President Joe Biden has agreed “in principle” to French-brokered summit talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin as long as Russia does not further invade Ukraine, the White House said late Sunday.
The meeting, according to press secretary Jen Psaki, would occur after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meet on February 24.
Still, in a statement, Psaki appeared to downplay the prospects of a meeting actually materializing given what US officials have said the high likelihood is Putin could launch an invasion soon. And other US officials made clear no plans — either on timing, format or location — currently exist for the two leaders to meet.
“We are always ready for diplomacy. 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,” Psaki said in a statement on Sunday night.
The proposed summit, according to an Élysée Palace statement, was proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron during back-to-back phone calls with Biden and Putin on Sunday.
Macron has emerged as a diplomatic go-between of sorts as the crisis in Europe unfolds. He met Putin earlier this month in Moscow, and spoke to the Russian leader by phone twice on Sunday. French officials have said his efforts at diplomacy reflect a desire to explore every available pathway that avoids conflict.
The French presidency’s statement said the summit would be followed by a subsequent gathering of “relevant stakeholders to discuss security and strategic stability in Europe.” Macron “will work with all stakeholders to prepare the content of these discussions.”
It did not specify who those stakeholders were.
US officials have consistently said Biden is willing to engage with Putin, even as he prepares withering economic sanctions should another Russian invasion of Ukraine transpire.
“President Biden is prepared to engage President Putin at any time, in any format, if that can help prevent a war,” Blinken said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Biden has placed a premium on meeting leaders face-to-face and met Putin in June during a summit in Geneva. The two last spoke by phone last Saturday.
American officials have said deciphering Putin’s intentions is difficult as he masses troops along Ukraine’s borders. They say he has kept his plans veiled from even his most senior advisers.
On Sunday, a White House official said Blinken and Larov would discuss a possible summit between Biden and Putin when they meet later this week in Europe but added a note of caution about those talks.
“Blinken and Lavrov will discuss further if the invasion hasn’t started by then — in which case it’s all off,” the official said.