Opinion | Putin seems to want to talk. The U.S. should take him up on it.


The need for more diplomacy between Russia and the United States is obvious. But it should focus on preventing a catastrophic conflict between the two countries, rather than the unsuccessful attempt to end the war in Ukraine.

The Ukraine conflict, for all its horror, is simply not ripe for a diplomatic settlement. Ukraine is advancing on the battlefield, and Russia, for all its nuclear strikes, is in disarray. A defiant Ukraine wants to regain all its territory, while Russia refuses to retreat. So, there is no middle ground, for now.

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When you have an intractable problem, escalate it. That’s a familiar management formula, and it has some validity here. The United States should not (and cannot) direct settlements to Kyiv; instead, it must maintain the flow of weapons, reliably and patiently. But it must find new channels to convey that the United States does not seek Russia’s destruction and wants to avoid direct military conflict.

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Shaky Russia seems strangely out of place to communicate these days, despite sending a twisted and misleading message. The latest example was Thursday’s speech by President Vladimir Putin. He repeated his usual grievances with the West, but another theme was that Russia wanted a version of dialogue.

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“Sooner or later, both the new center of the multipolar world order and the West will have to start the same conversation about a common future,” Putin told an annual foreign policy forum in Moscow. The Biden White House should forget the strange details of his view of reality: Take him seriously; answer his message.

An example of Russia’s recent communications binge – and the favorable US response – is the onslaught of allegations about Ukraine’s alleged plans to build a radiological “dirty bomb”. To most Western analysts, this looks like a false Kremlin pretext, perhaps to justify Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons. That assessment seems likely to me as well. But it’s also possible that Putin really believes it and thinks he has proof.

The Kremlin is pushing every messaging button there is. The Russian Defense Minister called on his US counterpart, twice, and with the British, French and Turkish defense ministers. Russia’s military chief of staff sent a similar message to his Pentagon peer. Russia raised the issue with the UN Security Council. Putin himself repeated the accusation.

What is the Biden administration doing? Wisely, while denying the allegations, it moved quickly last weekend to push for an investigation by Rafael Grossi, head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. To facilitate Grossi’s trip to Ukraine, top White House and State Department officials called their Ukrainian counterparts. Within 24 hours, the Biden administration found an international forum to defuse this crisis (at least temporarily) and address Russia’s loud complaints.

This model of crisis communication should be replicated in every region that could lead to – let’s say – World War III. I think that Putin is a liar and a bully, and I hope that Ukrainians keep attacking Russia on the battlefield. But the United States also has an abiding national interest in avoiding direct war with Russia, as Biden has repeatedly said.

Few rules of engagement have emerged during eight months of bitter war. To convey the US’s desire to avoid direct conflict, the Pentagon kept its aircraft out of Russian airspace and its ships out of Russian waters. Biden has told Ukraine that our support is strong but not limited. Kyiv wants a no-fly zone and an Army Tactical Missile System that could potentially target Russian cities. Biden said no to both.

Kyiv appears willing to take escalatory risks, especially in covert intelligence operations, which the United States does not support. According to an account on October 5 in the New York Times, US intelligence concluded that Ukrainian operatives were responsible for the August car-bomb that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of a Russian ultra-nationalist, and warned Kyiv later that it intended to oppose such. attack

There’s more that Washington needs to communicate to Moscow — about what it will and won’t do — through subtle channels. In the run-up to this conflict, Putin demanded security guarantees from NATO. The diplomats should continue the discussion. Biden should reiterate his offer to limit missile deployments, share information on military exercises and avoid escalation. Let’s remember that such mutual security guarantees are the formula for solving the Cuban missile crisis. The secret deal was: We’ll pull our nukes from Turkey if you remove yours from Cuba.

Deterrence is part of the Russia-US balance. Russia knows that if it attacks the United States directly (or with nuclear weapons), it will pay a heavy price. That also applies to Wednesday’s extraordinary threat by Russian Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov that commercial satellites helping Ukraine could be “legitimate targets of retaliatory attacks.”

The flip side of this deterrence message is that the United States does not seek Russia’s destruction. Nuclear powers cannot afford to despise each other. Putin may have lost the war he started sleeping on, but that’s not the country’s fault. We cannot save him from the consequences of his folly.

More diplomacy makes sense – if it’s really focused on. The United States should not try to bargain now about the end of the Ukraine war game. That is the prerogative of Kyiv. Even if the United States wanted to force a solution, it could not. But it’s time for an urgent talk about how to keep this terrible war from being something vastly worse.


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