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

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The need for greater diplomacy between Russia and the US is glaringly obvious. But he should focus on preventing a catastrophic conflict between the two countries, not on fruitless efforts to stop the war in Ukraine.

The Ukraine conflict, for all its horror, is simply not ripe for a diplomatic settlement. Ukraine is on the battlefield, and Russia, for all its nuclear saber rattling, is in disarray. A defiant Ukraine wants all of its territory back, while Russia refuses to back down. So, there is no middle ground yet.

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

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Shocked Russia seems strangely eager to communicate these days too, albeit sending a distorted and misleading message. The latest example was President Vladimir Putin’s speech on Thursday. He repeated his usual grievances against the West, but his other theme was that Russia wants a version of dialogue.

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“Sooner or later, both the new centers of the multipolar world order and the West will have to start an equal conversation about the common future,” Putin said at an annual foreign policy forum in Moscow. Biden’s White House should forget the odd details of his approach to reality: take him seriously; reply to his message.

One example of the recent flurry of Russian communications and a good response from the US has been the flurry of accusations about Ukraine’s alleged plot to develop a radiological “dirty bomb”. To most Western analysts, this appeared to be a bogus pretext by the Kremlin, perhaps to justify Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons. Such an assessment also seems plausible to me. But it is possible that Putin really believes this and thinks he has proof.

The Kremlin pushed every messaging button. The Russian Defense Minister called his counterpart in the United States twice, as well as together with the Defense Ministers of Great Britain, France and Turkey. The same message was conveyed to his Pentagon counterpart by the Russian Chief of Military Staff. Russia raised the issue with the UN Security Council. Putin himself repeated the accusation.

What did the Biden administration do? After the allegations were dismissed, she quickly prompted an investigation by Rafael Grossi, the head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, last weekend. 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 for a while) and address Russia’s loud complaint.

This model of crisis communication needs to be replicated in all areas that could lead to – say – World War III. I think Putin is a liar and a bully and I hope the Ukrainians continue to beat Russia on the battlefield. But the United States also has an ongoing national interest in avoiding direct war with Russia, as Biden has repeatedly said.

Some rules of engagement emerged during the eight months of close warfare. To convey the US desire to avoid direct conflict, the Pentagon keeps its planes out of Russian airspace and its ships out of Russian waters. Biden told Ukraine that our support is strong but not unlimited. Kyiv wanted a no-fly zone and the army’s tactical missile systems that could target Russian cities. Biden said no to both.

Kyiv appears willing to take escalating risks, especially in covert intelligence operations that the United States does not support. As written on October 5. According to a New York Times account, US intelligence concluded that Ukrainian officials were responsible for the August car bombing that killed the daughter of a Russian ultranationalist, Daria Dugina, and later warned Kiev that it strongly opposes such an effort. attacks.

Even more, what Washington should communicate to Moscow—what it will and won’t do—through subtle channels. While preparing for this conflict, V. Putin demanded NATO’s security guarantees. Diplomats should resume that discussion. Biden should reiterate proposals to limit missile deployments, share information about military exercises and avoid escalation. Let’s remember that such mutual security assurances were the formula for solving the Cuban Missile Crisis. The secret agreement was this: we will remove our nuclear weapons from Turkey if you remove your nuclear weapons from Cuba.

Deterrence is an inevitable part of the Russia-US balance. Russia knows that if it attacks the US directly (or uses a nuclear weapon), it will pay a heavy price. This also applies to the outlandish threat by Russian Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov on Wednesday that commercial satellites helping Ukraine could be a “legitimate target of a retaliatory strike.”

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

More diplomacy makes sense – if it is properly focused. The United States should not try to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine now. This is the prerogative of Kyiv. Even if the United States wanted to impose a solution, it could not. But the time has come to urgently talk about how to prevent this terrible war from turning into something even worse.


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