United States President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed in principle to a summit over the Ukraine crisis, the office of French President Emmanuel Macron said, so long as Moscow does not invade Ukraine.
In a statement released early on Monday, the Elysee Palace said Macron had pitched both leaders on a summit about “security and strategic stability in Europe”.
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“Presidents Biden and Putin have both accepted the principle of such a summit,” the statement said, stressing that such a meeting would be impossible if Russia invaded Ukraine as Western nations fear is its intention.
The White House later confirmed the planned summit.
The US is “committed to pursuing diplomacy until the moment an invasion begins,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. “President Biden accepted in principle a meeting with President Putin … if an invasion hasn’t happened.”
“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,” she added.
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin, but Vladimir Putin said after his call with Macron on Sunday that diplomatic efforts needed to intensify in order to find a resolution to the crisis.
Macron’s office and the White House said that the “substance” of the summit would be worked out by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a meeting planned for February 24.
Al Jazeera’s Shihab Rattansi, reporting from Washington, DC, said that the summit appeared to be being framed as a discussion on a new security structure for Russia and Western countries in Europe, which is what Russia has been pushing for.
The announcement follows a series of phone calls between Macron and leaders on both sides of the Atlantic amid heightened tensions over the situation in Ukraine, where Russia has massed thousands of troops near the border.
While the possible summit offers hope of a possible way out of the crisis, military tension remains high after neighbouring Belarus announced that Russia would extend military drills in the country that had been due to end on Sunday. Satellite images also appeared to show new deployments of Russian equipment and troops in farms and forests as near as 15km (9.3 miles) to the Ukrainian border.
Blinken said on Sunday the extension of the exercises in Belarus left him more concerned that Russia was on the brink of an attack.
“Everything we are seeing suggests that this is dead serious,” he told CNN.
“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 Putin from carrying this forward.”
Today, President Biden convened a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the latest developments regarding Russia’s military buildup on the borders of Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/v3EKIj9PRb
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) February 20, 2022
There has also been a sharp increase in fighting across the line dividing Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces in eastern Ukraine since Thursday. On Monday, an explosion was heard in the centre of Donetsk, with Russia’s RIA news agency quoting rebels saying that two civilians had been killed in shelling by Ukrainian government forces.
Russia has accused Ukraine of attacking its territory, and separatist leaders have since called for a mass evacuation of civilians to Russia and declared a full military mobilisation.
US and Ukrainian officials say attacks have been staged as a pretext for a Russian invasion.
Moscow has said it has no plans to invade the country, but the situation is causing increased unease among Russia’s neighbours in Eastern Europe.
Writing on Twitter, Estonian President Alar Karis said: “We are seeing a planned, premeditated escalation by Russia. No matter the outcome, the message could not be clearer: nothing uttered by the Russian state can unfortunately be trusted.”
Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, said he was sceptical that the summit would go ahead.
“But if Biden and Putin did meet, they should invite [Zelenskyy] to join,” he said on Twitter.
On Sunday, the White House said President Joe Biden was cancelling a planned trip to Delaware and would remain in Washington, DC, following a two-hour meeting of his National Security Council.