By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed with the French and German foreign ministers the need for Russia to stop its military buildup in the occupied Crimean Peninsula and near Ukraine’s borders, its “provocations” in eastern Ukraine, and its “inflammatory rhetoric,” according to the State Department.
Blinken, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas spoke separately on April 9, suggesting stepped-up consultations among the NATO allies as fears grow of a major escalation in the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced more than 1 million since April 2014.
Kyiv and the West blame the Russia-backed separatists holding parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions for a recent spike in hostilities, while Moscow points the finger at Kyiv.
A recent accumulation of photographs, video, and other data also suggested major movements of Russian armed units toward or near Ukraine’s borders and into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, fueling concerns that Moscow is preparing to send forces into Ukraine.
The Kremlin has rejected Western calls to pull back its troops, denying that they are a threat, and on April 9 issued a stark warning that Russia could take steps to protect civilians in the region in the event of a resumption of full-scale combat operations there.
General Ruslan Khomchak, chief of the general staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said Ukraine won’t launch an offensive against the separatists and accused Moscow of using “intimidation and blackmail by military force” to exacerbate the situation.
“The liberation of the temporarily occupied territories by force will inevitably lead to the death of a large number of civilians and casualties among the military, which is unacceptable for Ukraine,” Khomchak said in a statement.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries after Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted amid a wave of public protests.
Since then, overwhelming evidence suggests Russia has continued to lend diplomatic and military aid to armed separatists fighting in the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas.
Despite multiple cease-fire agreements, the violence has never really ended. Fighting intensified in recent weeks as Russia massed troops near the border with Ukraine.
Amid the rising tensions, Blinken and Le Drian on April 9 “discussed the need for Russia to end its dangerous and irresponsible rhetoric, its military buildup in occupied Crimea and along Ukraine’s borders, and unilateral Russian provocations along” the front lines in eastern Ukraine, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
In their call, Blinken and Maas “emphasized the importance of supporting Ukraine” against Russian provocations in eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and along Ukraine’s borders, as well as “the need for Russia to immediately cease its military buildup and inflammatory rhetoric.”
After speaking with Blinken, Maas, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kouleba, Le Drian said that Russia should explain its motives for its troop movements, stop its provocations, and take initiatives to de-escalate.
According to the White House, the United States has been diplomatically engaging with Russia and other countries about “the escalating Russian aggressions in eastern Ukraine, including Russia’s troop movements on Ukraine’s borders.”
“We are, of course, in close consultation and working with partners and allies in the region, to assess, to share intelligence, to determine what’s happening…and what can be done about it,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
She declined to give details about the process.
The United States has notified Turkey that two U.S. warships will sail to the Black Sea on April 14 and April 15 and stay there until early May, a spokesperson for the Turkish Foreign Ministry said.
Such visits by U.S. and other NATO ships have vexed Moscow, which long has bristled at Ukraine’s efforts to build up defense ties with the West and its aspirations to eventually join NATO.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on April 9 met for a second day with Ukrainian soldiers serving on the front lines separating them from Russia-backed fighters, according to his office.
The 43-year-old president presented servicemen with awards, thanking them for their “patriotism and dedication in defending Ukraine.”
According to Zelenskiy, 26 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the start of the year, compared with 50 in all of 2020, when fighting in the conflict subsided as a new cease-fire deal came into force in July 2020.
Separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions said that more than 20 of their fighters had been killed so far in 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 9 accused Ukraine of “dangerous provocative actions” in its eastern regions in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, according to the Kremlin.
His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, also blamed the recent escalation on Ukraine, saying Kyiv “does not completely reject the idea of solving its own problem with the southeast of Ukraine by military means.”
Peskov alleged that virulent nationalist rhetoric in Ukraine was inflaming hatred against the mostly Russian-speaking population of the east, where in 2019 Putin simplified the procedure for people there to obtain Russian citizenship.
He claimed that if civilians in eastern Ukraine faced the threat of a massacre, “all countries, including Russia, will take steps to prevent such tragedies.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned after the reports that Ukraine’s NATO bid “wouldn’t only lead to a massive escalation of the situation in the southeast but could also entail irreversible consequences for Ukrainian statehood.”
Moscow is demanding Ukraine give the separatist-controlled regions greater autonomy, which would effectively prevent the country from joining NATO.
Some analysts have suggested that Russia’s recent actions may be meant to test the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden and its commitment to Ukraine.