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

Explanation

The need for more dialogue between Russia and the United States is very clear. But it should focus on preventing a catastrophic conflict between the two countries, rather than fruitless efforts to stop the war in Ukraine.

The conflict in Ukraine, for all its fear, is not yet ready for a negotiated solution. Ukraine is advancing on the battlefield, and Russia, because of its preoccupation with nuclear weapons, is confused. 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 a problem that isn’t fixed, expand it. That’s a standard operating system, and it has some validity here. The United States should not (and could not) order the settlement of Kyiv; rather, it must maintain the flow of weapons, faithfully and patiently. But it should find new channels to convey that the United States does not want the destruction of Russia and wants to avoid direct military conflict.

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A shaken Russia seems eager to communicate these days, even if it is sending a distorted and misleading message. The latest example was Thursday’s speech by President Vladimir Putin. He repeated his usual complaints with the West, but his other topic was that Russia wanted a translation of the talks.

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“Soon, the new centers of global governance and the West will have to start an equal conversation about a common future,” Putin told the annual foreign policy conference in Moscow. The Biden White House should forget the irony of his true vision: Take him seriously; reply to his message.

An example of Russia’s recent communications – and the positive US response – has been a flurry of accusations about a Ukrainian plan to build a radiological “dirty bomb”. To many Western analysts, this looked like a pretense by the Kremlin, perhaps to justify the Russians’ use of strategic nuclear weapons. And it seems to me that it is possible that those feelings. But it’s also possible that Putin really believes it and thinks he has proof.

The Kremlin pressed every message button it had. The Russian Defense Minister called his US counterpart, twice, along with the defense ministers of Britain, France and Turkey. The Russian military chief of staff gave a similar message to his Pentagon counterpart. Russia has raised the issue with the UN Security Council. Putin himself repeated the accusation.

What did the Biden administration do? Understandably, while denying the allegations, it moved quickly last week to encourage an investigation by Rafael Grossi, head of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency. To facilitate Grossi’s trip to Ukraine, senior White House and State Department officials called their Ukrainian counterparts. In 24 hours, the Biden administration found an international forum to solve this problem (at least temporarily) and to deal with the Russian complaint.

This style of crisis communication needs to be repeated in every area that could lead to – let’s just say – World War III. I think Putin is a liar and a bully, and I hope the Ukrainians are beating Russia on the battlefield. But the United States also has a lasting national interest in avoiding direct war with Russia, as Biden has repeatedly said.

Other terms of engagement have emerged in eight months of bitter fighting. 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 Army Tactical Missile Systems that could target Russian cities. Biden denied both.

Kyiv appears willing to take increased risks, particularly in covert intelligence operations, which the United States does not support. According to the report of Oct. 5 in the New York Times, US intelligence concluded that Ukrainian operatives were responsible for the August car bomb that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of a Russian ultra-nationalist, and warned Kyiv later that it strongly opposes. attacks.

Washington has a lot to communicate with Moscow — about what it will and won’t do — through subtle channels. During this war, Putin wanted security guarantees from NATO. Diplomats should start that discussion again. Biden should repeat proposals to reduce missile deployments, share information about military exercises and avoid escalation. Let’s remember that such security guarantees were a way to solve the Cuban missile problem. The secret agreement was: We will remove our nukes from Turkey if you remove yours from Cuba.

Deterrence is an inevitable 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. That also applies to a surprise threat Wednesday by Russian Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov that commercial satellites that help Ukraine could be “a valid target for a retaliatory strike.”

The new side of this deterrence message is that the United States does not want the destruction of Russia. Nuclear power cannot humiliate each other. Putin may lose the war he foolishly started, but it is not the country’s fault. We cannot save him from the consequences of his stupidity.

Most conversations make sense – if they’re well-focused. The United States should not try to negotiate an end to the conflict in Ukraine now. That is Kyiv’s right. Although the United States wanted to provide a solution, it could not. But it is time for urgent discussions on how to prevent this terrible war from escalating into something worse.

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