Biden and Putin agree in principle to Ukraine summit, says France's Macron

US President Joe Biden (left) and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin (right) have agreed in principle to a summit over Ukraine that was pitched to them by French President Emmanuel Macron. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (REUTERS) - United States President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have agreed in principle to a summit over Ukraine, the office of French President Emmanuel Macron said, provided Russia does not invade its neighbour.

In a statement released early on Monday (Feb 21), the Elysee Palace said Mr Macron had pitched both leaders on a summit over "security and strategic stability in Europe".

"Presidents Biden and Putin have both accepted the principle of such a summit," the statement said, before adding that such a meeting would be impossible if Russia invaded Ukraine as Western nations fear it plans to.

"The substance will have to be prepared by (US) Secretary of State (Antony) Blinken and (Russian Foreign) Minister (Sergei) Lavrov during their meeting on Thursday," the Elysee Palace said.

Mr Macron will help prepare the content of the discussions, the statement added.

Soon after the announcement, the White House confirmed that Mr Biden has agreed in principle to a meeting with Mr Putin so long as Moscow does not invade Ukraine.

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."

She added: "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."

Messages seeking comment from the Kremlin and from the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy were not immediately returned early Monday.

Many details about the proposed summit - which was announced after a volley of phone calls between Mr Macron, Mr Biden, Mr Putin, Mr Zelenskiy, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson - are unclear.

A Biden administration official said in an email that the summit was “completely notional” as the timing and format were yet to be determined.

Mr Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, said he was sceptical the summit would happen.

“But if Biden and Putin did meet, they should invite (Zelenskiy) to join,” he said in a message posted to Twitter.

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Mr Biden will also participate in a virtual Group of Seven meeting on Thursday to discuss the situation.

The announcement by the French comes after a week of heightened tensions spurred by Russia's military build-up along the Ukrainian border.

Nerves were further frayed after the Belarusian Defence Ministry announced that Russia would extend military drills in Belarus that were due to end on Sunday.

Satellite images from a US company also appeared to show new deployments of Russian armour and troops close to Ukraine.

The pictures show "multiple new field deployments of armoured equipment and troops" departing from existing military sites into forests and fields approximately 14km to 30km from Russia's border with Ukraine, US satellite imagery company Maxar said in an e-mail on Sunday.

Mr Blinken told CNN "everything we are seeing suggests that this is dead serious", adding that the West was equally prepared if Moscow invaded.

"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."

Moscow denies it has plans to attack its western neighbour, but is seeking a guarantee that Ukraine will never join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and that the Western alliance removes forces from Eastern Europe, demands that the West has refused.

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