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WASHINGTON — The chances of a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin were cast in doubt on February 21 after the Kremlin said talk of such a summit was “premature,” but the top diplomat Russian later said he would go to France to prepare for it.

Meanwhile, Western leaders – while continuing to push for diplomacy – warned again on February 21 that a Russian invasion of Ukraine appeared imminent, with the Kremlin massing more than 150,000 troops along the border. of both countries.

Live briefing: Ukraine in the crosshairs

Consult the RFE/RL new live briefing on the massive build-up of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border and the ongoing diplomacy to prevent a possible invasion. Ukraine in the crosshairs features the latest developments and analysis, updated throughout the day.

The latest developments made for another day of ups and downs as threats and allegations were mixed with hopes that diplomatic activity could prevent a major war in Europe.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Putin at a televised meeting of the Russian Security Council that he had accepted a French invitation to visit Paris on February 25 and that a meeting with the French minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian would include “preparatory consultations” to come. of a possible Putin-Biden summit.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Feb. 20 that Biden had tentatively agreed to a summit with Putin in the coming days as he sought to dissuade the Kremlin leader from invading Ukraine.

The White House has stressed that such a meeting would only take place if Russia does not attack Ukraine and follows the February 24 talks between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. – which would also only happen “if an invasion didn’t” happen.

The idea of ​​a bilateral meeting was proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke separately with the two leaders on February 20.

No date or place has been announced for a summit. Biden and Putin first met as their nations’ respective leaders in June in Geneva. This peak was prompted by a small Russian military build-up near Ukraine in the spring.

However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on February 21 that the two leaders could meet if they deemed it necessary, but added that “it is premature to talk about specific plans for a Mountain peak”.

“The meeting is possible if the leaders deem it feasible,” he said, adding that there were no “concrete plans” in place at the moment.

Nikola Patrushev, who heads Russia’s Security Council, told Putin at the council’s televised meeting on February 21 that the only significant interlocutor in the West was the United States and suggested that other countries would do what Washington said.

Some analysts suggested that Putin’s longer-term intentions were to divide and disrupt NATO, and Patrushev’s statements appeared aimed at stoking potential rivalries within the alliance.

However, echoing years of accusations from Moscow of Western “Russophobia”, Patrushev alleged that the West was working to bring about the breakup of Russia.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba welcomed Macron’s initiative early on February 21 and said he hoped it would lead to a withdrawal of Russian forces threatening his country.

“We welcome this initiative. We believe that any effort aimed at a diplomatic solution is worth trying,” Kuleba said ahead of a meeting with his EU counterparts in Brussels.

“We hope that the two presidents will come out of the room with an agreement on Russia’s withdrawal of its forces from Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s top security official Oleksiy Danilov insisted, though any summit should also include Ukrainian officials.

“Nobody can solve our problem without us. Everything should happen with our participation,” he said during a press briefing.

Ahead of any Putin summit, Biden will take part in a virtual meeting with his Group of Seven (G7) counterparts on February 24 to discuss the crisis caused by the Russian troop build-up. The G7 includes the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Italy and Japan.

In a Feb. 21 statement, the Kremlin said Putin and Macron agreed in two phone calls over the weekend that there was a need for continued dialogue on Ukraine, according to Interfax.

Biden said Feb. 18 that he was “convinced” Putin had made the decision to invade Ukraine and that it could happen in the coming days. Biden said the United States and its European allies would impose tough sanctions on Russia if Putin went ahead with the attack.

Russia currently has more than 150,000 combat-ready troops around Ukraine.

Moscow further angered Ukraine and the West when it broke its promise to return its troops to their bases at the end of a military exercise in Belarus, instead extending the exercises beyond the end scheduled for February 20.

Belarus said troops would return to their bases “when there is an objective need to do so” and depend on when NATO forces withdraw from Belarus’ and Russia’s borders.

The Kremlin seeks to prevent Ukraine from ever joining NATO and to firmly bring the country back into its sphere of influence.

Russia has repeatedly denied plans to invade Ukraine and said it has started withdrawing some forces. The United States and NATO have said they see no signs of a partial retreat.

Germany had harsh words for Russia, with Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock accusing it on February 21 of playing an “irresponsible” game with the civilian population in eastern Ukraine, putting their lives at risk .

“I urgently call on the Russian government, the Russian president: don’t play with human lives,” she told reporters as she arrived in Brussels for a summit of EU foreign ministers.

The United States has warned in recent weeks that Russia could use a “false flag” operation in eastern Ukraine to justify an invasion of the country.

On February 21, Moscow claimed to have foiled a border raid by Ukrainian forces and that Ukrainian armed military vehicles had been destroyed in Russia’s Rostov region.

Kyiv has vehemently denied the allegations, calling them “false” reports.

Russian-backed separatists have been fighting government forces in two eastern Ukrainian provinces for nearly eight years.

While the two sides have agreed to several ceasefires, European observers have recorded an upsurge in shelling in recent days in eastern Ukraine that Western authorities blame on separatists.

Putin blamed Ukraine for the increased fighting, raising fears he is using it as an excuse to invade.

With reports from the AP, AFP and Reuters
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