Biden-Putin meeting discussed as Ukraine war fears loom ::

– The US and Russian presidents tentatively agreed to meet in a last-ditch diplomatic effort to prevent Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine as heavy bombardment continued on Monday in a dispute in eastern Ukraine that is set to spark the Russian offensive.

French President Emmanuel Macron sought to broker a possible meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a series of phone calls that dragged on into the night.

Macron’s office said the two leaders had “agreed in principle to such a summit”, which would be followed by a broader summit meeting also involving other “relevant stakeholders to discuss security and strategic stability in Europe”. He added that the meetings “can only take place on the condition that Russia does not invade Ukraine”.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration had been clear that “we are committed to continuing diplomacy until such time as an invasion begins.” She noted that “currently, Russia appears to be continuing preparations for a full-scale assault on Ukraine very soon.”

Macron’s office said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are expected to lay the groundwork for the summit when they meet on Thursday.

This followed a flurry of calls from Macron to Putin, Biden as well as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that Putin and Biden could meet if they deemed it necessary, but stressed that “it is premature to talk about specific plans for a summit.”

“The meeting is possible if the leaders deem it feasible,” he said in a conference call with reporters.

The future meeting offers new hope of averting a Russian invasion which US officials say could begin at any time with around 150,000 Russian troops assembled near Ukraine.

Adding to fears of an imminent attack, Russia and its Belarusian ally announced on Sunday that they were expanding massive war games into Belarusian territory which offers a convenient beachhead for an attack on Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, located only 75 kilometers (less than 50 miles) south of the border with Belarus.

From Thursday, shelling also increased along the tense line of contact between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland, Donbass, where more than 14 000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in 2014 shortly after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

Ukraine and the rebels have traded blame for massive ceasefire violations with hundreds of explosions being recorded daily.

On Friday, separatist officials announced the evacuation of civilians and military mobilization in the face of what they described as an imminent Ukrainian offensive on rebel areas. Ukrainian officials strongly denied any plans to launch such an attack and described the evacuation order as part of Russian provocations meant to prepare the ground for an invasion.

Separatist authorities said Monday that at least four civilians have been killed by Ukrainian shelling in the past 24 hours and several others have been injured. The Ukrainian military said two Ukrainian soldiers were killed over the weekend and another serviceman was injured on Monday.

Ukrainian military spokesman Pavlo Kovalchyuk said Ukrainian positions were shelled 80 times on Sunday and eight times early Monday, noting that separatists were “cynically firing from residential areas using civilians as shields”. He insisted that Ukrainian forces were not fighting back.

In the village of Novognativka, on the government-controlled side, Ekaterina Evseeva, 60, said the shelling was worse than during the height of fighting at the start of the conflict.

“It’s worse than 2014,” she said, her voice shaking. “We’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And there’s nowhere to run.”

Evseeva said residents were cowering in basements amid renewed fighting: “Yesterday I saw my neighbor with her 2-month-old baby as she ran to the basement. It shouldn’t be like this.

Amid heightened fears of invasion, the Kremlin reacted angrily to a New York Times report that the US administration sent a letter to the UN human rights chief claiming Moscow had compiled a list of Ukrainians to be killed or sent to detention camps after the invasion. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said that claim was a lie and that no such list exists.

Moscow denies any plans to invade Ukraine, but wants Western guarantees that NATO will not allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to become members. It also urges the alliance to halt arms deployments in Ukraine and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe – demands flatly rejected by the West.

Russian officials have ignored Western calls for de-escalation by withdrawing troops, arguing that Moscow is free to deploy troops and conduct exercises anywhere within its territory. Last week, Western officials dismissed Russian statements about returning some troops to their bases, saying Moscow was actually strengthening its forces around Ukraine.

Despite Biden’s assertion last week that Putin made the decision to deploy Russian forces to Ukraine, Ukrainian officials have sought to project calm, saying they do not view the invasion as imminent.

Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on Monday that Russia had amassed 147,000 troops around Ukraine, including 9,000 in Belarus, arguing the number was clearly insufficient for an offensive on the Ukrainian capital from the north.

“The talk about an attack on Kiev from the Belarusian side sounds ridiculous,” he said, accusing Russia of using troops there to scare itself.

Russia upped the ante on Saturday with extensive nuclear exercises that included multiple practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles that Putin personally supervised.

The European Union’s top diplomat, foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, welcomed the prospect of a Biden-Putin summit, but said that if diplomacy fails, the bloc of 27 nations has finalized its set of sanctions to use if Putin orders an invasion.

“The job is done. We are ready,” said Borrell, who chairs a meeting of EU foreign ministers and has been tasked with drawing up a list of people in Russia who will be hit with asset freezes and travel bans. He did not provide any details on who might be targeted.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock welcomed Macron’s summit initiative and warned Russia against any false flag action to provoke hostilities. “I urgently call on the Russian government, the Russian president: do not play with human lives,” she said as she arrived at the meeting of senior EU diplomats.


Karmanau reported from Kiev, Ukraine, and Cook from Brussels. Lori Hinnant in Kyiv; Angela Charlton in Paris; Zeke Miller and Aamer Madhani in Munich, Germany; Geir Moulson in Berlin; and Ellen Knickmeyer, Robert Burns, Matthew Lee and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.


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