President Joe Biden has agreed “in principle” to French-brokered summit talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin as long as Russia does not further invade Ukraine, the White House said late Sunday.
The meeting, according to press secretary Jen Psaki, would occur after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meet on February 24.
Still, in a statement, Psaki appeared to downplay the prospects of a meeting actually materializing given what US officials have said the high likelihood is Putin could launch an invasion soon. And other US officials made clear no plans – either on timing, format or location – currently exist for the two leaders to meet.
“We are always ready for diplomacy. 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,” Psaki said in a statement on Sunday night.
The proposed summit, according to an Élysée Palace statement, was proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron during back-to-back phone calls with Biden and Putin on Sunday.
However, speaking to journalists on Monday morning, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said there were “no concrete plans” for a meeting between the two presidents.
“A substantive understanding has been reached that it is necessary to continue dialogue at the ministers’ level. It is too early to talk about concrete plans for organizing summits,” Peskov said, adding: “Of course, we do not rule out that, if necessary, the presidents of Russia and US can make a decision at any time to have contacts, by telephone or in person. It will be their decision.”
During the same call, Peskov announced that Putin would hold a large, previously unscheduled sitting of the Russian Security Council on Monday. The spokesperson said the meeting was “not regular” and refused to elaborate further on its agenda.
Macron has emerged as a diplomatic go-between of sorts as the crisis in Europe unfolds. He met Putin earlier this month in Moscow, and spoke to the Russian leader by phone twice on Sunday. French officials have said his efforts at diplomacy reflect a desire to explore every available pathway that avoids conflict.
The French presidency’s statement said the summit would be followed by a subsequent gathering of “relevant stakeholders to discuss security and strategic stability in Europe.” Macron “will work with all stakeholders to prepare the content of these discussions.”
It did not specify who those stakeholders were.
US officials have consistently said Biden is willing to engage with Putin, even as he prepares withering economic sanctions should another Russian invasion of Ukraine transpire.
“President Biden is prepared to engage President Putin at any time, in any format, if that can help prevent a war,” Blinken said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Biden has placed a premium on meeting leaders face-to-face and met Putin in June during a summit in Geneva. The two last spoke by phone last Saturday.
American officials have said deciphering Putin’s intentions is difficult as he masses troops along Ukraine’s borders. They say he has kept his plans veiled from even his most senior advisers.
On Sunday, a White House official said Blinken and Lavrov would discuss a possible summit between Biden and Putin when they meet later this week in Europe but added a note of caution about those talks.
“Blinken and Lavrov will discuss further if the invasion hasn’t started by then – in which case it’s all off,” the official said.
Exercises in Belarus continue
Macron’s effort to advance a potential diplomatic breakthrough comes as Belarusian officials announced Sunday that joint Russian military exercises in Belarus that were slated to end over the weekend would continue, implying that Russian forces may extend their stay.
New satellite images meanwhile showed intensified activity among Russian units close to Ukraine’s north-eastern border and the Ukrainian Defense ministry said it recorded dozens of ceasefire violations on Sunday.
Defense minister Oleksii Reznikov said Monday that Ukraine was not seeing any withdrawal of Russian forces from positions close to the border.
“We are observing the Russian units, which number today 127,000 people on the ground component, and with the naval and aviation component 147,000 people,” Reznikov said.
The Ukrainian Joint Forces Command on Sunday claimed Russian-backed separatists launched “heavy armament fire” against their own territory in an effort to “falsely accuse the armed forces of Ukraine and further escalate the situation.”
Russia and Ukraine continued exchanging accusations on Monday. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said in a statement that a shell fired from Ukrainian territory had destroyed a border guard post in Russia’s southern Rostov region.
Ukrainian border authorities responded by describing the FSB statement as “deliberate provocation,” while Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, said Ukraine had “nothing to do with these attacks.”
“Our military can only fire back if there is a threat to the lives of our military. We are not shelling,” Danilov added Monday.
On Sunday, Biden held a National Security Council meeting with his top advisers. Also on Sunday, two US officials and another source familiar with US intelligence told CNN a US intelligence assessment indicated orders had been sent to Russian commanders to proceed with an attack on Ukraine. The intelligence was learned last week and informed comments by Biden and Blinken, according to another US official.
However, pushing back on the reports, Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov on Sunday told CBS “Face the Nation” that, “there is no invasion and there is no such plan.”