WASHINGTON – President Biden’s top national security adviser has held secret talks with top aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent months to try to downplay the threat of a wider conflict in Ukraine and warn Moscow against using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction. US and UN officials said.
The officials said US national security adviser Jake Sullivan had met with Mr Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov. The officials added that Mr. Sullivan had spoken with his direct counterpart in the Russian government, Nikolai Patrushev.
The aim is to prevent further escalation and keep lines of communication open, not to discuss a settlement of the war in Ukraine, the officials said.
Asked whether Mr Sullivan had held undisclosed talks with Messrs Ushakov or Patrushev, National Security Council spokesman Adrian Watson said: “People are asking a lot of things” and declined to comment further. The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment.
The White House has officially denied any calls between Mr. Sullivan and any senior Russian official since he spoke to Mr. Patrushev since March.
The unofficial talks come as traditional diplomatic ties between Washington and Moscow have eased and Mr Putin and his allies have hinted at the possibility of using nuclear weapons to protect Russia’s territory, following their successful invasion of Ukraine this year.
Despite the support for Ukraine and punitive measures against Russia’s aggression, the White House said it is necessary to maintain some relationship with Moscow in order to achieve some common national-security benefits.
Many U.S. officials credit Mr. Sullivan in the administration with pushing for rapprochement with Russia, even as other top policymakers feel talks are counterproductive in the current diplomatic and military climate.
Officials did not give the exact dates and number of the calls or say whether they were effective.
At a time when U.S.-Russia relations are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, some former U.S. officials say it is important for the White House to maintain ties with the Kremlin.
“I think it’s always important to keep open lines of communication, especially for nuclear-armed countries, to understand what each side is thinking and to avoid the possibility of a sudden conflict or war,” said Ivo Dalder, who served as the US. NATO ambassador during the Obama administration. “The national security advisers are the closest corridors to the Oval Office without bringing the president directly into that communication channel.”
During his first year in office, President Biden sought to establish a working relationship with Putin, culminating in a summit in Geneva in June 2021. Those talks touched on Ukraine, where the sides have had clear differences, among other issues.
But in October, US intelligence indicated that the Russian military was preparing to invade Ukraine. CIA Director William Burns was sent to Moscow in early November 2021 to warn Mr Putin about the invasion.
Mr Biden spoke to Putin twice in December 2021 and February 2022 to try to prevent Russian aggression, as US diplomats met with their Russian counterparts.
In the year But since the Russian military invaded Ukraine on February 24, diplomatic and military relations between the two sides have been sparse.
The officials said Mr. Sullivan played a leading role in coordinating the Biden administration’s policy and plans in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — something expected of the president’s top national security adviser. However, he has also been involved in diplomatic efforts, visiting Kiev on Friday for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, who regularly attend meetings between the government and defense secretaries.
Mr. Sullivan has spoken to Ukrainian leaders and urged them to publicly signal their willingness to resolve the conflict, a US official said. The official added that the US is not pushing Ukraine to negotiate, but rather to show allies that it is seeking a solution to the conflict, which has affected world oil and food prices.
The Washington Post previously reported on Mr. Sullivan’s efforts to persuade Ukrainian officials to seek a solution.
When Mr. Putin and his top allies hinted in September that Russia might use nuclear weapons if their power was pushed into a corner, Mr. Sullivan said the Biden administration “has been very direct with the Kremlin about any use.” Nuclear weapons would have dire consequences for Russia.
The White House declined to say how that warning was delivered.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and several of his allies spoke with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu this month about Moscow’s plans to use a so-called dirty bomb in Kyiv, which Ukrainian and Western officials deny.
The Pentagon said Mr. Austin made the first call, his first since May, to emphasize the importance of maintaining lines of communication. Mr. Shoigu raised the second.
Mr. Putin’s foreign policy adviser, Mr. Ushakov, has served as ambassador to Washington and is seen by former and current U.S. officials as a conduit for the Russian leader.
Mr Burns met Mr Ushakov during his visit to Moscow in November 2021 before meeting Mr Putin. Mr. Sullivan spoke with Mr. Ushakov again in December.
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In a March meeting with Mr. Patrushev, the White House said, Mr. Sullivan told a Russian official that Moscow forces should stop attacking Ukrainian towns and cities and warned the Kremlin against using chemical and biological weapons.
In the year Mr. Patrushev, who joined the KGB in the 1970s and served as director of the Federal Security Service from 1999 to 2008, is seen by American officials as a hardliner who shares many of Mr. Putin’s misgivings about America.
Russia’s statement about the March talks between Mr Sullivan and Mr Patrushev was US-instigated, and Mr Patrushev said “Washington needs to end its support for neo-Nazis and terrorists in Ukraine, facilitating the movement of foreign mercenaries into the conflict zone, as well as continuing to supply arms to the Kiev regime.” Reluctance.
As relations between Washington and Moscow deteriorate, the US has sought to preserve some areas of cooperation, particularly in strategic arms control and the International Space Station.
Washington and Moscow added the New START treaty, which limits long-range US and Russian nuclear weapons and expires in 2026.
U.S. and Russian officials are planning to hold meetings of the Bilateral Consultative Commission established under the New START Treaty, U.S. officials and Russian media reported. One goal is to discuss reinvestigations under New START that were suspended when the Covid-19 pandemic began, U.S. officials said.
Switzerland is the usual host country for such talks, but Moscow, like other European countries, has said it does not consider Ukraine to be a neutral country because it has imposed economic sanctions following Russia’s invasion. Western sanctions have also complicated the Russians’ travel arrangements, so the meeting is planned to be held in Cairo at the end of November, the officials said.
The State Department and the Russian government generally declined to comment on the meetings, which were not announced in advance.
–Nancy A. Yusuf contributed to this article.
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