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 preventing a war in Ukraine in vain.

The Ukrainian conflict, as terrifying as it is, is premature for a diplomatic solution. Ukraine is advancing on the battlefield, while Russia, despite its nuclear weapons, is in disarray. A defiant Ukraine wants to regain all its territory, while Russia refuses to withdraw. So, there is no middle ground right now.

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When you have an unsolvable problem, expand it. It’s a familiar management formula that makes some sense here as well. The United States should not (and cannot) ask Kyiv to solve the problem; instead, it must reliably and patiently maintain the flow of weapons. But it should find new channels to communicate that the U.S. does not seek Russian sabotage and wants to avoid direct military conflict.

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Today, a shaken Russia also seems desperate to communicate, even though it has been sending distorted and misleading messages. The latest example is President Vladimir Putin’s speech on Thursday. He repeated his usual grievances with the West, but his other theme was that Russia wanted a conversational version.

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

An example of Russia’s recent communications frenzy — and the good response from the United States — is the flurry of charges against Ukraine over an alleged conspiracy to create a radioactive “dirty bomb.” To most Western analysts, this looks like a false pretext for the Kremlin, perhaps to justify Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons. In my opinion, this assessment is also very likely. But it’s also possible that Putin really believed it, thinking he had evidence.

The Kremlin has pressed every message button it has. The Russian defense minister twice called the U.S. defense minister and spoke with the British, French and Turkish defense ministers. The Russian military chief sent the same message to his Pentagon counterparts. Russia raised the issue with the UN Security Council. Putin himself repeated the accusation.

What has the Biden administration done? Wisely, while rejecting the allegations, it moved quickly over the weekend to encourage the head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, to investigate. To facilitate Grossi’s trip to Ukraine, senior White House and State Department officials called their Ukrainian counterparts. Within 24 hours, the Biden administration had found an international forum to defuse the crisis (at least temporarily) and address Russia’s bitter complaints.

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 the Ukrainians continue to hammer Russia on the battlefield. But as Biden has repeatedly said, it is also in the enduring national interest of the United States to avoid direct war with Russia.

After eight months of intense warfare, some rules of engagement have emerged. To convey the U.S. desire to avoid direct conflict, the Pentagon kept 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-fly zone and an Army tactical missile system that could target Russian cities. Biden said no to both.

Kyiv appears willing to take risks of escalation, especially 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 has concluded that Ukrainian agents were responsible for the August car bombing that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of a Russian ultranationalist , and subsequently warned Kyiv that it strongly opposed the practice. attack.

Washington should send more information to Moscow through subtle channels — about what it will and will not do. On the eve of the conflict, Putin demanded security guarantees from NATO. Diplomats should continue discussions. Biden should reiterate proposals to limit missile deployments, share information on military exercises and avoid escalation. Let us recall that this mutual security assurance is the formula for resolving the Cuban missile crisis. The secret deal is: if you take your nukes out of Cuba, we’ll take our nukes out of Turkey.

Deterrence is inevitably part of the Russian-American balance. Russia knows that it will pay dearly for a direct attack on the United States (or with nuclear weapons). That also applies to the outlandish threat on Wednesday by Russian Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov that commercial satellites aiding Ukraine could be “legitimate targets of retaliatory strikes.”

The flip side of this message of deterrence is that the United States does not seek Russian destruction. Nuclear powers cannot humiliate each other. Putin may lose the war he so foolishly started, but it’s not the country’s fault. We cannot save him from foolish consequences.

More diplomacy makes sense – if its focus is right. The United States should not try to haggle in the final stages of the war in Ukraine now. This is the prerogative of Kyiv. Even if the US wanted to impose a solution, it couldn’t. But now is the time to urgently discuss how to prevent this terrible war from getting worse.

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