."

The fourth principle is maximum time compression for decision-making. 

Diplomacy is a process. Classic diplomacy involves the maximum filtration and screening of every issue. And it's better if the decision is delayed a bit, "matures". Perhaps circumstances will change, additional factors will arise. 

But in times of war, you don't have time for that. 

So, the protocols and procedures in times of war suffer somewhat. Because when people die, you do not think primarily about protocols and procedures. 

And I assure you, over these past two years, I personally and our ambassadors faced many situations when we were told: "Well, we can't act so quickly because there is a procedure..." But then it turns out that if you build the process properly, every country has a lot of room to compress the time for decision-making. 

For any decision! 

You just need to find the right approach.

The fifth principle is flexibility in decision-making.

Anyone with experience in diplomatic analysis or the theory and practice of diplomacy has heard something like "this is not an à la carte menu". Supposedly, "you can't pick and choose from a list of principles or requirements, you have to take it all together." 

But wartime diplomacy requires the art of combining toughness, principle and flexibility. As Sun Tzu wrote, war is both offensive and maneuvre. 

Offensive is where you're tough and principled. Maneuvre is where you show flexibility. 

So when President Zelenskyy came up with the "peace formula" idea, it included this element of flexibility: you can choose the items you want to get involved in, the ones you want to engage in. 

This is a unique phenomenon for a peace plan, intentionally made to involve as many countries as possible. And I think the "peace formula," the President's initiative, will go down in the history of diplomacy not only because for the first time, the conditions for ending the war are defined by the country under attack, not the attacking country or a third party. It will also go down in history as an example of constructive selectivity.

The sixth wartime diplomacy principle I would call: "everyone talks to everyone." 

In a country at war, everyone, from top officials to secretaries and aides, should communicate with their counterparts in the countries with which certain issues need to be resolved. One of the best examples of this approach was my meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Hungary, Péter Szijjártó, together with Andrii Yermak. We deliberately went together to send a strong signal of Ukraine's readiness to resolve issues. 

The President's Office, the Cabinet of Ministers, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries, all of them have direct contacts with their counterparts in other countries at all levels. 

Yes, sometimes we have to sacrifice the integrity of our efforts for this approach. 

But the problem is not that everyone talks to everyone. On the contrary, it's normal because in times of war the Foreign Ministry alone physically cannot handle the incredible volume of communication. Therefore, the classic diplomacy model whereby "everything through the Foreign Ministry", which still exists in some countries, simply does not work in wartime. 

The problem arises only when everyone starts saying different things. So, the function of the Foreign Ministry changes, and it is not about coordinating who talks to whom, but what exactly these people are saying. Because everyone has to be on the same page. 

And the seventh principle is clarity, directness of speech, relevant in a specific context. 

Everyone knows that a classic diplomat should speak in a convoluted manner, overloaded with politeness. That diplomacy involves embedding several scenarios in one short sentence. Because you never know how things will turn out, and you don't want to look bad. 

But in times of war, it's better to look clumsy than to speak in a way that your words will have no effect. 

Verbal fencing is needed in peacetime, but in wartime, you need to convey the message to the necessary audience as quickly as possible. And to do that, you need to understand your audience very well and speak to them briefly, directly and firmly. 

This also has an effect because a generation of people who grew up with social media has entered diplomacy, and the only language they understand is short, direct and firm statements. 


These are the seven features of wartime diplomacy that I have seen. Perhaps you will see other things. There is room for discussion. 

But Ukraine can formulate the principles of wartime diplomacy as our Ukrainian contribution and added value to the theory and practice of diplomacy. 

Dmytro Kuleba, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine 

Speech at the Wartime Diplomacy Forum in Kyiv, 

12 April 2024 

Recorded and summarised by Sergiy Sydorenko

Translated by Daria Meshcheriakova

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