President Biden agrees to a tentative meeting with Putin to discuss Ukraine
President Joe Biden is willing to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin "in principle," as long as Russia does not invade Ukraine, the White House said on Sunday night, after a day of diplomacy brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron.
The tentative meeting would be held after a meeting between the countries' two foreign ministers, which is set for later this week, said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Still, the Biden administration did not appear to waiver in its stance that a Russian invasion is imminent.
"We are always ready for diplomacy," Psaki said in a statement. "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."
Macron and Putin spoke by phone earlier on Sunday and agreed to work toward setting a meeting within hours to discuss a possible ceasefire in Ukraine, the Élysée Palace said in a statement.
The call came as heightened tensions added to ongoing violence between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country, where shelling over the past few days left two Ukrainian soldiers dead and five injured, according to The New York Times.
Shortly after his call with Putin, Macron spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who vowed to respect any possible ceasefire.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said in a statement earlier on Sunday that Russian-backed separatists had continued firing mortars along the Luhansk-Shchastya humanitarian corridor in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas that borders Russia.
Meanwhile Russian troops remain staged at the border, some of whom took part in live-fire exercises on Saturday that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally oversaw from Moscow. The Kremlin continues to insist it has no plans to invade Ukraine.
U.S. officials push for diplomacy but prepare for war
Ukraine's allies, including the U.S., have continued to cast doubt on Moscow's assurances that it doesn't plan to invade Ukraine. President Biden has said he's convinced Russia will invade its neighbor.
Biden was slated to convene a National Security Council meeting on Sunday, press secretary Psaki announced a day earlier.
Vice President Kamala Harris, speaking to reporters on Sunday after her appearance at the Munich Security Conference, warned about the potential for war to break out in Europe — which could be the largest conflict of its kind on the continent since World War II.
"Let's really take a moment to understand the significance of what we're talking about. It's been over 70 years, and through those 70 years, as I mentioned yesterday, there has been peace and security," Harris said. "We are talking about the real possibility of war in Europe."
Harris said that the U.S. and its allies were united in their plan to slap Russia with strong sanctions if it were to invade Ukraine, though she said the administration is still holding out hope for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Russian state media accuses Ukrainian forces of killing civilians, as experts worry about false flags
Amid the frenetic search for a diplomatic breakthrough, experts and Western leaders remained on edge over the prospect that Russia could use misinformation – such as a false claim that Ukraine was planning a military offensive – to justify an invasion.
Against that backdrop, Ukrainian officials sought to refute claims aired on Russian state media over the weekend about the use of force by Ukraine's military. However as The Washington Post reported, there was no evidence to back up those assertions.
A story in the Russian newspaper Pravda said the Ukrainian military killed two civilians in Luhansk, and that several of its shells fell in Russia's Rostov region.
Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's Minister of Foreign Affairs, denied that the country was responsible for any such military action.
"We resolutely refute all accusations of any alleged Ukrainian shells falling on the Russian territory," Kuleba said on Saturday. "Ukraine has never opened any such fire. We call for an immediate and impartial international investigation of the incidents reported by Russian media."
Russian state media also repeated claims by separatists that Ukraine was expanding its military presence ahead of a planned offensive in the eastern part of the country, even as top Ukrainian officials continue to advocate for peace. The head of the Donetsk rebel government called for a mass evacuation to Russia, though Ukrainian officials and journalists say the claim of an impending Ukrainian attack is a lie.