Biden agrees in principle to Ukraine summit with Putin

US president Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Mandel Ngan and Mikhail Metzel/AFP via Getty

US president Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin have agreed in principle to a summit over Ukraine, the French leader said on Monday, offering a possible path out of one of the most dangerous European crises in decades.

Satellite imagery appeared to show Russian deployments closer to Ukraine’s border and sounds of fighting were heard on Monday in the east, where Ukrainian government forces are fighting pro-Russian separatists.

The office of French president Emmanuel Macron said in a statement he had pitched to both leaders a summit on “security and strategic stability in Europe”. The White House said in a statement that Biden had accepted the meeting “in principle” but only “if an invasion hasn’t happened.”

“We are always ready for diplomacy,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “We are also ready to impose swift and severe consequences should Russia instead choose war.”

The Kremlin said on Monday that Russian president Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Joe Biden could set up a call or meeting any time but there were no concrete plans yet for a summit.

France is leading a western diplomatic drive to defuse the explosive crisis between Moscow and Kyiv, speaking to Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Sunday, as some 150,000 Russian troops and heavy weaponry manoeuvred near the northern, southern and eastern borders of Ukraine.

However, Mr Putin also blamed Kyiv for “provocations” that created a “quickly deteriorating situation” in Donbas, where the militants are evacuating thousands of civilians in what the US calls a Kremlin bid to create a pretext for a new invasion of Ukraine, and where in 2014 Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a war that has now killed 14,000 people.

Economic sanctions

Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba has told the EU they must start imposing some sanctions on Russia now to show it is serious about wanting to prevent a war in Ukraine.

“We expect decisions,” Mr Kuleba said. “There are plenty of decisions the European Union can make now to send clear messages to Russia that its escalation will not be tolerated and Ukraine will not be left on its own.”

“We believe that there are good and legitimate reasons to impose at least some of the sanctions now to demonstrate that the European Union is not only talking the talk about sanctions, but is also walking the walk.”

But the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell appeared to reject the idea of immediate sanctions, saying he still saw room for diplomacy.

Speaking shortly before Kuleba, Borrell told reporters he would convene an extraordinary EU meeting to agree sanctions “when the moment comes”.

The EU supports the latest attempts to arrange further talks, Mr Borrell said,.“Summit meetings, at the level of leaders, at the level of ministers, whatever format, whatever way of talking and sitting at the table and trying to avoid a war, are badly needed,” he said.

Meanwhile, the US government has sent a letter to the UN human rights chief in Geneva saying it has “credible information” that Russian forces have compiled a list of Ukrainian citizens to be killed or sent to detention camps in the aftermath of a Russian invasion, according to the New York Times.

The likely targets would be people opposed to Russian actions, including dissidents from Russia and Belarus living in Ukraine, journalists, anti-corruption activists and members of ethnic and religious minorities and the LGBTQ community.

Mr Peskov said the reports that Russia had drawn up a list of Ukrainians to capture or kill after an invasion were an “absolute lie”.

He also described as “highly unusual” a US embassy warning to Americans in Russia that they should prepare plans to leave the country if necessary.

Security demands

British prime minister Boris Johnson told the BBC that “the plan that we are seeing is for something that could be really the biggest war in Europe since 1945”.

He said the West was prepared to impose severe economic sanctions on Russia in the event of a new attack – even seeking to stop its firms from trading in dollars and pounds – but acknowledged that it “may not be enough to deter an irrational actor”.

“We have to accept at the moment that Vladimir Putin is possibly thinking illogically about this and doesn’t see the disaster ahead,” he added.

Mr Putin accuses the West of ignoring Russia’s security demands, chiefly for Nato to bar Ukraine from ever becoming a member and for the alliance to withdraw its forces from most of eastern Europe – steps the US has called “non-starters”.

The Kremlin has threatened to take unspecified “military-technical” measures to boost its security in the absence of a deal with the West, while building up a fearsome array of troops, missile systems, fighter jets, heavy artillery and naval power around Ukraine.

Mr Zelenskiy rallied western support for Ukraine at the Munich Security Conference and denounced militia shelling that he said killed two soldiers in Donbas on Saturday.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the overall mood at the high-level gathering “was very downbeat and I was very concerned that there was arguably more talk about how we would respond to a partial or full invasion of Ukraine rather than how we would stop it.

“We need to stop beating war drums and keep talking about compromise and de-escalation,” he told The Irish Times, adding that he was “surprised” by Mr Blinken’s assertion that Russia was “on the brink” of invading Ukraine. – Additional reporting from Reuters

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