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Can Blinken's diplomacy with Russia still work?

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One year ago, I bet Secretary of State Anthony Blinken never thought he'd be speaking in Berlin, doing damage control for President Joe Biden with more than 100,000 Russian troops surrounding Ukraine.

"If Moscow chooses the path of further aggression, we will impose swift and massive costs," Blinken said in Berlin on Thursday. 

TOP US, RUSSIA DIPLOMATS HOLD 'FRANK' AND 'HONEST' TALKS, REACH NO BREAKTHROUGHS

Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before their meeting, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool) (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool)

After a fruitless meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday, Blinken told NBC News they'd meet again next week and "see if we can advance this through diplomacy."

Exactly. Can diplomacy still get us out of this mess over Ukraine? Maybe. As Blinken said in Berlin, he "would greatly prefer a diplomatic solution" with Russia.  That gentle language won't scare Putin.

But diplomacy can still work, if Team Biden toughens up, links diplomacy with military force to deter Putin, and gets the president to take aim before he fires off his mouth.

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks as he greets embassy staff at the U.S. embassy, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool)

Blinken's speech in Berlin was a start. Blinken called out Russia for the "contrived" Ukraine crisis and the "orchestrated" war in Donbass, which has killed 14,000 so far and displaced 1.5 million people. Blinken warned Russia could shut down the internet in Ukraine, stop heating oil and send in tanks - all things Putin did in past conflicts with Georgia and Estonia. 

Blinken's best point was a direct appeal to the Russian people. It is "pointless to go to war with your neighbors," Blinken said. Blinken added that a Russia-Ukraine war would be "a violent conflict that will likely drag on." That squares with military assessments that Ukraine's armed forces could push back Russia, given time and help. Detachments of US and British forces are in Ukraine to deliver training on anti-tank weapons and other military tactics, and NATO brought Ukraine into its cyber early-warning system.

Blinken is no inspiring speaker like President John F. Kennedy or President Ronald Reagan, who both delivered epic speeches from Berlin. If he was a college professor, you'd fall asleep in his class. The Moscow Times calls him "calm and unflappable." In Berlin, Blinken opened with a joke about Einstein that didn't get even a polite laugh. 

Secretary of State of U.S. Antony Blinken speaks as he greets embassy staff at the U.S. embassy, in Kyiv, Ukraine, January 19, 2022. Alex Brandon/Pool via REUTERS

But I was glad to hear Blinken point out Russia's Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty violations, which quietly slammed the door on reviving that treaty. And Blinken got it 100 percent right when he said the Ukraine crisis is really about Russia's rejection of a Europe "whole, free and at peace."

Next, it's high time for Team Biden to start talking about defending Ukraine - not just about punishing Russia after an invasion happens. Of course, no one wants war. Deterrence is the goal. Straight talk about military consequences is part of the recipe for deterrence.  Blinken must use words and deeds to get Putin to calculate that the military risk of invasion is just too high.

Oh, what I wouldn't give for a Trump-style mean tweet right now!

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, listens as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool)

Finally, and this is a tough one, diplomacy won't work unless President Biden stops undermining his own Secretary of State.

If you cringed at Biden's remarks, picture Blinken's reaction.

Let's review what happened.  Blinken was in Ukraine on Jan. 19 and headed for Berlin when Biden started spilling the tea on discord in NATO over "minor incursions" and predicting Putin would invade Ukraine because, quote, "he's got to do something."

President Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Just imagine yourself on a chilly government plane flying to Berlin while the White House is going nuts. No matter how good Blinken is, no matter how many foreign capitals he visits, Biden can unravel his Secretary of State's work just by spouting off.

Every word from Biden should have been calibrated to deter Putin and reinforce Blinken. But no. Biden was cocky and casual.  "Why are you waiting for Putin to make the first move, Sir?" asked Fox News's Jacqui Heinrich. "What a stupid question," Biden retorted.

What a nightmare. For Blinken, it's particularly hard, because Blinken is Biden's man. He worked for Biden as Staff Director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2002-2008, then was Vice President Biden's national security adviser, from 2009 to 2013. There's a hearty picture of Biden and Blinken wearing identical sunglasses in the back of a military helicopter in Kosovo in 2009. 

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. Biden said it's the Federal Reserve's job to rein in the fastest pace of inflation in decades, and backed the central bank's plans to scale back monetary stimulus.  (Photographer: Oliver Contreras/Sipa/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

They're tight, but not coordinated. 24 hours later, instead of leaving it to Blinken and his Berlin speech, President Biden himself had to read out a fresh statement on Jan. 20. "If any assembled Russian units move across the Ukraine border, that is an invasion," Biden said. That included a cyberattack or "little green men," the Pentagon's word for clandestine Russian forces who might infiltrate, whip up a conflict and blame it on Ukraine.

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Good words, but Biden just couldn't leave it alone.  On Friday, Biden was flailing again, joking with reporters at an Ohio computer chip plant that he would not take questions because "you guys will ask me all about Russia."

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This is not how it was supposed to go for Biden's national security team.  Just one year ago, they expected to focus on climate accords, returning to the Iran nuclear deal, and of course being very different in all ways from Trump. 

Now they have to keep us out of a war.  But first they must get their act together. 

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