As heavy shelling resumed Monday in a confrontation in eastern Ukraine that is expected to start the Russian onslaught, the US and Russian presidents provisionally agreed to meet in a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
In a series of late-night phone calls, French President Emmanuel Macron attempted to organize a meeting between US Vice President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to Macron’s office, both leaders “approved the premise of such a summit,” which would be followed by a larger summit with other “important players to debate security and strategic stability in Europe.” It went on to say that the meetings “can only take place if Russia does not attack Ukraine.”
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, stated that the administration is “dedicated to pursue diplomacy until the time an invasion begins.” “Right now, Russia looks to be continuing its preparations for a full-scale invasion on Ukraine very soon,” she said.
According to Macron’s office, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet on Thursday to lay the framework for the meeting.
It came after Macron made a series of phone calls to Putin, Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for the Kremlin, said Monday that Putin and Biden might meet if they deem it essential, but that “it’s premature to speak about concrete summit arrangements.”
In a conference call with reporters, he added, “The meeting is possible if the leaders feel it practicable.”
With an estimated 150,000 Russian forces gathered near Ukraine, the next summit gives new hope for preventing a Russian invasion, which US officials say might begin at any time.
Russia and its partner Belarus declared Sunday that they were expanding huge war drills on Belarusian territory, providing a perfect bridgehead for an attack on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, which is only 75 kilometers (less than 50 miles) south of the Belarusian border.
Beginning on Thursday, shelling increased along the tense line of contact between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatist rebels in Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, where over 14,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in 2014, shortly after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Hundreds of explosions are documented daily, and Ukraine and the rebels have exchanged blame for the enormous cease-fire breaches.
Separatist authorities announced the evacuation of people and military mobilization on Friday in response to what they claimed as an impending Ukrainian onslaught against rebel-held areas. Officials in Ukraine have categorically rejected any intentions to conduct such an attack, describing the evacuation order as part of Russian provocations aimed at provoking an invasion.
At least four civilians were murdered and numerous more were injured by Ukrainian bombardment in the last 24 hours, according to rebel officials. According to Ukraine’s military, a Ukrainian soldier was wounded, and rebels were “cynically firing from residential areas using people as shields,” with Ukrainian forces refusing to fire back.
Moscow rejects any intentions to invade Ukraine, but demands assurances from the West that NATO would not admit Ukraine or other former Soviet republics as members. It also calls on the alliance to stop sending weapons to Ukraine and withdraw its military from Eastern Europe, requests that the West has bluntly refused.
Russian authorities have dismissed Western requests to deescalate the situation by withdrawing soldiers, claiming that Moscow is allowed to deploy troops and conduct maneuvers anywhere it wants on its own. Russian assertions about some soldiers returning to their bases were disregarded by Western officials last week, who said that Moscow was really beefing up its forces surrounding Ukraine.
Biden’s claim last week that Putin has decided to send Russian troops into Ukraine was based on information suggesting Russian front-line commanders had been given orders to make final preparations for an invasion, according to a US official. To protect the sensitive intelligence, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity.
On Saturday, Russia upped the ante with broad nuclear drills that included numerous mock launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles overseen by Putin.
The president of Ukraine renewed his appeal for a fast meeting with Putin to help reduce tensions, but the Kremlin has yet to respond.
Foreign policy head Josep Borrell of the European Union welcomed the potential of a Biden-Putin meeting, but warned that if diplomacy fails, the 27-nation group has approved a package of penalties to be used if Putin orders an invasion.
“The job is over. Borrell, who is chairing a conference of EU foreign ministers, stated, “We are ready.” He did not specify what type of red line would trigger the penalties, but said that if it was crossed, he would convene an emergency meeting of foreign ministers “and I would deliver the sanctions at the appropriate time.”
Borrell was charged with compiling a list of Russians who would face asset freezes and travel restrictions. He gave no indication of who would be targeted.
Other measures are being planned by the European Commission to “restrict Russia’s access to financial markets and (impose) export controls that will prevent Russia from modernizing and diversifying its economy,” according to its head, Ursula von der Leyen.
As war worries loomed, individuals in Ukraine’s capital prayed for peace.
Katerina Spanchak, a refugee from the separatist-controlled east, was among the worshipers crammed inside the capital’s St. Michael’s monastery, which was smokey from the faithful’s candles, to pray for Ukraine’s safety.
“We all love life, and our love of life brings us together,” Spanchak added, pausing to collect herself. “We should be grateful for it every day.” That is why I am certain that everything will work out.”