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Biden holds first call with Ukrainian President amid concerns over Russian military buildup

Volodymyr Zelensky 2019 (The Presidential Administration of Ukraine/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart for the first time since taking office more than two months ago amid worrying reports of a Russian military buildup on the border with eastern Ukraine.

Biden sought to reassure President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during the April 2 call of “unwavering” U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression, according to a White House statement.

The U.S. president also called on Zelenskiy to continue to combat the endemic corruption that has crippled the nation’s development.

The call between the two leaders comes as the United States accuses Russia of seeking to intimidate Ukraine with a large buildup of troops at their shared border.

Russia said earlier on April 2 that its armed forces would hold military exercises close to Ukraine’s border to practice defense against attack drones.

More than 50 Russian battalion combat teams comprising 15,000 people were expected to take part in the exercises and practice “interaction with electronic warfare and air defense units,” the nation’s Defense Ministry said.

The Russian exercises follow a spike in violence in Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine where government forces have been engaged in a simmering conflict with Kremlin-backed separatists. The seven-year war has claimed more than 13,000 lives.

Kyiv in July reached a cease-fire agreement with the separatists but said recently that they have been “systemically violating” the deal.

A mission under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has reported hundreds of cease-fire violations in the two provinces in recent days.

The spike in violence prompted U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to call their Ukrainian counterparts to express support.

Russia warned Ukraine’s Western allies against sending troops to Ukraine to buttress its ally.

“Ukraine appreciates US support on different levels…. The American partnership is crucial for Ukrainians,” Zelenskiy wrote on Twitter following his call with Biden.

Zelenskiy has taken bold steps in recent months to curtail Russian influence in the country and combat corruption, winning cautious praise from the United States.

The Ukrainian president in February sanctioned lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk, a powerful tycoon and friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, after the National Security and Defense Council said it suspects him of financially supporting the separatists.

The sanctions freeze Medvedchuk’s assets.

Weeks earlier, Zelenskiy had sanctioned three television stations that critics say spread Russian disinformation inside the country. The sanctions knocked the stations off the air.

Russia reacted negatively to the moves against Medvedchuk and the stations.

Last week, Zelenskiy dismissed two judges from the Constitutional Court who had been appointed by Kremlin-friendly former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in 2014 following the Euromaidan protests. The judges had been accused of blocking key anti-corruption reforms that are critical for continued Western financial support to Kyiv.

Biden emphasized his administration’s commitment to “revitalize” the U.S. relationship with Ukraine following a turbulent period under former President Donald Trump.

He said the U.S. backs Zelenskiy’s plan to tackle corruption and implement a reform agenda “based on our shared democratic values that delivers justice, security, and prosperity to the people of Ukraine,” according to the White House statement.