US president Joe Biden has agreed “in principle” to a meeting with Vladimir Putin, provided Russia holds off on what American officials believe is an imminent assault on Ukraine.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the US administration has been clear that America is “committed to pursuing diplomacy until the moment an invasion begins”.
Ms Psaki said of the proposed meeting brokered by French president Emmanuel Macron: “We are always ready for diplomacy. 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.”
There are 7,000 more Russian troops on the Ukrainian border than there were a few days ago, a business minister has said.
Paul Scully told Sky News the number had been bolstered “despite the Russians trying to signal the fact they were pulling away from the border”.
He said: “So there is a very, very credible threat and that’s why we’ve got to continue to be vigilant, we’ve got to continue to work with Ukraine and Poland, as Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, was doing just this week.”
He warned “the loss of life will be horrendous” if Russian President Vladimir Putin does not engage in diplomacy.
Blinken and Lavrov
US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov are set to meet on Thursday in Europe, provided Russia does not invade Ukraine.
Russia has rescinded earlier pledges to pull tens of thousands of its troops back from Ukraine’s northern border, a move that US leaders claimed put Russia another step closer to a planned invasion.
This action extends what the Kremlin said were military exercises, originally set to end on Sunday, that brought an estimated 30,000 Russian forces to Belarus, Ukraine’s neighbour to the north.
They are among at least 150,000 Russian troops now deployed outside Ukraine’s borders, along with tanks, warplanes and artillery.
The continued deployment of the Russian forces in Belarus raised concern that Russia could send those troops into the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, a city of about three million people less than a three-hour drive away.
A US official said that Mr Biden’s assertion that Mr Putin has made the decision to roll Russian forces into Ukraine was based on intelligence that Russian front-line commanders have been given orders to begin final preparations for an attack.
The United States and many European countries have claimed for weeks that Mr Putin has built up the forces he needs to invade Ukraine – a westward-looking democracy that has sought to move out of Russia’s orbit – and is now trying to create pretexts to invade.
Western nations have threatened massive sanctions if Mr Putin moves his forces into Ukraine.
US officials on Sunday defended their decision to hold off on their planned financial punishments of Russia ahead of any invasion, after Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky called for the West to do more.
“If you pull the trigger on that deterrent, well then, it doesn’t exist anymore as a deterrent.”Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Fox News
Russia held nuclear drills on Saturday as well as the conventional exercises in Belarus, and has ongoing naval manoeuvres off the coast in the Black Sea.
The announcement that Russia was reversing its pledge to withdraw its forces from Belarus came after two days of sustained shelling along a contact line between Ukraine’s soldiers and Russian-allied separatists in eastern Ukraine, an area that Ukraine and the West worry could be the flashpoint in igniting conflict.
Mr Biden convened the National Security Council at the White House on Russia’s military build-up.
Meanwhile, US vice president Kamala Harris said at a security conference in Munich, Germany: “We’re talking about the potential for war in Europe.
“It’s been over 70 years, and through those 70 years … there has been peace and security.”
After a call with Mr Macron, Mr Putin blamed Ukraine – incorrectly, according to observers there – for the escalation of shelling along the contact line, as well as Nato for “pumping modern weapons and ammunition” into Ukraine.
Mr Macron also spoke separately to Mr Zelensky, to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and to Mr Biden.
In the eastern Ukraine regions of Lugansk and Donetsk, separatist leaders have ordered a full military mobilisation and sent more civilians to Russia, which has issued about 700,000 passports to residents of the rebel-held territories.
Claims that Russian citizens are being endangered might be used as justification for military action.
Officials in the separatist territories claimed Ukrainian forces launched several artillery attacks over the past day and that two civilians were killed during an unsuccessful assault on a village near the Russian border.
Ukraine’s military said two soldiers died after the separatist side opened fire on Saturday.
Mr Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in an interview on Russian state television: “When tension is escalated to the maximum, as it is now, for example, on the line of contact, then any spark, any unplanned incident or any minor planned provocation, can lead to irreparable consequences.”