Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Russia of whipping up tensions as NATO voiced concern about what it said was a Russian military build-up near eastern Ukraine.
Unverified social media footage has suggested Russia has been moving large quantities of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and other equipment to regions that border Ukraine, as well as to Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
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Ukrainian and US officials this week reported Russian troop movement in these regions, near territories controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
Zelenskyy said an escalation of tensions in Ukraine’s eastern regions showed Russia was seeking to create a “threatening atmosphere” as Kyiv hopes to resume a ceasefire brokered last year.
“Muscle-flexing in the form of military exercises and possible provocations along the border is a traditional Russian affair,” Zelenskyy said in a statement on Thursday.
This week, Moscow and Kyiv blamed each other for a rise in violence between government forces and Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, which has undermined the ceasefire.
Zelenskyy said 20 Ukrainian servicemen had been killed and 57 wounded since the start of the year.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Russia of a “systemic aggravation” of the security situation in Donbas and Crimea.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov played down the build-up, saying “this should not bother anyone and it poses no threat to anyone.” Russia was taking measures to ensure the security of its own borders, he said.
“There is increased activity on the perimeter of Russia’s borders by NATO, other alliances, individual countries – it all obliges us to be vigilant,” said Peskov.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that most of Ukraine’s military appeared to understand the danger of a “hot conflict” in Donbas.
“I very much hope that they will not be ‘incited’ by politicians, who in turn will be ‘incited’ by the West, led by the United States,” said Lavrov.
“Russian President Putin said [this] not long ago, but this statement is still relevant today, that those who would try to start a new war in Donbas – will destroy Ukraine.”
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, shortly after which the separatists it backs began a conflict in eastern Ukraine that continues to this day, and which the UN has said has claimed more than 13,000 lives.
Zelenskyy was elected in 2019 on promises to end the seven-year conflict, but critics have said that the shaky ceasefire is his only tangible achievement.
Talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris in December 2019 brought the sides no closer to a lasting settlement.
NATO said it was concerned about the Russian military build-up as NATO ambassadors met to discuss the recent spike in violence in the eastern Donbas region.
“Allies shared their concerns about Russia’s recent large-scale military activities in and around Ukraine. Allies are also concerned about Russian violations of the July 2020 ceasefire that led to the death of four Ukrainian soldiers last week,” a NATO official told the Reuters news agency.
Ukraine, Western countries and NATO have accused Russia of sending troops and heavy weapons to prop up its proxies in Donbas.
Russia has said it only provides political and humanitarian support to separatist fighters in what it casts as an internal conflict.
The Russian activity poses an early challenge to US President Joe Biden’s administration, which this week held phone calls with senior Ukrainian officials in a public show of support for Zelenskyy’s government.
The US on Thursday warned Russia against “intimidating” Ukraine.
“We’re absolutely concerned by recent escalations of Russian aggressive and provocative actions in eastern Ukraine,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
“What we would object to are aggressive actions that have an intent of intimidating, of threatening, our partner Ukraine.”