“The exercises are going according to plan”, or How Putin exploits the rules of cooperative interaction

I’m not sure if this photo was really taken immediately after Macron’s calling Putin, but it is a good illustration.

The Élysée Palace published the telephone call between Macron and Putin a few days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine (the French transcript can be found here and an English translation here). This text gives us a unique opportunity to see how Putin communicates ‘behind the scenes’.

Normally, people communicate cooperatively, in such a way that they both contribute to the dialogue in accordance with the purpose of their interaction. There are certain rules that people follow: Be relevant, Be clear, Be informative, and so on. These rules were formulated first by Paul Grice and later developed by Stephen Levinson, Dan Sperber, Deirdre Wilson and many others. If the speaker or signer openly disobeys these rules and says something irrelevant, obviously false, weird, or uninformative, the addressee still expects that they are behaving cooperatively, and infers the intended meaning. For example, if someone says out of the blue, It’s hot in here, the utterance can be interpreted as a request to open the window. This is called an implicature.

But Putin’s communication is often ambiguous and foggy. He neither sticks to the rules, nor flouts them openly. So it is difficult to figure out what the intended meaning is.

For example, take the following fragment from the transcript of the phone call:

Macron: The situation on the line of contact is very tense. (…) There was a lot of shelling yesterday. What do you say — how will [Russian] military exercises develop?

Putin: The exercises are going according to plan.

On the surface, Putin answers Macron’s question. However, this is not what Macron is asking about. He wants to know if the situation will de-escalate. Putin’s answer can also be interpreted as an implicature, “I don’t want to answer this question”. But we cannot be sure. After Macron asks, “So tonight they [the military exercises – NL] will end, right?”, he replies, “Yes, probably tonight”, which also leaves room for doubt.

Another interesting fragment:

Macron: I wanted to make you two very specific suggestions. The first is to arrange a meeting between you and President Biden in Geneva in the next few days. I spoke to him on Friday night and asked if I could make you this offer. He asked to tell you that he was ready. President Biden also considered appropriate ways to de-escalate the situation, taking into account your requirements and clearly approaching NATO and Ukraine. Name a date that suits you.

Putin: Thank you, Emmanuel. It is always a great pleasure and an honor for me to speak with your European colleagues, as well as with the United States. And Iʼm always very pleased to talk to you, because we have a relationship of trust (…). 

Instead of naming a date, Putin produces abundant thanks and compliments. Of course, we cannot completely exclude the possibility that he is genuinely flattered to have an opportunity to talk to Biden on an equal footing, but it is also a way for Putin to avoid a more specific answer. Only after some pressure from Macron, Putin says that he ‘in general’ agrees with the idea.

One more illustration:

Macron: Very well, you have confirmed that you generally agree. I suggest that our staff […] try to prepare a joint statement, such as a press release following this conversation.

Putin: Honestly, I was going to play ice hockey. Iʼm talking to you from the gym before training. But first I will call my advisers.

By mentioning ice hockey and the gym, Putin implies that he has more interesting things to do and that a meeting with Biden is not a priority for him. (By the way, this contradicts everything he said above about how honoured he feels about the meeting). But immediately after that he adds, “But first I will call my advisers”, which means that he doesn’t reject Macron’s suggestion.

How to be ambiguous was probably taught at the KGB school. In addition to hiding important information, ambiguity can also be a means of controlling the conversation and playing cat-and-mouse with the hearer. All this means that talking with Putin is a very difficult job. This is why I greatly appreciate and even admire Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to de-escalate the conflict. At the same time, I doubt that normal interaction based on the assumption of cooperative behaviour is an adequate way of dealing with Putin. Similar to non-Euclidean geometry, we probably need a non-Gricean theory of human communication.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s