When you have a problem you can’t solve, make it bigger. It’s a familiar management formula that has some validity here. The United States should not (and could not) conciliate Kiev; Instead, it must faithfully and patiently maintain the flow of arms. But the United States must find new channels to convey that it does not seek the destruction of Russia and wants to avoid direct military conflict.
A shocked Russia seems strangely eager to communicate these days, even if it is sending a distorted and misleading message. The latest example was President Vladimir Putin’s speech on Thursday. He repeated his usual grievances with the West, but his other theme was that Russia needs 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 absurd details of his view of reality: take him seriously; Reply to his message.
The alleged Ukrainian plot to build a radioactive “dirty bomb” was an example of Russia’s recent communications frenzy — and a good U.S. response. To many Western analysts, this appeared to be a false Kremlin pretext, perhaps to justify the use of Russian tactical nuclear weapons. I can see that assessment too. But Putin really believes it and may think he has proof.
The Kremlin pushed every message button there was. The Russian defense minister called his US counterpart twice, along with the British, French and Turkish defense ministers. Russia’s chief of military staff sent the same message to his Pentagon friend. Russia took the issue to the UN Security Council. Putin himself repeated the accusation.
What did the Biden administration do? Sensibly, it moved quickly last weekend to encourage an investigation into Rafael Grossi, the head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, while denying the allegations. To facilitate Grossi’s trips to Ukraine, top White House and State Department officials called on their Ukrainian counterparts. Within 24 hours, the Biden administration found an international forum to defuse the crisis (at least momentarily) and address Russia’s vociferous complaint.
This model of crisis communication could lead to – shall we say it – World War III and must be replicated in every field. I think Putin is a liar and a bully, and Ukrainians are beating Russia on the battlefield. But as Biden has repeatedly said, the United States also has a compelling national interest in avoiding outright war with Russia.
Over the course of a bitter eight-month war, some rules of engagement have emerged. To express the US 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 escalation risks that the US does not support, particularly in covert intelligence operations. According to an Oct. 5 New York Times account, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Ukrainian operatives were responsible for the August car bombing that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of a Russian extremist, and later warned Kiev that it was strongly opposed. attack
There is much more that Washington needs to communicate to Moscow — about what it is doing and what it is not doing — through subtle channels. Ahead of the conflict, Putin sought security guarantees from NATO. Diplomats should resume that discussion. Biden should reiterate submissions to limit missile deployment, share information on military exercises and avoid escalation. Recall that such mutual security guarantees were the formula for resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis. The secret deal was: If you withdraw yours from Cuba, we will withdraw our nuclear weapons from Turkey.
Deterrence is an inevitable part of the Russian-US balance. Russia knows that if it attacks the US directly (or uses nuclear weapons), it will pay a heavy price. The same applies to the foreign threat made Wednesday by Russian Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov that commercial satellites supporting Ukraine could be a “legitimate target for a retaliatory attack.”
The other side of this deterrence message is that the United States does not seek the destruction of Russia. Nuclear powers cannot afford to humiliate each other. Putin may have lost the war he foolishly 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 is properly focused. The US should not try to bargain now on the end game of the war in Ukraine. It is Kiev’s prerogative. The United States wanted to impose a solution but could not. But it’s time to talk urgently about how to keep this terrible war from turning into something worse.