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Kyiv, Moscow trade accusations of escalation as tensions rise in eastern Ukraine

A Russian T-90 main battle tank. (Vitaliy Ragulin/Wikimedia Commons)

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

Ukraine’s military says it won’t launch an offensive against Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country and accused Moscow of using “intimidation and blackmail by military force” to exacerbate the situation as fears grow of a major escalation in the long-running conflict.

“The liberation of the temporarily occupied territories by force will inevitably lead to the death of a large number of civilians and casualties among the military, which is unacceptable for Ukraine,” General Ruslan Khomchak, chief of the general staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said in a statement on April 9.

The statement came after the Kremlin rejected Western calls to pull back troops building up near its border with Ukraine and issued a stark warning that Russia could take steps to protect civilians in the region in the event of a resumption of full-scale combat operations there.

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 Crimea.

Ukraine has blamed the Russia-backed separatists for a recent spike in hostilities in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced more than 1 million since April 2014, while Moscow has pointed the finger at Kyiv.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries after Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted amid a wave of public protests.

Since then, overwhelming evidence suggests Russia has continued to lend diplomatic and military aid to armed separatists fighting in the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas.

Despite multiple cease-fire agreements, the violence has never really ended. Fighting intensified in recent weeks as Russia massed troops near the border with Ukraine.

Amid the rising tensions, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on April 9 met for a second day with Ukrainian soldiers serving on the front lines separating them from Russia-backed fighters, according to his office.

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The 43-year-old president presented servicemen with awards, thanking them for their “patriotism and dedication in defending Ukraine.”

According to Zelenskiy, 26 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the start of the year, compared with 50 in all of 2020, when fighting in the conflict subsided as a new cease-fire deal came into force in July 2020.

Separatists holding parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions said that more than 20 of their fighters had been killed so far in 2021.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 9 accused Ukraine of “dangerous provocative actions” in its eastern regions in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, according to the Kremlin.

His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, also blamed the recent escalation on Ukraine, saying Kyiv “does not completely reject the idea of solving its own problem with the southeast of Ukraine by military means.”

Peskov alleged that virulent nationalist rhetoric in Ukraine was inflaming hatred against the mostly Russian-speaking population of the east, where in 2019 Putin simplified the procedure for people there to obtain Russian citizenship.

He claimed that if civilians in eastern Ukraine faced the threat of a massacre, “all countries, including Russia, will take steps to prevent such tragedies.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on April 8 urged Putin in a phone call to reduce Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine, while the White House said it was “increasingly concerned by recent escalating Russian aggressions in eastern Ukraine, including Russian troop movements on Ukraine’s border.”

The United States on April 9 reportedly notified Turkey that two U.S. warships will sail to the Black Sea on April 14 and April 15 and stay there until May 4 and May 5, respectively.

Such visits by American and other NATO ships have vexed Moscow, which long has bristled at Ukraine’s efforts to build up defense ties with the West and its aspirations to eventually join NATO.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned after the reports that Ukraine’s NATO bid “wouldn’t only lead to a massive escalation of the situation in the southeast but could also entail irreversible consequences for Ukrainian statehood.”

Moscow is demanding Ukraine give the separatist-controlled regions greater autonomy, which would effectively prevent the country from joining NATO.

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.