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 screamingly clear. But it should focus on preventing a destructive conflict between the two countries rather than trying in vain to stop the Ukraine war.

The Ukraine conflict, for all its horrors, is simply not amenable to diplomatic settlement. Ukraine is moving onto the battlefield, and Russia, for all its nuclear saber-rattling, is in limbo. A defiant Ukraine wants all of its territory back, while Russia refuses to back down. Therefore, there is currently no middle ground.

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When you have an insoluble problem, make it bigger. It’s a familiar management formula, and it has some validity here. The United States should not (and cannot) order Kiev to compromise; Instead, it must maintain the flow of weapons, reliably and patiently. But the United States must find new channels to convey that it does not want Russia’s destruction and wants to avoid direct military conflict.

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Even a shaken Russia seems strangely eager to communicate these days, although it is sending a twisted and misleading message. The latest example was Thursday’s speech by President Vladimir Putin. He reiterated his usual grievances with the West, but another of his themes was that Russia wanted 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 the same conversation about a common future,” Putin said at the annual foreign-policy forum in Moscow. The Biden White House should forget the weird details of his view of reality: take it seriously; Reply to his message.

An example of Russia’s recent communications — and the well-received US response — was its barrage of allegations about an alleged Ukrainian plot to build a radiological “dirty bomb.” To most Western analysts, this seemed like a bogus Kremlin excuse, perhaps to justify the use of Russian strategic nuclear weapons. That assessment seems likely to me as well. But it’s also possible that Putin really believes and thinks he has proof.

The Kremlin pushed every messaging button it had. The Russian defense minister called his US counterpart, twice, and the British, French and Turkish defense ministers. Russia’s chief of military staff sent a similar message to his Pentagon peer. Russia raised the issue before the UN Security Council. Putin himself repeated this charge.

What did the Biden administration do? While sensitively denying the allegations, it moved quickly last week to prompt an investigation by Rafael Grossi, the head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. To facilitate Grossi’s travel to Ukraine, top White House and State Department officials called their Ukrainian counterparts. In 24 hours, the Biden administration found an international platform to defuse this crisis (at least momentarily) and address Russia’s loud complaint.

This model of crisis communication needs to be replicated in every area that could lead to – let’s say – World War III. I think Putin is a liar and a bully, and I hope Ukrainians keep hammering 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.

Eight months of bitter war have revealed some rules of engagement. To express the US desire to avoid direct conflict, the Pentagon keeps its planes out of Russian airspace and its ships out of Russian waters. Biden has told Ukraine that our support is strong but not unlimited. Kiev wanted a no-fly zone and an army tactical missile system that could potentially target Russian cities. Biden said no to both.

Kiev appears willing to take escalatory risks, particularly in covert intelligence operations, which the United States does not support. In the New York Times, Oct. According to 5’s account, US intelligence concluded that Ukrainian operatives were responsible for the August car-bombing that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of a Russian ultra-nationalist, and later warned Kiev that it strongly opposed it. attacks

Washington must communicate with Moscow—about what it will and won’t do—through subtle channels. As part of this conflict, Putin has been seeking security guarantees from NATO. Diplomats should resume that discussion. Biden should repeat offers to limit the placement of missiles, share information about military exercises and avoid escalation. Let us recall that such mutual security assurances were the formula for solving the Cuban Missile Crisis. The secret deal was: If you remove your nukes from Cuba, we will withdraw our nukes from Turkey.

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

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

More diplomacy makes sense — if it is properly focused. The United States should no longer try to negotiate an end game in the Ukraine war. It is the prerogative of Kiev. Even if the United States wanted to impose a solution, it could not. But it is time for urgent negotiations on how to prevent this terrible war from turning into something worse.

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