Ukraine has said closer co-operation with Nato is its only way to stop aggression from Moscow, as Russia warned against such a move and launched nationwide exercises to test the combat readiness of its troops.
The European Union, United States and Nato have expressed support for Ukraine and raised concerns over reports that Russia is massing soldiers and armour near the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where fighting has intensified between Ukrainian forces and Moscow-led militia in recent days.
Ukraine announced on Tuesday that four of its soldiers had been killed in the previous 48 hours, and its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, urged Nato to incorporate the country of 42 million into its membership action plan (MAP) programme for prospective members.
“We are committed to reforming our army and defence sector, but reforms alone will not stop Russia. Nato is the only way to end the war in Donbas. Ukraine’s MAP will be a real signal for Russia,” he said after speaking to the alliance’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.
He also urged Nato to step up monitoring in the Black Sea, where Russia has been building up forces since annexing Crimea in 2014 in response to a revolution that brought pro-western politicians to power in Ukraine.
“Such a permanent presence should be a powerful deterrent to Russia, which continues the large-scale militarisation of the region and hinders merchant shipping,” said Mr Zelenskiy.
Nato states have sharply increased military co-operation with Ukraine in recent years without offering it a MAP, and Russia says it regards growing Nato influence in former Soviet states as a sign of hostility and a security threat.
“We deeply doubt that this will help Ukraine somehow deal with its domestic problem,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said of Ukraine’s hopes for Nato membership.
“From our point of view, this will aggravate the situation even more,” he added of the conflict in Donbas, which began when Moscow sent weapons, fighters and funding over the border and turned the region’s previously marginal separatist movement into a powerful militia.
More than 14,000 people have died since the conflict began in 2014, and fears of all-out war returned in recent weeks as relations between Russia and the West deteriorated further and Mr Zelenskiy – after seeing his popularity plummet – adopted a tougher line towards the Kremlin and its allies in Ukraine.
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu announced that more than 4,000 military exercises of different sizes would take place across the country this month to check the combat readiness of its armed forces.
With diplomacy over Donbas deadlocked, Ukrainian deputy premier Oleksiy Reznikov said Kiev would no longer agree to meet for talks in Minsk, because Belarus was “under Russian influence” and could not be seen as an impartial host.