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US prez Joe Biden agrees to meet Putin if he halts Ukraine attack: White House

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration has been clear that "we are committed to pursuing diplomacy until the moment an invasion begins."

Kyiv: In what appeared to be a last-ditch diplomatic gambit brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron, the White House said US President Joe Biden has agreed "in principle" to a meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin as long as he holds off on launching an assault that US officials warn appears increasingly more likely.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration has been clear that "we are committed to pursuing diplomacy until the moment an invasion begins." US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are set to meet on Thursday in Europe as long as a further invasion doesn't occur.

"We are always ready for diplomacy. We are also ready to impose swift and severe consequences should Russia instead choose war," Psaki said in statement. "And currently, Russia appears to be continuing preparations for a full-scale assault on Ukraine very soon." In Kyiv, life outwardly continued as usual for many on a mild winter Sunday, with brunches and church services, ahead of what Biden said late last week was an already decided-upon Russian attack.

Russia on Sunday rescinded earlier pledges to pull tens of thousands of its troops back from Ukraine's northern border, a move that US leaders said put Russia another step closer to what they said was the planned invasion of Ukraine. Residents of Ukraine's capital filled a gold-domed cathedral to pray for peace.

Russia's action extends what it said were military exercises, originally set to end Sunday, that brought an estimated 30,000 Russian forces to Belarus, Ukraine's neighbor to the north. They are among at least 150,000 Russian troops now deployed outside Ukraine's borders, along with tanks, warplanes, artillery and other war materiel.

The continued deployment of the Russian forces in Belarus raised concern that they could be used to sweep down on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, a city of about 3 million people less than a three-hour drive away.

Katerina Spanchak, who fled a region of eastern Ukraine when it was taken over by Russian-allied separatists, was among worshippers crowded into the capital's St. Michael's monastery, smoky with the candles burned by the faithful, to pray that Ukraine be spared.

"We all love life, and we are all united by our love of life," Spanchak said, pausing to compose herself. "We should appreciate it every day. That's why I think everything will be fine." "Our joint prayers will help to elude this tragedy, which is advancing," said another worshipper, who identified himself only by his first name, Oleh.

A US official said Sunday that Biden's assertion that Putin has made the decision to roll Russian forces into Ukraine was based on intelligence that Russian front-line commanders have been given orders to begin final preparations for an attack. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive intelligence.

The United States and many European countries have charged for weeks that Putin has built up the forces he needs to invade Ukraine - a westward-looking democracy that has sought to move out of Russia's orbit - and is now trying to create pretexts to invade.

Western nations have threatened massive sanctions if Putin does.

US officials on Sunday defended their decision to hold off on their planned financial punishments of Russia ahead of any invasion, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called passionately Saturday for the West to do more.

"If you pull the trigger on that deterrent, well then, it doesn't exist anymore as a deterrent," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Fox on Washington's sanctions threat.

Russia held nuclear drills Saturday as well as the conventional exercises in Belarus, and has ongoing naval drills off the coast in the Black Sea.

The announcement that Russia was reversing its pledge to withdraw its forces from Belarus came after two days of sustained shelling along a contact line between Ukraine's soldiers and Russian-allied separatists in eastern Ukraine, an area that Ukraine and the West worry could be the flashpoint in igniting conflict.

Biden convened the National Security Council at the White House on Russia's military buildup around Ukraine. White House officials released no immediate details of their roughly two hours of discussion.

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