Following a frenetic fresh round of negotiations to avert an all-out war, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Joe Biden have agreed to meet — but only provided Moscow does not attack Ukraine.
Both presidents have responded yes in principle to the meeting, which was requested by French President Emmanuel Macron, according to his office, with the White House confirming Biden’s willingness, albeit cautiously.
According to AFP, a senior government official said: “The exact time will be chosen. The format will be chosen, thus everything is purely hypothetical.”
The conference will be open to “relevant stakeholders,” according to the Elysee, and preparations between Russia and the US will begin on Thursday.
The potential breakthrough comes as the US warned of an impending invasion and Ukraine and Russia accused each other for an increase in firing on the front line separating Kyiv’s soldiers from Moscow-backed rebels.
Ukrainians have fled to cellars and other safe havens as a result of the shelling, while some civilians have been evacuated.
The White House issued its own statement, warning that it was still prepared to “impose fast and severe consequences” if Russia invaded.
“Right now, Russia appears to be preparing for a full-scale assault on Ukraine very soon,” said US press secretary Jen Psaki.
Russia has amassed more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, according to Washington and other Western capitals, and is poised to unleash a full-scale invasion.
Moscow has denied any intention of invading its neighbour, but has demanded that Ukraine’s application for NATO membership be permanently rejected, as well as the departure of Western military stationed in eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War.
The summit was announced just minutes after Macron finished his second marathon chat with Putin of the day.
According to a Kremlin statement, Putin blamed the escalation in bloodshed on the front lines on “provocations carried out by Ukrainian security forces” during their first, 105-minute meeting.
“The United States and NATO must take Russian demands for security guarantees seriously,” Putin said again.
Macron’s office added that the two had agreed on “the importance of favouring a diplomatic solution to the continuing crisis and doing all possible to achieve one.”
The pair chatted for an hour the second time, late Sunday evening, according to the French president. Shortly after that, the summit was announced.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has previously stated that Russia was “on the verge” of invading Ukraine.
According to unknown US media sources, Washington acquired intelligence last week indicating that the Kremlin has given soldiers the order to attack. When contacted by AFP, the White House, Pentagon, and State Department all declined to comment on the reports.
New Russian army deployments near the border were also visible in satellite photographs from a US business.
Macron also spoke with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, who demanded a quick cease-fire and a return of negotiations.
“We support intensifying the peace process,” Zelensky said in a tweet, adding that he had told Macron of “new provocative shelling” on the front line between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has reported a “dramatic spike” in ceasefire violations along that dangerous front line.
In a conflict that has raged for eight years and claimed over 14,000 lives, hundreds of artillery and mortar assaults have been reported in recent days.
Overnight, AFP correspondents heard further shelling close to the front line between government forces and the Moscow-backed separatists who control portions of Lugansk and Donetsk’s eastern regions.
When the separatist fighting erupted in 2014, an AFP reporter found locals hiding in an earth-floored bunker that was sparsely equipped in Zolote, a frontline settlement in the Lugansk area.
“They began shelling more aggressively in recent weeks. They’ve started shelling again “Oleksiy Kovalenko, a 33-year-old handyman, agreed.
Meanwhile, the US embassy in Moscow issued a warning to Americans about possible attacks in public locations in Russia.
Fears of escalation grew earlier this week when Belarus stated that Russian military will remain on its country after the scheduled completion of joint training on Sunday, tightening the screws on Ukraine even more.
Moscow earlier stated that its 30,000 troops in Belarus were conducting preparedness drills with its ally, which would be completed by Sunday, allowing the Russians to return to their bases.
Belarus, citing heightened military action on their shared borders and an alleged “escalation” in east Ukraine, said it had chosen to “resume inspections” with Russia.
Despite Russia’s massive military build-up on the border, Moscow-backed separatists have accused Ukraine of planning an invasion into their enclave.
This theory is mocked by Kyiv and Western capitals, who accuse Moscow of aiming to provoke Ukraine and conspiring to manufacture incidents as a pretext for Russian invasion.
Similar accusations have been made by rebel regions concerning Ukraine’s army, prompting a general mobilisation and the evacuation of population into Russian territory.
“Take the kids and leave!” said my husband. Anna Tikhonova, a 31-year-old nurse from Vesselo-Voznessenka, Russia, told AFP from a camp there.
She and her children had fled Gorlovka, Ukraine, after hearing gunshots, she claimed.