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 obvious. But the focus should be on preventing a catastrophic conflict between the two countries rather than a fruitful attempt to stop the Ukraine war.

The Ukraine conflict, for all its horrors, is not ripe for a diplomatic settlement. Ukraine is advancing on the battlefield and Russia is in disarray for all its nuclear saber-rattling. A defiant Ukraine wants all of its territory back, but Russia refuses to withdraw. So, there is no middle ground for now.

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When you have an intractable problem, make it bigger. That’s a familiar management formula, and it has some validity here. The United States should not (and could not) direct a settlement to Kyiv; Rather, it must manage the flow of arms reliably and patiently. But new channels must be found to convey that the United States does not seek Russia’s destruction and wants to avoid direct military conflict.

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A shaky Russia seems strangely eager to communicate these days, though it’s sending a twisted and misleading message. President Vladimir Putin’s speech on Thursday was the latest example. He reiterated his common grievances with the West, but his other point was that Russia wants a version of dialogue.

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“Sooner or later, 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 an annual foreign policy forum in Moscow. The Biden White House should forget the idiosyncratic details of his view of reality: take him seriously; Reply to his message.

An example of Russia’s recent communication binge — and a good US response — has been the barrage of accusations of an alleged Ukrainian plot to build a radiological “dirty bomb.” To most Western analysts, this appears to be a bogus Kremlin pretext, perhaps to justify Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons. That assessment is likely for me as well. But Putin really believes it and thinks he has the evidence.

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

What did the Biden administration do? Sensibly, it moved quickly last weekend to promote an investigation by Rafael Grassi, the head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, while rejecting the allegations. To facilitate Grassi’s travel 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 the crisis (at least for the moment) and address Russia’s biggest grievance.

This pattern of crisis communication needs to be repeated in every region – it could lead to World War III. I think Putin is a liar and a bully, and I think the Ukrainians keep beating Russia on the battlefield. But as Biden has said repeatedly, the United States has an unwavering national interest in avoiding direct war with Russia.

Few rules of engagement have emerged in eight months of bitter war. To convey the US desire to avoid direct conflict, the Pentagon keeps its planes away from Russian airspace and ships outside Russian waters. “Our support is strong but not unlimited,” Biden told Ukraine. Kyiv wanted a no-fly zone and army tactical missile systems targeting Russian cities. Biden said no to both.

Kyiv, especially in covert intelligence operations, is willing to take risks of escalation, which the United States does not support. According to an Oct. 5 account in the New York Times, U.S. intelligence concluded that Ukrainian activists were responsible for the August car-bombing that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of a Russian ultra-nationalist, and then warned Kyiv that it would strongly oppose it. attacks.

Washington has more to communicate to Moscow — about what it will and won’t do — through sensitive channels. In the run-up to the conflict, Putin was seeking security assurances from NATO. Diplomats should resume that discussion. Biden should reiterate offers to limit the deployment of missiles, share information about military exercises and avoid escalation. Recall that such mutual security assurances were the formula for resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis. The secret agreement was: If you remove your nukes from Cuba, we will remove our nukes from Turkey.

Deterrence is 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. The same applies to Russian Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov’s outlandish threat Wednesday 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 want the destruction of Russia. Nuclear powers cannot insult each other. Putin may lose the war he foolishly started, but that is not this country’s fault. We cannot protect him from the consequences of his folly.

More diplomacy makes sense – if it’s properly focused. The United States should not try to bargain now for an end to the war in Ukraine. That is Kyiv’s prerogative. Even if the United States wanted to impose compensation, it could not. But it is time for urgent talks on how to prevent this terrible war from getting worse.

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