Ukraine’s top diplomat has called on NATO and the West to act quickly to stave off an escalation of hostilities between it and Russia over Ukraine’s volatile eastern region.
A recent accumulation of photographs, video, and other data has suggested major movements of Russian armed units toward or near Ukraine's borders and into the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014, fueling concerns that Russia is preparing to send forces into Ukraine and giving rise to many Western countries demanding Russia explain itself.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told a news conference in Brussels on April 13 alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that “at an operational level,” his country “needs measures which will deter Russia and which will contain its aggressive intentions.”
During the news conference, Stoltenberg called on Moscow to end “the largest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014."
"Russia must end this military buildup in and around Ukraine, stop its provocations and de-escalate immediately," he said ahead of an emergency meeting of allied foreign and defense ministers.
Kyiv and the West blame Russia-backed separatists holding parts of Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk for a recent spike in hostilities, while Moscow has pointed the finger at Kyiv.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry on April 12 said that in accordance with an agreement with Moscow and international partners, the Russian side was formally requested to clarify the "significant increase" in the military presence of Russian soldiers along the border with Ukraine and in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine.
In turn, the Kremlin on April 13 accused the United States of “deliberately” turning the region into a “powder keg.”
"If there is any aggravation, we of course will do everything to ensure our security and the safety of our citizens, wherever they are," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said.
"But Kyiv and its allies in the West will be entirely responsible for the consequences of a hypothetical exacerbation," he added.
The Kremlin said recently that Moscow "will not remain indifferent" to the fate of Russian speakers who live in Ukraine’s east.
Russia has massed more than 40,000 troops both on Ukraine's eastern border and in the occupied Crimean Peninsula, according to Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy’s office, which says it has made a request to speak directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ukraine says that call has gone unanswered, though Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on April 13 “that in recent days, there have been no requests. Maybe they haven’t reached us through diplomatic channels yet."
The Kremlin has rejected Western calls to pull back its troops from the border region, denying they are a threat and adding that military movements within Russia are an internal sovereign issue.
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.
Ukraine aspires to join NATO, and obtained the status of a NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner in June 2020.
The push to join the Western security alliance has irked Russia, but Stoltenberg said on April 13 that the 30 NATO allies, and not Moscow, would decide whether Ukraine joins in the future.
Kuleba said measures the West could take include a new round of sanctions “which would raise the price of Russian aggression."
Measures could also include “direct support aimed at strengthening Ukraine's defense capabilities because we do know that Russia spares no effort to prevent third countries from cooperating with Ukraine in the defense sector.”
“Russia is working hard to undermine our defense capabilities," he added.
The West has voiced concern in recent weeks over the buildup, prompting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to make a hurried trip to Brussels this week to discuss the topic with top European and NATO officials.
Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven nations, including the United States, Britain, and France, said in a statement on April 13 that they are “deeply concerned by the large ongoing buildup of Russian military forces on Ukraine’s borders and in illegally annexed Crimea.”
“These large-scale troop movements, without prior notification, represent threatening and destabilizing activities,” the ministers said in the statement, released by the German Foreign Ministry.
“We call on Russia to cease its provocations and to immediately de-escalate tensions in line with its international obligations. In particular, we call on Russia to uphold the OSCE principles and commitments that it has signed up to on transparency of military movements and to respond to the procedure established under Chapter III of the Vienna Document,” the statement said.
The Vienna Document is an agreement between the OSCE member states intended to implement confidence and security-building measures.
Russia illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries.
Since then, overwhelming evidence suggests Russia has continued to lend diplomatic and military aid to armed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine, known as the Donbas region.
Despite multiple cease-fire agreements, the violence has never really ended.