The Ukrainian president was Thursday on the front of the conflict where clashes are increasing with pro-Russian separatists. He received the support of Berlin who asked the Kremlin to reduce its military presence at the borders of Ukraine.
Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw troops in a telephone interview. A request to which Moscow did not respond.
Ukrainian head of state Volodymyr Zelensky donned military fatigues, bulletproof vests and anti-virus masks to review troops in the trenches in the Lugansk region, the scene of recent clashes, according to images and a statement released by the Ukrainian Presidency.
‘It is an honor for me to be there,’ he said, presenting decorations to servicemen and saluting the ‘heroism and dedication’ of the soldiers, but without renewing his recent accusations over belligerent intentions from Russia.
Kiev and the West have in recent days criticized Moscow for having massed troops on the Ukrainian border and in Crimea annexed by Russia, while deadly armed incidents with pro-Russian separatists are almost daily.
On Thursday again, a Ukrainian soldier succumbed to his injuries, bringing the number of soldiers killed since the start of the year to 25, according to the Defense Ministry. By 2020, Ukraine had lost 50 soldiers on the front line, according to the presidency.
These tensions were raised during the telephone interview between Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel, whose country is co-sponsor of the peace process in Ukraine with France.
Merkel ‘asked him to reduce the Russian military presence in eastern Ukraine’ to allow de-escalation, as Moscow says its troop movements are not threatening. For Mr. Putin, conversely Kiev is orchestrating ‘provocations’ in order to ‘deliberately worsen the situation’ on the front lines.
Moscow’s representative in the peace negotiations, Dmitri Kozak, warned that Russia could ‘come to the defense’ of separatists in the event of a major Ukrainian military operation, citing the protection of the local population to which Moscow has distributed Russian passports.
He further estimated that Ukraine’s entry into NATO ‘will be the beginning of the collapse’ of the country, reacting to Kiev’s request to accelerate its accession to the organization to send a ‘signal’ in Moscow.
A possible Ukrainian membership of the Atlantic Alliance has been a red rag for Russia for many years.
Talks on April 19
Despite these tensions, Kozak announced talks between Kiev, Moscow, Berlin and Paris at the level of political advisers on April 19. These muscular verbal exchanges and the multiplication of clashes this year with pro-Russian separatists follow a period of truce during the second half of 2020.
The Pentagon announced last week that US forces in Europe had raised their alert levels following “recent escalations of Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.” And President Joe Biden assured Zelensky of his ‘unwavering’ support.
The war in Donbass began in April 2014, in the wake of a pro-Western revolution in Ukraine that also resulted in Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
This conflict has left more than 13,000 dead and nearly 1.5 million displaced. The intensity of the fighting has largely declined after the Minsk peace accords reached in early 2015, but the political process is not moving forward.
For the West and Kiev, Russia’s political, military and financial support for the separatists is obvious, despite repeated denials from Moscow.
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