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Putin mulls independence of separatist Ukraine regions

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Russian President Vladimir Putin convened top officials Monday to consider recognizing the independence of Russia-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.

The meeting of the presidential Security Council comes amid Western fears that Russia could invade Ukraine any moment, using skirmishes in eastern Ukraine as a pretext for an attack.

Putin’s statement follows televised statements by separatist leaders, who pleaded with Putin to recognize them as independent states and sign friendship treaties envisaging military aid to protect them from what they described as the ongoing Ukrainian military offensive. Russia’s lower house made the same plea last week.

Ukrainian authorities deny launching an offensive and accuse Russia of provocation amid intensifying shelling along the line of contact.

The Kremlin initially signaled its reluctance to make the move that would effectively shatter a 2015 peace deal for eastern Ukraine that marked a major diplomatic coup for Moscow, requiring Ukrainian authorities to offer a broad self-rule to the rebel regions.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

The U.S. and Russian presidents tentatively agreed to meet in a last-ditch effort to stave off a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, even as sustained shelling continued Monday in a conflict in eastern Ukraine that Western powers fear could provide the spark for a broader war.

If Russia invades, as the U.S. warns Moscow has already decided to do, the meeting will be off. Still the prospect of a face-to-face summit resuscitated hopes that diplomacy could prevent a devastating conflict, which would result in massive casualties and huge economic damage across Europe, which is heavily dependent on Russian energy.

Russia has massed an estimated 150,000 troops on three sides of Ukraine — the biggest such buildup since the Cold War. And Western officials have warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin is now looking for a pretext to invade the country, a western-looking democracy that has defied Moscow’s attempts to pull it back into its orbit.

Even as diplomatic efforts inched forward, potential flashpoints multiplied. Fighting escalated in eastern Ukraine, Russia said it had fended off an “incursion” from Ukraine — which Ukrainians officials denied — and Russia decided to prolong military drills in Belarus.

Moscow denies it has any plans to attack, but wants Western guarantees that NATO won’t allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members. It has also demanded the alliance halt weapons deployments to Ukraine and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe — demands flatly rejected by the West.

With the prospect of war looming, French President Emmanuel Macron scrambled to broker a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Putin.

Macron’s office said both leaders had “accepted the principle of such a summit,” to be followed by a broader meeting that would include other “relevant stakeholders to discuss security and strategic stability in Europe.”

The language from Moscow and Washington was more cautious, but neither side denied a meeting is under discussion.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the administration has always been ready to talk to avert a war — but was also prepared to respond to any attack.

“So when President Macron asked President Biden yesterday if he was prepared in principle to meet with President Putin, if Russia did not invade, of course President Biden said yes,” he told NBC’s “Today” show on Monday. “But every indication we see on the ground right now in terms of the disposition of Russian forces is that they are, in fact, getting prepared for a major attack on Ukraine.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday that Putin and Biden could meet if they consider it “feasible,” but emphasized that “it’s premature to talk about specific plans for a summit.”

Macron’s office said that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are set to lay the groundwork for the potential summit when they meet Thursday. The French leader has been trying to play go-between to avert a new war in Europe, and his announcement followed a flurry of calls by Macron to Putin, Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Even as the diplomacy pressed ahead, there were signs it might not head off a broader conflict. Russia and its ally Belarus announced Sunday that they were extending massive war games on Belarus’ territory, which could offer a staging ground for an attack on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, located just 75 kilometers (less than 50 miles) south of the border.

Starting Thursday, shelling also spiked along the tense line of contact that separates Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas. Over 14,000 people have been killed since conflict erupted there in 2014, shortly after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Ukraine and the separatist rebels have traded blame for massive cease-fire violations with hundreds of explosions recorded daily. The world is watching the fighting warily since Western officials have warned for weeks that Russia would look for a pretext to invade — and that the conflict in Donbas could provide just such an excuse.

On Friday, separatist officials announced the evacuation of civilians and military mobilization in the face of what they described as an imminent Ukrainian offensive on the rebel regions. Ukrainian officials have strongly denied any plans to launch such an attack.

While Russia-backed separatists have charged that Ukrainian forces were firing on residential areas, Associated Press journalists reporting from several towns and villages in Ukrainian-held territory along the line of contact have not witnessed any notable escalation from the Ukrainian side and have documented signs of intensified shelling by the separatists that destroyed homes and ripped up roads.

Some residents of the main rebel-held city of Donetsk described sporadic shelling by Ukrainian forces, but they added that it wasn’t on the same scale as earlier in the nearly 8-year-old conflict in the east.

The separatist authorities said Monday that at least four civilians were killed by Ukrainian shelling over the past 24 hours and several others were wounded. Ukraine’s military said two Ukrainian soldiers were killed over the weekend, and another serviceman was wounded Monday.

Ukrainian military spokesman Pavlo Kovalchyuk said the separatists were “cynically firing from residential areas using civilians as shields.” He insisted that Ukrainian forces weren’t returning fire.

In another worrying sign, Moscow also alleged that forces from Ukraine crossed into Russia’s Rostov region. The Russian military said it killed five suspected “saboteurs” who crossed from Ukraine and also destroyed two armored vehicles. Ukrainian Border Guard spokesman Andriy Demchenko dismissed the Russian claim as “disinformation.”

Amid the heightened invasion fears, the U.S. administration sent a letter to the United Nations human rights chief claiming that Moscow has compiled a list of Ukrainians to be killed or sent to detention camps after the invasion. The letter, first reported by the New York Times, was obtained by the AP.

Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said the claim was a lie and no such list exists.

Throughout the crisis, Ukraine’s leaders have sought to project calm — repeatedly playing down the threat of an invasion.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Monday that Russia has amassed 147,000 troops around Ukraine, including 9,000 in Belarus, arguing that the number is clearly insufficient for an offensive on the Ukrainian capital from the north.

“The talk about an attack on Kyiv from the Belarusian side sounds ridiculous,” he said, charging that Russia is using the troops there as a scare tactic.

The European Union’s top diplomat, foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, welcomed the prospect of a Biden-Putin summit but said the 27-nation bloc has finalized its package of sanctions for use if Putin orders an invasion.

“The work is done. We are ready,” said Borrell. He provided no details about who might be targeted.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Monday that the European Union has also agreed to send military officers to the country in an advisory role. It’s likely to take several months to set up.

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