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

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The need for more diplomacy between Russia and the United States is very clear. But it should focus on preventing a catastrophic conflict between the two countries, not on fruitless efforts to stop the Ukrainian war.

The Ukrainian conflict, for all its horror, is simply not ripe for a diplomatic solution. Ukraine is advancing on the battlefield, and Russia, despite its nuclear arsenal, is in disarray. A defiant Ukraine wants all of its territory back, while Russia refuses to back down. So, for now, there is no middle ground.

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When you have an intractable problem, make it bigger. It’s a familiar management formula, and it has some validity here. The United States should not (and could not) dictate a settlement to Kiev; instead, he must keep the weapons flowing, reliably and patiently. But he should find new channels to communicate that the United States does not seek to destroy Russia and wants to avoid direct military conflict.

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Even a shaken Russia seems unusually eager to communicate these days, even if it has been 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, and 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 a common future,” Putin said at the annual foreign policy forum in Moscow. Biden’s White House should forget the bizarre details of his view of reality: take him seriously; reply to his message.

An example of Russia’s recent communications binge – and a good US response – has been the avalanche of allegations about an alleged Ukrainian plot to build a radiological “dirty bomb”. To most Western analysts, this was seen as a false pretext by the Kremlin that might justify Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons. I also find this estimate plausible. But it is also possible that Putin really believes this and thinks he has proof.

The Kremlin pushed all the messaging buttons it had. The Russian defense minister called his American counterpart twice, as well as the British, French and Turkish defense ministers. The chief of the Russian military staff conveyed the same message to his colleague from the Pentagon. Russia raised the issue with the UN Security Council. Putin himself repeated the accusation.

What did the Biden administration do? Although she has denied the allegations, last weekend she made the sensible decision to push for an investigation by Rafael Grossi, the 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 for the moment) and address Russia’s vocal complaint.

This model of crisis communication must be repeated in all areas that could lead to – let’s say – the third world war. I think Putin is a liar and a bully and I hope the Ukrainians will continue to beat Russia on the battlefield. But the United States also has an enduring national interest in avoiding direct war with Russia, as Biden has repeatedly said.

During the eight months of fierce war, some rules of engagement emerged. To signal 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 wanted a no-fly zone and military tactical missile systems that could potentially target Russian cities. Biden said no to both.

Kyiv appears willing to accept escalating risks, particularly in covert intelligence operations that are not backed by the US. According to the New York Times on October 5, US intelligence officials identified Ukrainian operatives as responsible for the August car bomb attack that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of a Russian ultranationalist, and Kyiv later warned that it strongly opposes it. attacks.

Even more, Washington should communicate to Moscow – about what it will and will not do – through subtle channels. In the run-up to this conflict, Putin asked NATO for security guarantees. Diplomats should continue this discussion. Biden should repeat offers to limit missile deployments, share information on 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: we will withdraw our nuclear weapons from Turkey if you withdraw yours from Cuba.

Deterrence is an inevitable part of the balance between Russia and the United States. Russia knows it will pay a high price if it attacks the US directly (or uses nuclear weapons). This also applies to Russian Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov’s unusual threat on Wednesday that commercial satellites helping Ukraine could be a “legitimate target for retaliatory attack.”

The other side of this deterrence message is that the United States is not seeking to destroy 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 stupidity.

More diplomacy makes sense – if properly focused. The United States should not try to negotiate an end to the Ukraine war now. This is the prerogative of Kyiv. Even if the US wanted to impose a solution, it could not. But it is time for urgent conversations about how to prevent this terrible war from becoming something much worse.

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