Biden agrees to last-chance summit with Putin as Russia readies to invade Ukraine
Kyiv: In a last-ditch diplomatic gambit brokered with the aid of French President Emmanuel Macron, US President Joe Biden has agreed “in principle” to a meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as long as he holds off on launching an assault that US officials warn appears imminent.
Russia has rescinded earlier pledges to pull tens of thousands of its troops back from Ukraine’s northern border, a move that US leaders said put Russia another step closer to what they said was the planned invasion of Ukraine. Residents of Ukraine’s capital filled a gold-domed cathedral to pray for peace.
Russia’s action adds 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, capable at any moment of sweeping down on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, a city of about 3 million people less than a three-hour drive away.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are set to meet on Thursday (Friday AEDT) in Europe — as long as Russia does not send its troops into Ukraine beforehand.
“We are always ready for diplomacy. We are also ready to impose swift and severe consequences should Russia instead choose war,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in statement. “And currently, Russia appears to be continuing preparations for a full-scale assault on Ukraine very soon.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed on Twitter on Sunday (Monday AEDT) for a cease-fire after the Kremlin failed to respond to his offer on Saturday to meet with Putin.
After a call with Macron, Putin blamed Ukraine — incorrectly, according to observers there — for the escalation of shelling along the contact line and NATO for “pumping modern weapons and ammunition” into Ukraine.
Macron, a leader in European efforts to broker a peaceful resolution with Russia, also spoke separately to Zelensky, to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and to Biden.
Blinken said that Biden was “prepared to meet President Putin at any time in any format if that can help prevent a war” and the US official said Macron had then conveyed the offer of talks to Putin — conditioned on Russia not invading — in his phone calls with the Russian leader.
Praying for peace
In Kyiv, life outwardly continued as usual for many on a mild winter Sunday, with brunches and church services, ahead of what Biden said late last week was an already decided Russian attack.
Katerina Spanchak, who fled a region of eastern Ukraine when it was taken over by Russian-allied separatists, was among worshippers crowded into the capital’s St Michael’s monastery, smoky with the candles burned by the faithful, to pray that Ukraine be spared.
“We all love life, and we are all united by our love of life,” Spanchak said, pausing to compose herself. “We should appreciate it every day. That’s why I think everything will be fine.”
“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,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in an interview that aired on Russian state television.
A US official said that Biden’s assertion that Putin has made the decision to roll forces into Ukraine was based on intelligence that Russian front-line commanders have been given orders to begin final preparations for an attack. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive intelligence.
Satellite pictures show multiple new field deployments of armoured equipment and troops in Russia near the border with Ukraine, according to satellite imagery from US company Maxar.
“This new activity represents a change in the pattern of the previously observed deployments of battle groups (tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery and support equipment),” Maxar said.
‘Kill list’ fears
The Washington Post obtained a copy of a letter the US sent to the United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet on Sunday night (Monday AEDT) that said Russia was compiling lists of Ukrainians “to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation”
The letter, sent by Bathsheba Crocker, the US ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said Russia’s targets would include Russian and Belarusian dissidents in exile in Ukraine, journalists and anti-corruption activists, and “vulnerable populations such as religious and ethnic minorities and LGBTQI+ persons”.
Media reported ongoing shelling in Russia-backed separatist areas. CNN quoted the Ukrainian Joint Forces Command saying the “heavy armament fire” is directed on the separatists’ own territory in an effort to “falsely accuse” Ukraine of starting the exchange.
“We’re talking about the potential for war in Europe,” US Vice President Kamala Harris said earlier Sunday at a security conference in Munich, Germany, that saw urgent consultations among world leaders on the crisis. “It’s been over 70 years, and through those 70 years … there has been peace and security.”
The US embassy in Russia cautioned Americans on Sunday (Monday AEDT) to have evacuation plans, citing the threat of attacks in Moscow and along the Russian border with Ukraine.
“There have been threats of attacks against shopping centres, railway and metro stations, and other public gathering places in major urban areas, including Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as in areas of heightened tension along the Russian border with Ukraine,” the embassy said.
‘They’re shooting at us now’
Officials in the separatist territories of Lugansk and Donetsk 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 in firing from the separatist side on Saturday.
On the front lines, Ukrainian soldiers said they were under orders not to return fire. Zahar Leshushun, peering into the distance with a periscope, had followed the news all day from a trench where he is posted near the town of Zolote.
“Right now, we don’t respond to their fire because …” the soldier said before the sound of an incoming shell interrupted him. “Oh! They are shooting at us now. They are aiming at the command post.”