MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin warned on Friday that the standoff between North Korea and the United States was close to spilling into a large-scale conflict and said it was a mistake to try to pressure Pyongyang into halting its nuclear missile program.

Putin, due to attend a summit of the BRICS nations in China next week, said the only way to de-escalate tensions was via talks, and Sergei Lavrov, his foreign minister, said Washington not Pyongyang should take the initiative on that.

"It is essential to resolve the region's problems through direct dialogue involving all sides without advancing any preconditions (for such talks)," Putin, whose country shares a border with North Korea, wrote on the Kremlin's web site.

"Provocations, pressure, and bellicose and offensive rhetoric is the road to nowhere."

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The Russian leader, whose nuclear-capable bombers recently overflew the Korean Peninsula in a show of force, said the situation had deteriorated so badly that it was now "balanced on the verge of a large-scale conflict."

Pyongyang has been working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States and recently threatened to land missiles near the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.

On Monday, North Korea, which sees joint war games between the United States and South Korea as preparations for invasion, raised the stakes by firing an intermediate-range missile over Japan.

"In Russia's opinion the calculation that it is possible to halt North Korea's nuclear missile programs exclusively by putting pressure on Pyongyang is erroneous and futile," Putin wrote.

A road map formulated by Moscow and Beijing, which would involve North Korea halting its missile program in exchange for the United States and South Korea stopping large-scale war games, was a way to reduce tensions, wrote Putin.

Lavrov, addressing students in Moscow, said he felt events were building towards a war which he said would cause large numbers of casualties in Japan and South Korea if it happened.

"If we want to avoid a war the first step must be taken by the side that is the more intelligent and stronger," said Lavrov, making clear he was referring to the United States.

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He said Russia was working behind the scenes and that Moscow knew that Washington had a back channel to Pyongyang which he said he hoped would allow the two sides to de-escalate.

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)