West calls for calm as Russia-Ukraine tension soars again

Kremlin says troop movements are ‘no threat’ as shelling threatens Donbas truce

More than 14,000 people have been killed in fighting in Donbas since 2014. File photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/EPA

More than 14,000 people have been killed in fighting in Donbas since 2014. File photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/EPA

 

Germany and France have joined a growing chorus of international concern over the latest surge in tension between Kiev and Moscow, amid claims that Russia is massing troops close to Ukraine’s borders.

More than 20 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed this year during shelling and sniper fire between government troops and Russian-led separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, and international monitors reported hundreds of ceasefire breaches in the partly militant-controlled area in recent days.

“France and Germany are concerned by the growing number of ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine, which come after the situation had stabilised since July 2020. We are closely monitoring the situation and in particular Russian troop movements, and call on all sides to show restraint and to work towards the immediate de-escalation of tensions,” Paris and Berlin said in a joint statement.

More than 14,000 people have been killed in fighting in Donbas since 2014, when Russia fomented a conflict there and seized Crimea in response to a revolution that ousted Ukraine’s then Moscow-backed president and pivoted the country of 42 million towards the West.

Several senior US officials spoke with their Ukrainian counterparts last week, culminating in a first official phone call between the countries’ presidents on Friday.

“President [Joe] Biden affirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea,” the White House said in a statement.

‘Russian aggression’

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said after the call that his country enjoyed “the full and unwavering support of international partners, including Europe and the United States. We discussed the situation in Donbas in detail. President Biden assured me that Ukraine would never be left alone against Russian aggression.”

Kiev says Russia is deploying thousands of additional soldiers to Crimea and close to Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders, and social media users in Russia have posted numerous videos that appear to show large groups of armoured vehicles on the move by road and rail.

“The Russian Federation moves troops within its territory at its own discretion, this should not bother anyone, it poses no threat to anyone,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

“Along the borders of the Russian Federation there is increased activity of the armed forces of Nato countries, of other alliances, of individual countries and so on. This all obliges us to be on the alert,” he added.

Threat assessment

Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, spoke to his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts last week and the US military’s European command raised its threat assessment for Ukraine to the highest level due to developments around Donbas.

Mr Biden has pledged to be tougher on Moscow than his predecessor in the White House, Donald Trump, and he irked the Kremlin last month by saying he regarded Russian president Vladimir Putin as “a killer”.

Russia accuses Mr Zelenskiy’s administration of stoking tension in Donbas, and of using sanctions and legal cases to persecute pro-Moscow politicians and businessmen including Viktor Medvedchuk, Mr Putin’s closest ally in Ukraine.