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

Explanation

The need for more diplomacy between Russia and the United States is clear. But it should focus on preventing a catastrophic conflict between the two countries, not a futile effort to stop the war in Ukraine.

The Ukraine conflict, for all its horror, is not ripe for a diplomatic solution. Ukraine is advancing on the battlefield and Russia is in disarray for all the nuclear strikes. Recalcitrant Ukraine wants to regain all its territory, while Russia refuses to withdraw. So there is no middle ground at the moment.

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When you have an intractable problem, expand it. This is a common management formula and has some validity here. The United States should not (and cannot) dictate a deal to Kyiv; but he must keep the movement of weapons reliable and patient. But he must find new channels to say that the United States is not seeking Russia’s destruction and wants to avoid direct military conflict.

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A shaken Russia also seems strangely eager to communicate these days, even if it sends a confusing and misleading message. A recent example was President Vladimir Putin’s speech on Thursday. He repeated his usual grievances with 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 world’s multipolar system and the West will have to start talking equally about a shared future,” Putin said at an annual foreign policy forum in Moscow. The Biden White House should forget the strange details of his view of reality: Take him seriously; reply to his message.

An example of recent Russian communications releases and the favorable US response was the storm of allegations about Ukraine’s alleged plot to build a radiological “dirty bomb.” To most Western analysts, this was a false pretext by the Kremlin, perhaps to justify Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons. The same assessment is possible for me. But it is possible that Putin actually believes this and thinks he has a point.

The Kremlin pushed every messaging button. The Minister of Defense of Russia called his American counterpart twice, together with the Ministers of Defense of Great Britain, France and Turkey. The head of the Russian military staff conveyed the same message to his counterpart in the Pentagon. Russia raised this issue before the UN Security Council. Putin himself repeated the accusation.

What did the Biden administration do? Wisely, while denying the allegations, he moved quickly late last week to encourage an investigation by Rafael Grossi, head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. To facilitate Grossi’s visit to Ukraine, senior White House and State Department officials called their Ukrainian counterparts. Within 24 hours, the Biden administration found an international forum to defuse the crisis (at least momentarily) and appeal to Russia’s vehement appeal.

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

During the eight months of intense fighting, some rules of war have emerged. To convey the US desire to avoid direct conflict, the Pentagon is keeping 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 wants a no-go zone and military tactical missile systems that could potentially target Russian cities. Biden said no to both.

Kyiv appears willing to take escalating risks, particularly in covert intelligence operations that the United States does not support. According to an Oct. 5 report in the New York Times, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Ukrainian officials were responsible for the August car bombing that killed the daughter of a Russian nationalist, Darya Dugina, and subsequently warned Kiev that strongly opposes such action. attacks

There are other things Washington needs to communicate to Moscow about what it will and won’t do – through subtle channels. On the brink of this conflict, Putin demanded security guarantees from NATO. Diplomats should start this debate. Biden should repeat proposals to limit missile deployments, share information on military exercises and prevent escalation. We remind you that such guarantees of mutual security were the formula for solving the Cuban missile crisis. The secret agreement was: If you remove your nuclear weapons from Cuba, we will withdraw our nuclear weapons from Turkey.

Deterrence is an inevitable part of the balance between Russia and the US. Russia knows that if it attacks the United States directly (or uses nuclear weapons), it will pay a heavy price. This refers to the strange threat Wednesday by Russian Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov that commercial satellites helping Ukraine could be “legitimate targets of retaliatory strikes.”

The other side of this deterrent message is that the United States is not out to destroy Russia. States with nuclear weapons cannot insult each other. Putin may lose the war he so foolishly started, but that’s not the country’s fault. We cannot save him from the consequences of his stupidity.

Diplomacy makes more sense – if it is properly directed. The United States should not try to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine now. This is the privilege of Kyiv. Even if the United States wanted to impose a solution to the problem, it could not do so. But it is time for urgent talks about how to keep this terrible war from becoming something much worse.

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