Moscow — Ukraine’s government said on Monday that requests by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to speak with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin about thehad been ignored. Moscow denied receiving any request from Kyiv for such talks.
Tension between the neighbors has grown steadily for several weeks, with intensified skirmishes in eastern Ukraine — a region that has been mired in conflict since Russia first backed Ukrainian separatists there seven years ago. Putin hastoward the Ukrainian border recently, raising concerns among politicians in the United States and European Union.
“The president’s office, of course, made a request to speak with Vladimir Putin. We have not received an answer yet and we very much hope that this is not a refusal of dialogue,” Ukrainian presidential spokeswoman Iuliia Mendel told Reuters on Monday.
She told Russia’s Interfax news agency that the request for talks was sent on March 26, after four Ukrainian servicemen were killed by shelling in the country’s east.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that he “hasn’t seen any requests in the past several days.”
Mendel said Russia had massed more than 40,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern border, and more than 40,000 in Crimea, the region that Putin unilaterally annexed away from Ukraine and declared Russian in 2014.
Mendel said Zelenskyy would travel to Paris for talks this week on Russia’s actions and the escalating conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, Reuters reported.
The current escalation is also further straining U.S.-Russian relations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned Russia against aggressive actions, accusing Putin’s military of massing more forces near the Ukrainian border than at any time since 2014.
“President Biden’s been very clear about this: If Russia acts recklessly or aggressively, there will be costs, there will be consequences,” Blinken said during an interview over the weekend.
The Kremlin has said that Russian and Ukrainian political advisers are working to organize a possible new round of talks under the so-called Normandy format — a multilateral dialogue that would involve the leaders of France and Germany.
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on Monday called on Moscow to declare its intentions in the region, saying that if Putin’s government “has nothing to hide, it could easily explain why troops are being moved.”
Manfred Weber, a prominent Member of the European Parliament from Germany, called Russia’s troop buildup a test for the West, warning that if the situation continues to escalate, Moscow should face new sanctions.
“The answer needs to be clear and tough,” he said.
In an interview with CNN given as he visited his troops on the front line, Zelenskyy said Ukraine, “needs more than words” of support from Washington and other European allies as it faces off with Russia.
The Kremlin has repeatedly said that Russia’s military forces are free to move around within the country’s territory as they see fit, and that the troop movements near the Ukrainian border — exercises, according to Moscow — pose no threat.
Last week, Putin accused Ukraine of “dangerous provocative actions” in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Relations between Kyiv and Moscow have worsened since Putin first backed the separatists in the area and seized Crimea in 2014. The Kremlin insists its support for the separatists is limited to political and humanitarian backing, but the West has long accused Putin of sending military forces and hardware.
The seven-year conflict between the pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian government has claimed more than 13,000 lives. On Sunday, the Ukrainian military reported another death — a soldier purportedly killed by artillery fire from the Russian-backed fighters.
Over the weekend, Kremlin spokesman Peskov said no further peace talks could take place before conditions laid out in the Minsk peace accords were met. The Minsk accords, reached during 2015 talks in neighboring Belarus, brought an end to the worst of the hostilities in Donbas, but the full agreement has never been fully implemented.
Since then, peace talks have been stalled, with Russia and Ukraine failing to find any new common ground.