Ukraine condemns Russia’s ‘open’ threats ahead of meeting with France, Germany

Kyiv’s allies vow support as fears grow over massive Russian military buildup on border and an uptick in clashes with separatists

A Ukrainian serviceman walks along a trench at a position on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near Gorlivka, Donetsk region, on April 14, 2021. (STR/AFP)
A Ukrainian serviceman walks along a trench at a position on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near Gorlivka, Donetsk region, on April 14, 2021. (STR/AFP)

KYIV (AFP) — Kyiv on Thursday accused Russia of flagrantly threatening Ukraine with destruction ahead of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s meeting with the leaders of France and Germany.

Concern is mounting that the long-simmering conflict in east Ukraine could spiral back into wider fighting after reports of major Russian troop movements and an intensification of clashes with Moscow-backed separatists.

The troop build-up along Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders, as well as on the Crimean peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014, comes amid a spike in violence along the front line between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in the east of the country.

Zelensky, who has urged NATO to step up his country’s push for membership, was expected to travel to Paris on Friday to discuss the rising tensions with French President Emmanuel Macron.

The two leaders will be joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel by video link, Macron’s office said.

Ahead of Zelensky’s visit, the foreign ministers of EU members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania arrived in Kyiv on Thursday and European Council President Charles Michel spoke with the Ukrainian leader in a show of support.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits the war-hit Donbas region, eastern Ukraine, April 9, 2021. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP, File)

Speaking alongside the visiting diplomats, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters that rhetoric in Moscow had reached a fever pitch with pundits and officials issuing “dehumanizing” statements aimed at intimidating Kyiv.

“They are openly threatening Ukraine with war and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood,” Kuleba said.

“The red line of Ukraine is the state border. If Russia crosses the red line, then it will have to suffer,” Kuleba said in English.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters: “Ukraine will never be on its own.”

The United States has reiterated its backing of Ukraine, and on Thursday European Council President Michel “conveyed the EU’s unwavering support” in phone talks with Zelensky, according to a readout of the call.

The foreign ministers of the EU will discuss Ukraine on Monday, Brussels said.

Illustrative photo of a pro-Russian rebel preparing arms for an assault on Ukrainian army positions in Donetsk airport, eastern Ukraine, August 31, 2014. (AP/Mstislav Chernov)

On Friday, Macron will receive Zelensky for lunch in Paris, the Elysee said.

“It’s an important meeting,” the 43-year-old Ukrainian leader said after a meeting of the country’s security council. He said the situation in the east was “under control.”

“The army is ready, that’s the most important thing,” he added.

Together with Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine form the Normandy format of countries that have sought and failed to resolve the conflict since 2015.

On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden and Merkel agreed to call on Russia to reduce its troops on the border with Ukraine.

Russia dismissed the pressure.

Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that Western countries including Germany and France should “stop participating in the propaganda campaign surrounding Russian activity on Russian territory that does not threaten anybody.”

Kuleba’s warning about Russia came after international observers to the conflict said late Wednesday that there had been a dramatic increase in recent violations that was hindering their work.

“The number of violations recorded over the past two weeks has reached its highest level this year,” monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said in a statement.

Ukrainian servicemen are seen inside a fortified position on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near the small city of Marinka, Donetsk region, on April 12, 2021. (STR/AFP)

An uptick in fighting since the start of the year has seen Moscow and Kyiv blame each other for the rise in violence between government forces and separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine says the spate of clashes has cost the lives of nearly 30 Ukrainian servicemen and left at least another 68 wounded since January.

Kyiv warned this week that 28,000 separatist fighters and more than 2,000 Russian military instructors and advisers are currently stationed in eastern Ukraine, while nearly 33,000 soldiers are deployed in Crimea.

Russia’s defense ministry, however, said those troops were merely responding to “threatening” NATO actions by participating in military drills that would conclude in three weeks.

The uptick in fighting has left in tatters a ceasefire brokered last July that had brought relative calm to the conflict.

“We are not afraid. Ukraine itself is strong enough and has reliable friends to defend its statehood,” Kuleba said.

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