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Biden agrees ‘in principle’ to summit with Putin if Ukraine is not invaded

Ukrainian soldiers check documents at a checkpoint between government-controlled Ukraine and the separatist-held Luhansk territory Feb. 19. The sound of artillery fire could be heard in the distance. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed “in principle” on Sunday to meet, U.S. and French officials said, leaving a narrow window for diplomacy as Russia appeared on the brink of launching a new war in Ukraine.

The office of French President Emmanuel Macron said the two leaders had accepted the meeting and it would take place only if an attack doesn’t occur. The details of the summit will be worked out this week, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Although senior U.S. officials say they believe that Putin has made a decision to invade, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that U.S. officials “are committed to pursuing diplomacy until the moment an invasion begins.” She confirmed that Biden accepted the invitation — “again, if an invasion hasn’t happened.”

She also reiterated the administration’s position that Russia seems to be “continuing preparations for a full-scale assault on Ukraine very soon.”

Amid the diplomatic efforts, the United States has warned the United Nations that it has credible information showing that Moscow is compiling lists of Ukrainians “to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation,” according to a letter obtained by The Washington Post. The letter does not describe the nature of the intelligence that undergirds its assessment.

The developments came after Russia continued to keep in place 30,000 troops it has deployed in neighboring Belarus despite earlier promises to withdraw them by Sunday. Earlier in the day, top administration officials echoed Biden’s assessment from Friday that Putin has made a decision to invade within days.

“Everything leading up to an actual invasion appears to be taking place,” Blinken said Sunday morning on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

United States officials warned that Russia would likely invade Ukraine in the near future as diplomatic talks continued on Feb. 20. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Blinken said U.S. officials will “use every opportunity and every minute we have” to see if Putin can be dissuaded. Blinken has sought to meet again with Lavrov this week. “The plan is still to do that — unless Russia invades in the meantime,” Blinken said.

As The Post first reported Saturday, Biden became confident of Putin’s plans to invade after receiving a report that the U.S. intelligence community became aware of an order given to Russian subordinates to proceed with a full-scale attack, according to several people familiar with the matter. The United States obtained intelligence on the order as Russian military and security officials were taking steps to implement it, and did so very recently, the people said.

Biden convened a rare Sunday meeting of the National Security Council in the White House Situation Room, conferring with top advisers including Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Vice President Harris called in from Air Force Two on her way back to Washington from Munich, said an administration official who, like some others in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

A separate senior administration official said that the meeting ran about two hours and touched on recent diplomatic conversations and work by the Treasury Department, which oversees sanctions. Officials also addressed efforts by the Defense Department, which has deployed thousands of troops to Romania, Bulgaria and Poland in recent days to reassure NATO allies in the region.

More than 150,000 Russian forces are amassed at the Ukrainian border, marking the largest military buildup in Europe since the end of World War II. The move to extend Russian military exercises in Belarus has drawn the concern of Western officials, who have noted the country offers the Kremlin a shortened path to assault the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv from the north.

Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin extended military drills with Russian forces on Feb. 20, citing “the escalation of the situation” in eastern Ukraine. (Video: Reuters)

The military chief for Belarus, Viktor Khrenin, cited the “aggravation of the situation” in eastern Ukraine as reasons for the joint exercises with Russia to continue.

Khrenin said the military would continue exercises “to ensure an adequate response and de-escalation of military preparations of ill-wishers near our common borders.” Just four days ago, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei told The Post that “not a single serviceman” and “not a single piece of military equipment” from Russia would remain in Belarus after the exercises concluded.

The U.S. government remains concerned about U.S. citizens in Russia facing unexpected violence. In a security alert on Sunday, the State Department warned of threats against shopping centers, railway stations and other public gathering places in major urban areas, including Moscow, and advised Americans there to be aware of their surroundings and avoid crowds.

Blinken reiterated that Americans in Ukraine should not count on the U.S. government to evacuate them. The United States will have consular services available along the Ukrainian border with Poland, “but in terms of evacuation, that’s not going to happen,” the secretary said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

In a Facebook post from Sunday night, the Ukrainian military contended that “Russian occupation forces” had carried out “yet another provocation” aimed at falsely implicating Ukrainian troops in violence. In this case, heavy fire was aimed at Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine.

“With Ukrainian defenders refraining from any aggressive acts that could possibly trigger a violent response, the occupation forces continue to destroy civilian infrastructure on the temporarily occupied territories and sporadically shell civilian settlements,” the statement said. “It is obvious that the adversary continues to use the Russian propaganda machine to wage information warfare, to falsely accuse the Armed Forces of Ukraine and to further escalate the situation.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday pleaded with Western governments to reveal their sanctions plans against Russia to serve as a deterrent, while accusing leaders of appeasing the Russians. U.S. officials said they have not done so to prevent Russia from taking steps to avert or soften any blows from sanctions.

Blinken said Sunday that the United States and European partners have built a “massive package of sanctions” against Russia, and that the point of them is to deter Russia from going to war.

“As soon as you trigger them, that deterrent is gone,” Blinken said. “And until the last minute, as long as we can try to bring a deterrent effect to this, we’re going to try to do that.”

Harris, speaking to reporters after attending a security conference in Munich, said officials planned “some of the greatest sanctions, if not the strongest, that we’ve ever issued,” and said they would “exact absolute harm for the Russian economy and their government” if Russia invades.

But she warned that even though the Biden administration has ruled out sending U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine, the crisis could affect Americans.

“In this situation, that may relate to energy costs, for example,” Harris said. “But we are taking very specific and appropriate, I believe, steps to mitigate what that cost might be if it happens.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby also defended the decision to wait on triggering new sanctions. While what is planned is “unprecedented,” Kirby said, Russia has not yet invaded.

“If you punish somebody for something they haven’t done yet, then they might as well just go ahead and do it,” Kirby said on “Fox News Sunday.” “So, we’re holding that in advance and we’re hoping that that could affect the calculus of Mr. Putin.”

The discussions about sanctions came as the international community waited to see whether Putin would unleash an assault on Kyiv and the human suffering that would go with it.

Austin, speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” warned that Putin could take control of the capital city very quickly.

“We see a lot of tanks and armored vehicles there. We see a lot of artillery. We see rocket forces,” Austin said in an interview recorded on Friday while he was in Poland. “If he employs that kind of combat power, it will certainly create enormous casualties within the civilian population.”

Austin said the sanctions planned will "have effects that Mr. Putin has not realized before,” and predicted they also will affect Russian citizens.

“The decisions that he’s making now will bring about a lot of pain and suffering on his comrades in Russia,” Austin said.

Russia’s continuing bellicose posture and steady artillery fire attacks in the eastern separatist regions of Ukraine have dimmed hopes for an effective diplomatic resolution.

Still, Macron spoke with Putin for about 90 minutes on Sunday, according to Kremlin pool reports. Macron’s office said that the two leaders agreed to resume diplomatic discussions through the Normandy Format talks, an arrangement established seven years ago by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine to resolve conflict in eastern Ukraine, and for the French and Russian foreign ministers to meet in the coming days.

The Kremlin’s statement was more vague, saying that “taking into account the acuteness of the current state of affairs, the presidents considered it expedient to intensify the search for solutions to diplomatic means.”

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia was the “last country” to speak of war. Peskov called on the United States and NATO military alliance to see reason and ask themselves why Russia would attack anyone. He added that the West is fueling hysteria with claims of a Russian attack, even as Russian troops and weapons appeared to be moving closer to the Ukrainian border.

Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the United States, said during a contentious interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Russia has withdrawn a lot of troops from the Kaliningrad area “and nobody even sent us a thank-you.” Kaliningrad is nestled between Poland and Lithuania and does not border Ukraine.

Antonov denied that there are plans to invade and said that Russia has the right to deploy where it wants on its own territory.

“Russian troops are on sovereign Russian territory,” Antonov said, overlooking the Russian forces it also has in Belarus and Moldova, another former Soviet state.

Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, said during a separate interview on the same program that over the last few days, Ukraine has seen a stark difference between what Russian officials have claimed and done.

“While preparing to defend our country, we’re using every possibility to still choose the diplomatic path and force Russia to choose the diplomatic path,” Markarova said. “We are calling not only on the aggressor, which is Russia, but also on all of our friends and allies to get together and use every opportunity to still deter Russia from invading.”

Lamothe and Wang reported from Washington, Khurshudyan reported from Severodonetsk, Ukraine, and Dixon reported from Moscow. Sean Sullivan, Ashley Parker, John Hudson, Missy Ryan Sammy Westfall and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.

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