KYIV, Ukraine (NewsNation Now) — President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed in principle to a summit over Ukraine, the office of French President Emmanuel Macron said Sunday, provided Russia does not invade its neighbor.
In a statement released early Monday European time, the Elysee Palace said Macron had pitched both leaders on a summit over “security and strategic stability in Europe.”
“Presidents Biden and Putin have both accepted the principle of such a summit,” the statement said, before adding that such a meeting would be impossible if Russia invaded Ukraine as Western nations fear it is about to do.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki confirmed Biden accepted the meeting in principle. It would happen after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov meet later this week.
“We are always ready for diplomacy,” Psaki said in a statement. “We are also ready to impose swift and severe consequences should Russia instead choose war. And currently, Russia appears to be continuing preparations for a full-scale assault on Ukraine very soon.”
The White House earlier said Biden was canceling a trip to Delaware and remaining in Washington following a two-hour meeting of his National Security Council. Biden instead spoke by phone with Macron, the White House said.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian defense ministry announced Russia will extend military drills in Belarus that were due to end Sunday, adding to mounting tensions as satellite images appeared to show new deployments of Russian armor and troops close to Ukraine.
Russia’s move to prolong its Belarus exercises has rattled nerves that have been frayed for weeks over Russia’s accumulation of soldiers along the Ukrainian border. Blinken said the move only made him more worried that Russia was on the brink of invading. Moscow has repeatedly denied such plans.
The Associated Press reports a U.S. official said Sunday that Biden’s assertion that Putin has made the decision to roll Russian forces into Ukraine was based on intelligence that Russian front-line commanders have been given orders to begin final preparations for an attack. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive intelligence.
U.S.-based satellite imagery company Maxar reported multiple new deployments of Russian military units in forests, farms and industrial areas as little as nine miles from the border with Ukraine — something Maxar said represented a change from what had been seen in recent weeks.
“Until recently, most of the deployments had been seen primarily positioned at or near existing military garrisons and training areas,” the company said.
Blinken told CNN that “everything we are seeing suggests that this is dead serious,” adding that the West was equally prepared if Moscow invades.
“Until the tanks are actually rolling, and the planes are flying, we will use every opportunity and every minute we have to see if diplomacy can still dissuade President (Vladimir) Putin from carrying this forward.”
Blinken said his planned meeting with Lavrov was still set to proceed this week as long as Moscow did not go ahead with the invasion.
“We’re talking about the potential for war in Europe,” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said earlier Sunday at a security conference in Munich, Germany, that saw urgent consultations among world leaders on the crisis. “It’s been over 70 years, and through those 70 years … there has been peace and security.”
An adviser to Macron said France and Russia had agreed that a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), with representatives from Ukraine and Russia, should be held on Monday. Poland, currently the OSCE chair, said earlier that at Ukraine’s request, it was convening an extraordinary session of its council, which is dedicated to preventing armed conflict.
Belarus did not say how long Russian troops stationed there — estimated by NATO to number 30,000 — might now remain in the country, which lies north of Ukraine. Belarus Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said the focus of the extended exercises was “to ensure an adequate response and de-escalation of military preparations of ill-wishers near our common borders.”
Sporadic shelling across the line dividing Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine increased sharply since Thursday and continued Sunday.
NATO says Russia could use the troops in Belarus as part of an invasion force to attack Ukraine. Moscow denies any such intention.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, told Reuters the extension of the exercises underlined that official promises from Moscow should not be taken as binding.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the repeated warnings by the West that Russia was about to invade were provocative and could have adverse consequences, which he did not spell out. Russia says the West has raised tensions by sending NATO reinforcements to eastern Europe during the crisis.
Western countries are preparing sanctions they say would be wide-reaching against Russian companies and individuals in case of an invasion.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the BBC such measures could include restrictions on Russian businesses’ access to the dollar and the pound. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told German broadcaster ARD that Russia “would in principle be cut off from the international financial markets” and be cut off from major European exports.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said it was time for the West to implement at least part of the sanctions it has prepared.
“Russia has to be stopped right now. We see how events are unfolding,” Kuleba said.
The Biden administration has so far refused to do so, saying their deterrent effect would be lost if they were used too soon.
“As soon as you trigger them, that deterrence is gone,” Blinken said on CNN’s “State of the Union” show.
The focus of tensions in recent days has been on the swathe of eastern Ukraine that Russian-backed rebels seized in 2014, the same year Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. More than 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the east.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on Sunday for an immediate ceasefire in the eastern part of the country. Macron blamed the separatists for the renewed hostilities, while Putin blamed Ukraine, the French presidential adviser said.
On Sunday, a Reuters reporter heard explosions in the centre of Donetsk city in the eastern Donbass region controlled by separatists. Sounds of fighting continued into early Monday morning, when a blast was heard in the centre of Donetsk. Its origin was unclear.
More than 30,000 people from Donetsk and nearby Luhansk have crossed the Russian border in the past 24 hours, TASS news agency said, quoting authorities in Russia’s Rostov region. The separatists began evacuating residents on Friday saying Ukraine was planning to attack – which Kyiv denies.
Local military forces in one of the separatist areas, Luhansk, said on Sunday that two civilians had been killed and five buildings damaged in shelling by the Ukraine military.
Ukraine’s joint forces said late Sunday that pro-Russian forces were shelling their own compatriots in eastern Ukraine to blame the attacks on Kyiv. The statement could not immediately be verified, although Ukraine and its allies have for weeks been warning of Russian “false flag” attacks.
Two Ukrainian soldiers were reported killed and four wounded Saturday.
The renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine follows a build-up over several weeks of Russia troops to the north, east and south of the country. The West estimates 150,000 or more Russian troops are currently near Ukraine’s borders.