This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
U.S. President Joe Biden has urged his Russian counterpart to take measures to ease mounting tensions with Ukraine and proposed a summit between the two leaders in a third country as Washington and NATO reaffirmed their support for Kyiv.
In a phone call with Vladimir Putin on April 13, Biden “voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military buildup in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine’s borders, and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions,” a White House statement said.
Recent photographs, video, and other data suggest major movements of Russian armed units toward or near Ukraine’s borders and into Crimea, seized by Moscow in 2014, fueling concerns that Russia is preparing to send forces into Ukraine.
Some analysts have suggested that Russia’s recent actions may be meant to test the new Biden administration and its commitment to Ukraine.
“President Biden reaffirmed his goal of building a stable and predictable relationship with Russia consistent with U.S. interests, and proposed a summit meeting in a third country in the coming months to discuss the full range of issues facing the United States and Russia,” the statement said.
The Kremlin confirmed in a statement that Biden had proposed a summit between the two leaders “in the near future,” but did not say whether Putin had agreed.
“Both sides expressed their readiness to continue dialogue on the most important areas of ensuring global security,” the Kremlin statement said.
The summit would be the first between Putin and Biden, who took office vowing a tougher stance toward Moscow than that of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
The call came as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on April 13 held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, voicing grave concern about the buildup of Russian troops.
Blinken, who rushed back to Brussels after a visit last month to discuss the topic with top European allies, accused Russia of taking “very provocative” actions that have alarmed Ukraine and the West.
Blinken affirmed the United States’ “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression” and added that Kyiv’s “Euro-Atlantic aspirations” would be discussed in the alliance.
Ukraine aspires to join NATO, and obtained the status of a NATO “enhanced opportunities partner” in June 2020.
“The secretary expressed concern about Russia’s deliberate actions to escalate tensions with Ukraine, including through its aggressive rhetoric and disinformation, increasing cease-fire violations, and movement of troops in occupied Crimea and near Ukraine’s borders,” the State Department said in a statement.
Stoltenberg, meanwhile, called the Russian movements “unjustified, unexplained, and deeply concerning.”
Kuleba said Kyiv welcomed the support and urged Western countries to make clear to Moscow that it would pay a price for its “aggression.”
At a joint news conference with Stoltenberg, Kuleba said that “at an operational level,” Ukraine “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’s considerable military buildup is unjustified, unexplained, and deeply concerning — 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.
According to Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy’s office, Russia has massed more than 40,000 troops, both on Ukraine’s eastern border and in occupied Crimea.
Kyiv and the West blame Moscow-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.
The Kremlin on April 13 accused the United States of “deliberately” turning the region into a “powder keg.”
The Kremlin said recently that Moscow “will not remain indifferent” to the fate of Russian speakers who live in Ukraine’s east.
“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.
Separately, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on April 13 that Moscow had deployed troops to its western borders for “combat training exercises” in answer to NATO military moves.
“In response to the alliance’s military activities that threaten Russia, we took appropriate measures,” Shoigu said in televised remarks.
He said the troops “have shown full readiness” and that the exercises would be completed within two weeks.
Zelenskiy’s office has said it 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 a sovereign, internal issue.
Ukraine’s 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.
Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven group of industrialized countries, including the United States, Britain, and France, said in a statement on April 13 that they were “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.
French President Emmanuel Macron will host Ukrainian President Zelenskiy at the Elysee palace in Paris on April 16 for a working lunch, Macron’s office said on April 13.
France is part of the so-called Normandy Format set up to try to resolve the Ukraine conflict.
Earlier on April 13, Moscow said it had suspended flights to and from Turkey due to the coronavirus pandemic, rejecting accusations the move was tied to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova announced late on April 12 that flights to and from Turkey — with the exception of two flights per week to Istanbul — will be suspended from April 15 until June 1.
The decision to sharply cut the number of flights to Turkey, which is heavily reliant on revenue from tourism, was announced two days after Erdogan during talks with Zelenskiy expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and reiterated Turkey’s stance of not recognizing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Erdogan also called Russia’s increasing numbers of military personnel and equipment close to the Ukrainian border a “worrying escalation” and called on Moscow and Kyiv to preserve a cease-fire in the Donbas region, some parts of which have been under separatist control for seven years.
“The situation is solely epidemiological in nature and is related to a quite sharp outbreak of the incidence in Turkey,” Kremlin spokesman Peskov said.