US President Biden and Russia’s Putin agree in principle to meet over Ukraine

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A Photo montage of US president Joe Bidden and Russia's Vladimir Putin; Courtesy Photo

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed in principle to a summit over Ukraine, offering a possible avenue to avert one of the most dangerous European crises in decades.

The office of French President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement he had pitched to both leaders a summit on “security and strategic stability in Europe.” The White House said in a statement on Monday that Biden had accepted the meeting “in principle” but only “if an invasion hasn’t happened” -Reuters reported on Monday.

On Monday, financial markets edged higher on the glimmer of hope for a diplomatic solution even as satellite imagery appeared to show Russian deployments closer to Ukraine’s border and sounds of fighting were heard in the east, where Ukrainian government forces are fighting pro-Russian separatists.

“We are always ready for diplomacy,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. “We are also ready to impose swift and severe consequences should Russia instead choose war.”

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

However, more details about the proposed summit, which was announced after a volley of phone calls between Macron, Biden, Putin, Zelenskiy, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, are not clear.

Macron’s office and the White House said the substance of the summit would be worked out by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during their meeting planned for Feb. 24. What role Ukraine would play in the summit, if any, was also uncertain.

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

While oil prices fell, Asian share markets pared losses and Wall Street futures rallied on news of a possible summit, Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said he was skeptical it would happen.

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

News of Macron’s proposal comes after a week of heightened tension spurred by Russia’s military buildup. Russian forces have been amassing around its neighbor since late last year, something Western countries say is a prelude to an invasion that could come at any moment.

Russia denies any intention to invade, but the sucpicion was further emboldened when the Belarusian defence ministry announced that Russia would extend military drills in Belarus that were due to end on Sunday.

U.S.-based satellite imagery company Maxar reported multiple new deployments of Russian military units in forests, farms, and industrial areas as little as 15 km (9 miles) from the border with Ukraine.

Blinken said on Sunday the extension of the exercises in Belarus, bordering Ukraine to the north, made him more worried that Russia was on the brink of an attack.

“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,” he told CNN.

In a letter to U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet on Sunday, the United States raised concern that “further Russian invasion of Ukraine may create a human rights catastrophe”.

“Specifically, we have credible information that indicates Russian forces are creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation,” wrote U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Bathsheba Nell Crocker.

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