Senior White House Official Involved in Undisclosed Talks With Top Putin Aides

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s top national security adviser has held secret talks with top aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent months to reduce the risk of a wider conflict over Ukraine and to warn Moscow against using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction. , said officials of the US and its allies.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan has been in contact with Yuri Ushakov, Mr Putin’s foreign policy adviser, officials said. Mr. Sullivan also spoke with his direct counterpart in the Russian government, Nikolai Patrushev, the officials added.
According to officials, the goal is to avoid escalation and keep communication channels open and not discuss the settlement of the war in Ukraine.

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Asked whether Mr. Sullivan had held undisclosed conversations with Ushakov or Patrushev, Adrienne Watson, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said: “People are saying a lot,” and declined to comment further. The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment.

Since speaking with Patrushev in March, the White House has not publicly acknowledged any conversations between Mr. Sullivan and senior Russian officials.

The undisclosed discussions hinted at the erosion of traditional diplomatic ties between Washington and Moscow, and the possibility that Mr. Putin and his aides may use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory, as well as the success of this year’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Despite its support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia for the invasion, the White House has said it is necessary to maintain some level of contact with Moscow to achieve certain national security interests.

A number of US officials say Mr. Sullivan is known within the administration to be seeking contacts with Russia, even as other senior politicians feel that talks will not be productive in the current diplomatic and military environment.

Officials did not provide the exact dates or number of calls, or whether they were productive.

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Some former US officials have said that with US-Russia relations at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, it is beneficial for the White House to maintain ties to the Kremlin.

“I think it’s important to keep open channels of communication, especially for nuclear-armed countries, to help understand what each side is thinking and thereby avoid accidental confrontation or war,” said Ivo Daalder, who serves as the U.S. He was the ambassador to NATO under Obama. “The national security advisers are the closest channel to the Oval Office without putting the president directly in the communications channel.”

The US national security adviser has held secret talks with senior aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin and warned Moscow against using nuclear weapons.


Yevgeny Biyatov/Associated Press

President Biden sought to build a working relationship with Mr. Putin during his first year in office, culminating in a June 2021 summit in Geneva. Among other topics, these talks focused on Ukraine, where the parties have clear disagreements.

By October, however, American intelligence indicated that Russian forces were preparing to invade Ukraine. CIA Director William Burns was sent to Moscow in early November 2021 to avoid a Putin takeover.

Biden spoke to Putin twice in December 2021 and again in February 2022 to avoid a Russian attack while American diplomats were talking to their Russian counterparts.

However, after Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24, diplomatic and military contacts between the two sides were rare.

Officials said Mr. Sullivan played a key role in coordinating the Biden administration’s policies and plans in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — something expected of the president’s top national security adviser. But he also took part in diplomatic efforts, including a visit to Kyiv on Friday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi and Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, the traditional meetings between secretaries of state or defense.

Mr. Sullivan spoke with the Ukrainian leadership and urged them to make clear their willingness to settle the conflict, a US official said. The official added that the US is not pushing Ukraine to negotiate, but rather to show its allies that it is committed to resolving the conflict, which has affected global oil and food prices.

The Washington Post previously reported on Mr. Sullivan’s efforts to persuade Ukrainian authorities to seek a resolution.

When Putin and his senior aides hinted in September that Russia might use nuclear weapons if his forces were backed into a corner, Mr. Sullivan said the Biden administration had “directly, at a very high level, privately communicated to the Kremlin. The absence of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic consequences for Russia.”

The White House declined to say how the warning came about.

Pentagon US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with the Russian Defense Minister and stressed the importance of maintaining lines of communication.


Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

When Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and a number of his allies spoke with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu last month, Moscow claimed that Kyiv was preparing to use a so-called dirty bomb against it, a claim denied by Ukrainian and Western officials.

The Pentagon said Mr. Austin initiated the initial call, the first discussion since May, to emphasize the importance of maintaining lines of communication. Mr. Shoigu initiated the second one.

Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy adviser, served as ambassador to Washington and is valued by former and current US officials as a conduit to the Russian leader.

Mr Burns met Ushakov during a visit to Moscow in November 2021 ahead of talks with Putin. Mr. Sullivan spoke with Ushakov again in December.


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In a conversation with Patrushev in March, described by the White House, Mr. Sullivan told the Russian official that Moscow forces should stop attacking Ukrainian towns and cities and warned the Kremlin against using chemical or biological weapons.

Mr. Patrushev, who joined the KGB in the 1970s and rose to become director of the Federal Security Service from 1999 to 2008, is viewed by American officials as a hardliner who shares many of Putin’s misgivings about the United States.

A Russian statement about the March meeting between Sullivan and Patrushev said it was initiated by the US and that Mr. Patrushev “understood the need for Washington to end its support for neo-Nazis and terrorists in Ukraine, facilitate the transfer of foreign mercenaries to the conflict zone, and refuse to continue providing arms to the Kyiv regime.” .

Even as relations between Washington and Moscow have deteriorated, the US has tried to maintain some areas of cooperation, particularly strategic weapons control and the International Space Station.

Washington and Moscow are sticking to the New START treaty, which limits the long-range US and Russian nuclear weapons and expires in 2026.

US and Russian officials plan to hold meetings of the New START Bilateral Advisory Commission to discuss its implementation, according to US officials and Russian media reports. One goal is to discuss resuming inspections under New START, which were suspended when the Covid-19 pandemic began, US officials said.

Although Switzerland is a traditional host country for such talks, Moscow has said it no longer considers it a neutral country because, like other European countries, it imposed economic sanctions after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Western sanctions have also complicated travel arrangements for Russians, so the meeting is planned to be held in Cairo at the end of November, officials say.

The State Department and the Russian government generally declined to comment on the unannounced meetings.

Nancy A. Yusef contributed to this article.

Vivian Salama at [email protected] and Michael R. Email Gordon at [email protected]

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