America and Russia moved closer to a dangerous military crisis this week in the conflict-stricken Donbas region of Ukraine.
In a high level phone call, German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to reason with an increasingly warlike Russian President Vladimir Putin, demanding that he immediately pull back a military build-up near the country’s border with Ukraine, Al Jazeera and CNN reported.
On the same day, US President Joe Biden pondered sending warships into the Black Sea in a show of support for Ukraine, a move that could inflame the situation.
Only last week, a high-ranking Russian official cavalierly threatened the destruction of Ukraine — a statement that would have sparked alarm at NATO headquarters and the White House.
Dmitry Kozak, the deputy head of Russia’s presidential administration, was quoted by Russia’s Tass news agency as saying that Ukraine’s government were like “children playing with matches.”
“I support the assessment that the start of military action – this would be the beginning of the end of Ukraine,” he said.
Ukrainian government troops have battled Russian-backed separatists in the country’s eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions, which form part of Donbas, since the rebels seized a swath of territory there in April 2014.
Moscow has issued the standard denial on interfering in the region, but Ukraine and several Western countries have determined conclusively that separatist forces in the region have been armed, led, funded and aided by Russians.
More than 14,000 people have died in the fighting, according to estimates made by Kyiv.
“The Chancellor demanded that this build-up be unwound in order to de-escalate the situation,” Germany’s government said of the icy call between Merkel and Putin.
The Russian leader has ordered troops, tanks, helicopters and weapons to take positions along the Ukraine border, raising fears of a new offensive.
The Kremlin, for its part, said that Vladimir Putin noted “provocative actions” by Kyiv for deliberately inflaming the situation along the line of contact, and, as Russia sees it, Ukraine’s “refusal” to honor agreements that were part of the latest cease-fire.
On Thursday White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Russia’s actions are “deeply concerning.”
“The United States is increasingly concerned by recently escalating Russian aggressions in eastern Ukraine, including Russia’s movements on Ukraine’s border. Russia now has more troops on the border of Ukraine than any time since 2014.
“Five Ukrainian soldiers have been killed this week alone. These are all deeply concerning signs,” Psaki said.
Defense officials said the US Navy is continuing to fly reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace over the Black Sea to monitor Russian naval activity and any troops movements in Crimea.
The Pentagon and State Department have also expressed their concern about Russia’s behavior in eastern Ukraine, CNN reported.
“We are concerned by recent escalating Russian aggressions in eastern Ukraine, including the credible reports that have been emanating about Russian troop movements on Ukraine’s borders and occupied Crimea,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said this week.
“We have asked Russia for an explanation of these provocations, but most importantly what we have signaled directly with our Ukrainian partners is a message of reassurance,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy flew to the front line of the Donbas conflict on Thursday, Al Jazeera reported.
Images released by Zelenskyy’s office showed the 43-year-old leader in the trenches clad in a helmet and bulletproof vest, handing out awards to Ukrainian soldiers and shaking their hands.
“Thank you for keeping people calm and defending our land,” Zelenskyy told troops during the trip. “You are a true example of heroism and dedication. We remember every warrior who died defending our state.”
Zelenskyy earlier this week called on NATO to lay out a path for Ukraine to join the military bloc, whose expansion Moscow fiercely opposes, saying it was the only way to end the conflict in Donbas.
He said such a move would act as a “powerful deterrent” to Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in March 2014 after an uprising that toppled former Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych.
However some analysts think it could, in fact, have the opposite effect, and spark fierce retaliation from the Kremlin.