Ukraine says Russia ignoring calls for dialogue amid rising tensions

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.

Ukraine says it has requested talks with Russia to discuss escalating tensions in eastern Ukraine but has yet to receive an answer, prompting the United States to urge Moscow to explain its actions at an upcoming security meeting.

Kyiv and the West blame Kremlin-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.

A recent accumulation of photographs, video, and other data also suggested major movements of Russian armed units toward or near Ukraine’s borders and into the occupied Crimean Peninsula, fueling concerns that Moscow is preparing to send forces into Ukraine and giving rise to many Western countries demanding Russia explain itself.

In a statement on April 12, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said that in accordance with an agreement with Moscow and international partners, the Russian side was formally requested to clarify the “significant increase” in the military presence of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine and in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine in recent days.

“Unfortunately, the Russian side refused to provide substantive information in accordance with the request, stating that it does not conduct such activities,” the statement said, adding that Kyiv had called on Russia “to withdraw troops from the border with Ukraine, to stop belligerent rhetoric and disinformation.”

Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy’s spokeswoman, Yulia Mendel, added on April 12 that the president’s office “of course” made a request to speak directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but that “we have not received an answer yet and we very much hope that this is not a refusal of dialogue.”

Russia has massed more than 40,000 troops both on Ukraine’s eastern border and in the occupied Crimean Peninsula, according to Mendel, who said Zelenskiy will head to Paris for talks on Russia’s troop buildup and the escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The U.S. mission to the OSCE on April 12 urged Moscow to explain its moves at an upcoming meeting in Vienna of OSCE’s Forum for Security Cooperation and the Permanent Council (FSC-PC).

“Within 48 hours Russia will have another chance to explain its actions at a special @OSCE FSC-PC meeting requested by Ukraine,” the mission said on Twitter.

“Russia refused to notify its military movements or provide transparency under the #ViennaDocument. We urge Russia to adhere to its commitments & explain its actions,” it said.

The Vienna Document is an agreement between the OSCE member states intended to implement confidence and security-building measures.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he was “not aware of any [such] requests made lately,” according to Russian news agencies.

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.

France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia comprise the so-called Normandy Format set up to try to resolve the conflict, which has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced more than 1 million since April 2014.

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.

In an interview broadcast on NBC on April 11, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned of “consequences” if Russia “acts recklessly or aggressively” toward Ukraine.

Peskov on April 12 brushed aside “these calls for putting an end to some ephemeral aggressive actions and threats and warnings that some price will have to be paid.”

The Kremlin had earlier warned that Moscow “will not remain indifferent” to the fate of Russian speakers who live in eastern Ukraine.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on April 11 that London and Washington “firmly oppose Russia’s campaign to destabilize Ukraine” and call on Russia to “immediately de-escalate the situation.”

Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries.

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

Despite multiple cease-fire agreements, the violence has never really ended.

Zelenskiy last week said 26 Ukrainian soldiers had 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.

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