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Biden agrees ‘in principle’ to meet Putin if Russia does not invade Ukraine

The final decision hinges on the outcome of talks between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed in principle to a summit to discuss the situation in Ukraine, the White House said Sunday, but only as long as Russia does not invade its neighbor.

The development, first announced in a statement by the French government after President Emmanuel Macron spoke to each leader separately, seemed to throw into question the timing of Russia's widely expected invasion of Ukraine.

Three sources, including two White House officials, said a final decision on such a summit would be made only after further talks between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Tanks move during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus on Feb. 19, 2022.
Tanks participate in Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus on Saturday. The drills fueled Western concerns that Moscow could use the exercise to attack Ukraine from the north.Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr. / AP

But while the White House later confirmed that Biden had “in principle” agreed to the meeting, on Monday the Kremlin said there were “no concrete plans” for a summit, although the idea had not been ruled out, according to Russia’s state-run Tass news agency.

The Biden administration has repeatedly said it is open to a meeting with Putin, the sources noted, before emphasizing that nothing has changed regarding the United States’ conclusion that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said as much in a statement regarding the proposed summit.

“We are always ready for diplomacy,” she said on Sunday. “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.”

The French government said in a translation of its statement earlier that the summit “can only be held at the condition that Russia does not invade Ukraine.”

Blinken and Lavrov will prepare the substance of the summit at a previously scheduled meeting Thursday, the palace said.

A U.S. official and another person with knowledge of the matter said earlier Sunday that the U.S. had obtained intelligence showing that Russian military officials were given an order to go ahead with an invasion.

The intelligence, which was developed very recently, informed Biden’s startling declaration Friday that the U.S. believes Putin has already decided to invade, the people said.

The U.S. then witnessed Russian military units taking steps to carry out the order in preparation for an invasion, further bolstering the assessment that Putin could strike at any time, they added.

“As of this moment, I’m convinced he’s made the decision. We have reason to believe that,” Biden said Friday at the White House. Asked how the U.S. knew, he said only: “We have a significant intelligence capability.”

Biden’s assertion had marked a shift after weeks of the U.S. saying it believed Putin hadn’t made a final decision. On Saturday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he agreed with Biden that Putin had decided to invade and that Russia’s military was now in “the stance that you need to be in to attack.”

White House officials say the threat level in eastern Ukraine and along the Russian border hasn’t diminished over the weekend, despite diplomatic efforts by Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris at a major annual security conference in Munich. The White House said Biden was briefed again Saturday by his aides that “Russia could launch an attack against Ukraine at any time.”

On Sunday, Biden convened a rare weekend meeting of the National Security Council focused on Ukraine, the White House said. Austin and Blinken, both newly back from Europe, were spotted entering the West Wing shortly before noon. A White House official said Harris would participate in the meeting remotely from Air Force Two while she flies back from Germany.

Blinken, who told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday of an elaborate Russian plot to fabricate a pretext for war, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Putin’s actions since then have been “following the script that I laid out.” He pointed to his earlier predictions that Russia would mount false-flag operations in eastern Ukraine and use purported temporary military exercises to justify a military buildup near Ukraine’s border.

“Everything we said was likely to occur in the lead-up to the actual invasion is happening,” Blinken said.