When you have an intractable problem, escalate it. That’s a familiar management formula, and it has some validity here. The United States should not (and could not) dictate a settlement to Kyiv; instead, he must maintain the flow of weapons, reliably and patiently. But he should find new ways to convey that the United States does not seek Russia’s destruction and wants to avoid direct military conflict.
Russia seems to have a strange desire to communicate these days as well, although it is sending a complicated and misleading message. The most recent example was Thursday’s speech by President Vladimir Putin. He repeated his usual complaints with the West, but his other theme was that Russia wanted a version of the conversation.
“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 told an annual foreign policy forum in Moscow. The Biden White House should forget the curious details of his view of reality: Take it seriously; reply to his message.
An example of Russia’s recent communication binge – and a good response from the US – is the barrage of accusations about an alleged Ukrainian outfit to build a radiological “dirty bomb”. To most Western analysts, this appeared to be a spurious Kremlin pretext, perhaps to justify Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons. That assessment is likely for me, too. But it is also possible that Putin really believes it and thinks he has evidence.
The Kremlin pushed every messaging button it had. The Russian defense minister called his US counterpart, twice, and together with the British, French and Turkish defense ministers. The chief of the Russian military staff delivered the same message to his peers in the Pentagon. Russia has raised the issue with the UN Security Council. Putin himself repeated the accusation.
What did the Biden administration do? Sensibly, although he denied the allegations, he moved quickly last weekend to prompt an investigation by Rafael Grossi, head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. To facilitate Grossi’s travel to Ukraine, top White House and State Department officials called their counterparts in Ukraine. 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 all areas that could – let’s face it – lead to World War II. I think Putin is a liar and a bully, and I hope the Ukrainians continue to hammer Russia on the battlefield. But the United States also has a continuing national interest in avoiding direct war with Russia, as Biden has repeatedly said.
A number of rules of engagement emerged over eight months of bitter war. To signal 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 did not tell the two.
Kyiv appears willing to take increased risks, especially in covert intelligence operations, which the United States does not support. According to an October 5 account in the New York Times, US intelligence concluded that Ukrainian operatives were responsible for the August car bombing that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of a Russian super-nationalist, and later warned Kyiv that it strongly against such. attacks.
There is more that Washington should communicate with Moscow – about what it will and will not do – through subtle ways. And before this conflict, Putin was demanding security assurances from NATO. Diplomats should resume that discussion. Biden should reiterate offers to limit missile placement, share information about military exercises and avoid escalation. We recall that these mutual security assurances are the formula for solving the Cuban missile crisis. The resolution was: We will withdraw our nukes from Turkey if you withdraw yours from Cuba.
Deterrence is 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 relates to the outlandish threat Wednesday by Russian Foreign Ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov 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 humiliate each other. Putin may lose the war he so foolishly started, but that is not the fault of this country. We cannot save him from the consequences of his folly.
More diplomacy makes sense — if it’s properly targeted. The United States should not try to negotiate now the end of the war game in Ukraine. That’s Kyiv’s prerogative. Even if the United States wanted to impose a solution, it could not. But it is time for urgent talks about how to keep this terrible war from getting much worse.