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Opinion The U.S. seeks to support Ukraine, but contain the war

CIA Director William J. Burns during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in April 2021.. (Graeme Jennings/Pool/AP)

If you’ve worried that the conflict in Ukraine might escalate into a spasm of nuclear war — and what sane person hasn’t? — the past few weeks have been chilling. But they have also demonstrated some important U.S. efforts to communicate about risks and avert catastrophe.

The baseline for President Biden is that an overall peace settlement between Russia and Ukraine doesn’t appear possible now. The two sides are simply too far apart, and the United States couldn’t dictate terms to Kyiv even if it thought it was time to end the conflict. Instead, the administration has focused its diplomacy on Russia — and averting any escalation into nuclear war.

Take a look at recent U.S. crisis management efforts, to get a sense of how the Biden administration is playing this game of measured confrontation. They have the common theme of helping Ukraine while also containing the conflict.

Let’s first review this week’s travels by CIA Director William J. Burns. He met Monday in Ankara, Turkey, with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR. Burns was “conveying a message on the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons by Russia, and the risks of escalation to strategic stability,” said a spokesman for the National Security Council. U.S. officials believe that Russia took Burns’s message quite seriously.

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Burns then traveled to Kyiv for a Wednesday meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “While there, he discussed the U.S. warning he delivered to the head of Russia’s SVR not to use nuclear weapons and reinforced the U.S. commitment to provide support to Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression,” a U.S. official said. This meeting seemed partly an effort to reassure Zelensky that the United States wasn’t operating behind his back with Moscow.

In describing Burns’s travels, officials have stressed he wasn’t on a secret mission to jump-start peace talks. “He is not conducting negotiations of any kind. He is not discussing settlement of the war in Ukraine,” the NSC spokesman stressed. Instead, said the spokesman, “we have channels to communicate with Russia on managing risk, especially nuclear risk and risks to strategic stability.”

Burns has played a crucial role since the crisis began, traveling to Moscow before the war and to Kyiv repeatedly since then. He is the character a Hollywood director would cast for the role: reserved, modest, fluent in Russian, deeply experienced as a back-channel emissary. His demeanor makes the phrase “gray man” a compliment.

Second, let’s look at the U.S. response to the missile that struck Poland on Tuesday, near its border with Ukraine. This was the kind of scenario that U.S. commanders have feared could lead to nuclear war: A NATO ally is attacked; analysts assume that the attack came from Russia; NATO launches a counterattack under its self-defense treaty; and so on, up the ladder to disaster.

The Biden administration instead did what generations of crisis managers have recommended. In a hot moment, it cooled down. Despite pressure for action, the administration realized it lacked reliable information. It waited to gather facts. Poland, too, resisted the urge to immediately blame its historic adversary, Russia.

And it turned out that initial assumptions that Russia fired the missile were probably wrong. “Ukraine’s defense was launching their missiles in various directions, and it is highly probable that one of these missiles unfortunately fell on Polish territory,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said on Wednesday. “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to suggest that it was an intentional attack on Poland.”

Third, let’s think about the delicate relationship between Washington and Kyiv. Zelensky has the power of a brave, charismatic leader to pressure his superpower patron into actions that might not be in the United States’ interests. The Biden administration has tried to strike a balance between strong military support for Ukraine and avoiding anything that might trigger a direct Russian-American conflict.

The United States has pushed back when it thinks Ukrainian actions are too risky, or too rigid. According to an Oct. 5 story in the New York Times, U.S. intelligence decided that Ukrainian operatives were responsible for an August car bombing that killed the daughter of a Russian ultra-nationalist — and warned Kyiv that it strongly opposed such attacks. A Nov. 5 Post article reported that national security adviser Jake Sullivan went to Kyiv partly to press Zelensky to drop his refusal to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Soon after, Zelensky adjusted his public policy.

The administration has been careful not to jam Zelensky and his generals, even as it has tried to contain the conflict. The latest example was the statement last week from Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that Russia’s withdrawal this month from Kherson might provide an opening for diplomacy. “When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it,” he said. Milley, who has argued that more diplomacy is needed to find a settlement, didn’t retreat. But other administration officials repeated their no-pressure litany: “Nothing about Kyiv without Kyiv.”

Biden’s ultimate responsibility is to protect the United States, and that means avoiding any drift toward a nuclear conflict with Russia. The past few weeks have been a case study in how to support a war and prevent one at the same time.