Putin Demands We Listen to Him. We Should Do It.

From a Washington Post column by David Ignatius headlined “Putin demands we listen to him. The US should take him up on it.”:

The need for more diplomacy between Russia and the United States is screamingly obvious. But it should focus on preventing a catastrophic conflict between the two countries, rather than a fruitless effort to halt the Ukraine war.

The Ukraine conflict, for all its horror, simply isn’t 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 to regain all its territory, while Russia refuses to withdraw. So, there’s no middle ground, for now.

When you have an insoluble problem, enlarge it. That’s a familiar management formula, and it has some validity here. The United States shouldn’t (and couldn’t) dictate a settlement 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 doesn’t seek Russia’s destruction and wants to avoid direct military conflict.

A shaken Russia seems weirdly eager to communicate these days, too, although it’s been sending a twisted and misleading message. The latest example was Thursday’s speech by President Vladimir Putin. He repeated his usual grievances with the West, but his other theme was that Russia wanted a version of dialogue.

“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 told an 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 binge — and a good U.S. response — was the barrage of allegations about an alleged Ukrainian plot to build a radiological “dirty bomb.” To most Western analysts, this looked like a bogus Kremlin pretext, perhaps to justify Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons. That assessment seems likely to me, too. But it’s also possible that Putin really believes it and thinks he has evidence.

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

What did the Biden administration do? Sensibly, while rejecting the allegations, it moved quickly last weekend to encourage an investigation by Rafael Grossi, the head of the U.N.’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 forum 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 just say it — World War III. I think that Putin is a liar and a bully, and I hope the Ukrainians keep hammering Russia on the battlefield. But the United States also has an abiding national interest in avoiding a direct war with Russia, as Biden has said repeatedly.

Some rules of engagement have emerged over eight months of bitter war. To convey the U.S. desire to avoid direct conflict, the Pentagon keeps its planes away from Russian airspace and its ships outside Russian waters. Biden has told Ukraine that our support is strong but not unlimited. Kyiv wanted a no-fly zone and Army Tactical Missile Systems that could potentially target Russian cities. Biden said no to both.

Kyiv appears willing to take escalatory risks, especially in covert intelligence operations, that the United States doesn’t support. According to an Oct. 5 account in the New York Times, U.S. intelligence concluded that Ukrainian operatives were responsible for the August car-bombing that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of a Russian ultra-nationalist, and warned Kyiv later that it strongly opposed such attacks.

There’s more that Washington should communicate to Moscow — about what it will and won’t do — through subtle channels. In the run-up to this conflict, Putin was demanding security assurances from NATO. Diplomats should resume that discussion. Biden should reiterate offers to limit placement of missiles, share information about military exercises and avoid escalation. Let’s recall that such mutual security assurances were the formula for resolving the Cuban missile crisis. The secret deal was: We’ll withdraw our nukes from Turkey if you remove yours from Cuba.

Deterrence is inescapably part of the Russia-U.S. balance. Russia knows that if it attacks the United States directly (or uses nuclear weapons), it will pay a severe price. That applies also to the outlandish threat Wednesday by Russian Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov that commercial satellites aiding Ukraine could be “a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike.”

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

More diplomacy makes sense — if it’s properly focused. The United States shouldn’t try to bargain now over the endgame of the Ukraine war. That’s Kyiv’s prerogative. Even if the United States wanted to impose a solution, it couldn’t. But it’s time for urgent talks about how to keep this terrible war from becoming something vastly worse.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin.”

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