President Biden agreed to meet with Russian President Putin “in principle” as long as the superpower does not invade Ukraine, the White House announced Sunday night.
The talks would be brokered by the French.
“As the President has repeatedly made clear, we are committed to pursuing diplomacy until the moment an invasion begins,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement. “Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov are scheduled to meet later this week in Europe, provided Russia does not proceed with military action. President Biden accepted in principle a meeting with President Putin following that engagement, again, if an invasion hasn’t happened.”
The news of a summit came as fears of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine mounted.
Russian troops remained deployed along Ukraine’s borders, and deadly tensions in Ukraine’s breakaway region fueled fears that an invasion was looming.
Still, the U.S. was hoping for a diplomatic answer to avert the crisis, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
“We believe Vladimir Putin has made the decision, but 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 Putin from carrying this forward,” Blinken said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“President Biden is prepared to engage President Putin at any time, in any format if that can help prevent a war.”
But with Russia extending its military drills near Ukraine’s northern border with Belarus on Sunday, Blinken said Moscow appeared determined to invade.
“Everything we’re seeing suggests that this is dead serious, that we are on the brink of an invasion,” he said.
Russia’s military drills, which have involved a huge buildup of troops, had been scheduled to end Sunday.
But hostilities in eastern Ukraine appeared to provide a pretext for Russia to keep the exercises going — a scenario that the White House had predicted.
“He is following the script almost to the letter,” Blinken said of the Russian president.
Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine accused Ukraine of launching attacks over the weekend, resulting in two civilian deaths. Two Ukrainian soldiers died in clashes, according to Kyiv, which rejected the allegations of escalation.
While Russia has deployed more than 150,000 troops around Ukraine in recent weeks, Putin has demanded promises that Ukraine never become part of NATO and insisted he has no intention of invading.
U.S. and European officials have struggled to defuse the situation — threatening severe sanctions in the event of an invasion — while shying away from Putin’s demands.
Blinken defended the decision to hold off on sanctions for now.
“The purpose of the sanctions in the first instance is to try to deter Russia from going to war. As soon as you trigger them, that deterrent is gone,” he said.
“And until the last minute, as long as we can try to bring a deterrent effect to this, we’re going to try to do that.”
Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, voiced his impatience and called for more support from his country’s allies.
“We are going to protect our country with or without the support of our partners,” he said in a speech Saturday at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, an annual gathering of international policymakers.
“What are you waiting for?” Zelenskyy asked, saying sanctions against Russia would be of no help after an invasion.
Zelenskyy also called for a meeting with Putin.
“I don’t know what the president of the Russian Federation wants, so I am proposing a meeting,” he said in Munich. “Ukraine will continue to follow only the diplomatic path for the sake of a peaceful settlement.”
Vice President Kamala Harris responded to his comments with words of solidarity.
“Let us recognize the position he’s in,” Harris told reporters before flying back to the U.S. from Munich. “His country is virtually surrounded by Russian troops.
“I told him in our meeting, ‘The United States stands with you,’ ” she added, “because we do, as do this community of allies and partners.”
Harris stuck to the White House line that sanctions would only come if Russia invaded Ukraine, and she did not commit to additional defense help.
Biden has ruled out sending U.S. troops to Ukraine, but sent a $200 million defense package including Javelin anti-tank missiles, artillery and other weapons last month.
European officials remained in the mix, with French President Emmanuel Macron holding a Sunday phone call with Putin. Putin reportedly said the Kremlin was still interested in a diplomatic solution.
The Russian strongman’s aggression toward Ukraine has prompted widespread speculation about his reasoning and motives.
“Vladimir Putin is possibly thinking illogically about this and doesn’t see the disaster ahead,” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the BBC.
With News Wires Services