The United States has said it is increasingly concerned about Russian militarization along Ukraine’s border as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy travels to the eastern front line.
The number of Russian troops on the border with the former Soviet republic is now greater “than at any time since 2014”, when the war in eastern Ukraine first broke out and Russia seized the Crimean region, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in Washington.
“The United States is increasingly concerned about the recent escalation of Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, including Russian troop movements at the Ukrainian border,”
Her comments came after the Ukrainian president visited the eastern front line, where fighting between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists has intensified in recent weeks.
Photos released by the Zelenskiy office showed the 43-year-old leader in the trenches wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest, handing out prizes to Ukrainian soldiers and shaking their hands.
The protracted conflict in Ukraine’s predominantly Russian – speaking east has claimed more than 13,000 lives since 2014.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday called on Moscow to reduce its troop build-up.
In a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Merkel asked him to scale down “troop reinforcements” at the border “to escalate tensions,” her office said in a statement.
During his frontline visit, Zelenskiy thanked the soldiers “for protecting our country” and said “there really is an escalation” in eastern Ukraine.
“All commanders understand that snipers are targeting our guys,” Zelenskiy said, adding that 26 Ukrainian troops had been killed since the beginning of the year compared to 50 throughout 2020.
In Moscow, the Kremlin’s rapporteur on relations with Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatists, Dmitry Kozak, on Thursday issued a new warning to Kiev, saying that Russia might “have” to step in to defend Russian-speakers in the war-torn east.
However, he added that an escalation would be “the beginning of the end of Ukraine”, describing this scenario for the former Soviet country as “not a shot in the leg but in the face”.
A new round of Ukraine talks is set for April 19, he added.
The fighting in the conflict, which erupted after Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, slowed in 2020, when a new ceasefire agreement took place in July last year.
But clashes that mainly involve artillery and mortar fire have been picked up again since the start of the year, with both sides blaming each other.
Ukrainian separatists are widely seen for having Russia’s political and military backing, which Moscow denies.
Ukraine last week accused Russia of massaging thousands of military personnel at its northern and eastern borders as well as on the Crimean peninsula.
Together with France and Germany, Ukraine and Russia are part of the Normandy format for countries that have sought to resolve the conflict since 2015 but have not been able to end the fighting.
Kiev’s Western allies have repeatedly warned Russia against further action.
The Kremlin has not denied the troop movements, but insisted that Moscow “does not threaten anyone”.
Zelenskiy this week called on NATO to speed up its country’s request for membership of the alliance, saying it was the only way to end the conflict.
Alliance members responded by urging Kiev to pursue military and defense reforms.
In a statement on Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said NATO support for Ukraine “does not contribute to security” and “resolves the conflict.”
She added that Moscow was concerned about “financial and logistical support from the Ukrainian armed forces from NATO countries” as well as the alliance supplying lethal weapons and Western instructors training Ukrainian military personnel.
Analysts are divided over Russia’s true intentions amid the recent escalation of tensions with Kiev, and some observers say Moscow may be testing Joe Biden’s commitment to defend Ukraine.
In his first call with Zelenskiy last week, Biden reaffirmed Washington’s “unwavering support” for Kiev in the conflict.