Russia announced the start of mass military drills, ratcheting up tensions with neighboring Ukraine amid Western concerns about the risk of renewed fighting.
More than 4,000 training exercises will be held in military districts across Russia in April, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday, in comments posted on the ministry’s website.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday reiterated his country’s desire to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to protect itself against Russia, calling membership “the only way to end the war” in eastern Ukraine in a phone call with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. The NATO chief was noncommittal in a tweet later, saying the alliance remained “committed to our close partnership” with Ukraine.
Ukraine is appealing for support amid a buildup of Russian forces along their shared border, raising fears of an escalation in the seven-year conflict that has claimed 13,000 lives. Russia denies it’s threatening Ukraine and accuses the government in Kyiv of preparing a military offensive to regain control of the eastern conflict zone.
NATO membership won’t help Ukraine solve “its internal problems,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday. “From our point of view, this will further aggravate the situation,” he said.
Zelenskiy also urged greater international pressure on Russia in a phone call with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Tuesday, a day after he spoke with U.K. Premier Boris Johnson. Ukraine’s foreign and defense ministers held talks with their U.S. and U.K. counterparts last week about tensions in the eastern Donbas region, while Zelenskiy’s chief of staff spoke to U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
The U.S. State Department signaled its concerns about Russian troop movements this week, with spokesman Ned Price saying Monday that “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.”
“At the highest levels of government, literally, across multiple institutions, we have sent that message very clearly to our Ukrainian counterparts, and implicitly to the Russians as well, that we stand by Kyiv, we stand by our partner, Ukraine, in the face of this intimidation and aggression,” Price added.
Zelenskiy told Trudeau 10 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the eastern zone since March 26. The U.S. and the European Union have sanctioned Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Russia denies involvement in the fighting.
The U.S. has provided Ukraine with defensive military equipment, including Javelin antitank missiles. In his first official phone call as president with Zelenskiy last week, Joe Biden pledged to stand with Ukraine against Russian “aggression.”
On Tuesday, however, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said questions about NATO membership should be handled by the alliance.
“That’s a decision for NATO to make,” Psaki said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rounded on Western nations on Tuesday for backing what he called Kyiv’s “absolutely unacceptable actions and statements.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin bitterly opposes Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO, though there’s little appetite within the alliance to accept a membership application, as well as the former Soviet republic’s tilt toward the West since the 2014 revolution that ousted pro-Moscow leader Viktor Yanukovych.
“The ostentation with which the troops are being moved confirms that Russia is saber-rattling rather than contemplating a blitzkrieg,” Maxim Samorukov, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on its website Monday. Still, tensions between the two sides mean a misstep or rogue action could drag them into a new military confrontation, he said.
With implementation of a 2015 peace agreement stalled and a July cease-fire fraying, the uptick in violence is hardening the stance of both sides, said Katharine Quinn-Judge, Ukraine analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
“This doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a major escalation,” she said. “But we should still be worried because it’s a symptom of the deadlock in the peace process.”