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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has urged NATO to speed up his country’s membership plan, saying it is the only way to end a simmering conflict in the eastern Donbas region.
Ukrainian government troops have battled Russian-backed separatists in the country’s eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions, which form part of the Donbas, since the rebels seized a swathe of territory there in April 2014.
A ceasefire was agreed to last July, but fears of an escalation in hostilities have mounted in recent weeks amid reports of renewed front-line clashes and a Russian military build-up along the shared border.
Speaking on Tuesday after a phone call with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Zelenskyy said a signal needed to be sent to Russia as tensions grow between the pair.
He called on members of NATO, which counts Ukraine as an ally, to strengthen their military presence in the Black Sea region.
Zelenskyy said such a move would act as a “powerful deterrent” to Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimean peninsula in March 2014 after an uprising that toppled former Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych.
“Reforms alone will not stop Russia,” he said. “NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbas.”
Stoltenberg said he had expressed “serious concern about Russia’s military activities in and around Ukraine” during the call with Zelenskyy.
“NATO firmly supports Ukraine’s sovereignty & territorial integrity. We remain committed to our close partnership,” he tweeted.
I called President @ZelenskyyUa to express serious concern about Russia’s military activities in and around Ukraine & ongoing ceasefire violations. #NATO firmly supports #Ukraine’s sovereignty & territorial integrity. We remain committed to our close partnership.
— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) April 6, 2021
Shortly afterward, Moscow, which denies being a participant in the conflict, warned that Ukraine’s NATO membership would “worsen the situation” in the Donbas region.
Russia is openly opposed to Ukraine joining NATO and recently warned the alliance against deploying troops to Ukraine.
“We very much doubt that this will help Ukraine settle its domestic problem,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Peskov also claimed that Ukrainians living in the country’s east do not back NATO membership.
On Monday, the United States and United Kingdom said they were “concerned” about Russia’s recent military activity along its border with Ukraine.
The US Department of State said it found reports of troop movements in the eastern border region to be “credible”, adding it had asked Moscow to explain the “provocations”.
The US has been Kyiv’s most powerful ally since Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that Washington would be concerned by any effort by Moscow to intimidate Ukraine, whether it occurred on Russian territory or within Ukraine.
He declined to say if the US believed Russia was preparing to invade the former Soviet republic.
Price’s comments followed a telephone call on Friday in which US President Joe Biden reassured Zelenskyy of his “unwavering support”.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also spoke with Zelenskyy on Monday and expressed his support for Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”, according to his spokesperson.
“They discussed the UK’s significant concerns about the recent Russian military activity on Ukraine’s border and in illegally annexed Crimea,” Johnson’s spokesperson said.
The Kremlin last week said that Russia was at liberty to move troops on its own territory.
On Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that Moscow and Washington were in contact at the highest level over the situation in Ukraine.
Ryabkov said Russia had assured the US that there was no cause for concern.