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, rather than a futile effort to stop 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 saber-rattling, 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, expand it. This is a family management formula, and it has some validity here. The United States would not (and could not) dictate a deal to Kyiv; instead, it must maintain the flow of weapons, reliably and patiently. But it should find new channels to convey that the United States does not seek the destruction of Russia and wants to avoid direct military conflict.

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A shaken Russia also seems strangely eager to communicate these days, even though it has been sending a twisted and misleading message. The latest example was President Vladimir Putin’s speech on Thursday. He repeated his usual gripes with the West, but his other issue was that Russia wanted a version of the dialogue.

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

An example of Russia’s recent communications binge, and a good response from the US, was the flood of allegations about an alleged Ukrainian plot to build a radiological “dirty bomb”. To most Western analysts, this looked like a false pretext by the Kremlin, perhaps to justify Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons. This assessment also seems likely to me. But it’s also possible that Putin really believes it and thinks he has proof.

The Kremlin pushed every messaging button it had. The Russian Defense Minister called his American counterpart, twice, and together with the British, French and Turkish Defense Ministers. Russia’s chief of staff delivered the same message to his Pentagon counterpart. Russia raised the issue at the UN Security Council. Putin himself repeated the accusation.

What did the Biden administration do? Fittingly, despite rejecting the allegations, he moved quickly last weekend to encourage an investigation by Rafael Grossi, the head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. To facilitate Grossi’s trip 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 this crisis (at least momentarily) and address Russia’s strong complaint.

This model of crisis communication must be replicated in all areas that could lead to – let’s say – the Third World War. I think Putin is a liar and a thug, and I hope the Ukrainians keep beating Russia on the battlefield. But the United States also has an abiding national interest in avoiding outright war with Russia, as Biden has repeatedly said.

Some rules of engagement have emerged over eight months of bitter warfare. To convey the US’s 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. Kyiv wanted a no-fly zone and military tactical missile systems that could target Russian cities. Biden said no to both.

Kyiv appears willing to take intensive risks, especially in covert intelligence operations, which the United States does not support. According to an Oct. 5 New York Times account, U.S. intelligence concluded that Ukrainian agents were responsible for the car bombing that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of a Russian ultranationalist. in August, and later warned Kyiv that it was strongly opposed to such acts. attacks

There is more that Washington should communicate to Moscow – about what it will and will not do – through subtle channels. In the run-up to this conflict, Putin demanded security guarantees from NATO. Diplomats should resume this discussion. Biden should reiterate offers to limit missile placement, share information on military exercises and avoid escalation. Let’s remember that these mutual security guarantees were the formula for solving the Cuban missile crisis. The secret deal was: we will remove our nuclear weapons from Turkey if you remove yours from Cuba.

Deterrence is an inescapable 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. That also applies to Wednesday’s outlandish threat by Russian Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov that commercial satellites helping Ukraine could be “a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike.”

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

More diplomacy makes sense, if it’s well-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 it is time for urgent talks on how to prevent this terrible war from turning into something much worse.

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