Ukraine says Russia ignoring request for crisis talks on Donbas

Kremlin denies blocking negotiations and rejects US calls to halt troop build-up

US secretary of state Antony Blinken: ‘If Russia acts recklessly, or aggressively, there will be costs, there will be consequences.’  Photograph: Alexander Drago/AFP via Getty Images

US secretary of state Antony Blinken: ‘If Russia acts recklessly, or aggressively, there will be costs, there will be consequences.’ Photograph: Alexander Drago/AFP via Getty Images

 

Kiev has accused Moscow of ignoring diplomatic efforts to defuse rising tension, as the Kremlin rejected US calls to stop moving soldiers and armour into occupied Crimea and towards Russia’s border with Ukraine.

Moscow insists that its growing military forces in both those areas pose no threat to Ukraine, even as fighting has intensified between Russian-led militia and government troops in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

Iuliia Mendel, spokeswoman for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said he sought to speak by telephone with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on March 26th, when four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in Donbas.

“We have not received an answer yet and we very much hope that this is not a refusal of dialogue,” she said on Monday.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had not “seen any [such] requests in recent days” but insisted that Mr Putin was always ready to discuss “defusing tensions and preventing a potential war”.

Russia in general believes it is important to look after the interests of Russian-speaking people around the world. And especially Russian-speaking citizens living in the two self-proclaimed republics [of Donbas] because they have been rejected by their state,” he added.

About 14,000 people have been killed in fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Donbas since Russia fomented conflict there and annexed Crimea in 2014, when a revolution in Ukraine replaced Moscow-backed leaders with pro-western politicians.

Troop build-up

In an ominous echo of the early, most deadly months of the war, Russian politicians and state-controlled media are now repeating assertions that Moscow might intervene openly in Donbas to protect residents from attack by Ukrainian forces that they often describe as “Russophobic” and “fascist”.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry said Russia had ignored a request to explain its troop build-up in line with an international agreement, and “boycotted” talks on the issue at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe on Saturday.

The ministry said Moscow’s stance was “yet another testimony to the intentions of the Russian Federation to continue its military pressure and threats of the use of force against Ukraine.”

Ukraine has received diplomatic support from its western allies, and on Sunday US secretary of state Antony Blinken said he had “real concerns about Russia’s actions on the borders of Ukraine. There are more Russian forces massed on those borders than at any time since 2014 when Russia first invaded”.

“President [Joe] Biden’s been very clear about this. If Russia acts recklessly, or aggressively, there will be costs, there will be consequences,” he added.

Mr Peskov brushed off his comments: “All these calls to end some sort of ephemeral aggressive actions and threats, and warnings that some price will have to be paid – the more often such phrases are used, the more they are devalued.”