KYIV/MOSCOW (Reuters) -Ukraine accused the Kremlin on Monday of ignoring its request for talks between the two countries’ presidents over a build-up of Russian troops near its border, but Moscow said its soldiers were on its own territory, unlike U.S. forces in the region.
Kyiv and Moscow have traded blame over the worsening situation in the eastern Donbass region, where Ukrainian troops have battled Russian-backed forces in a conflict Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people since 2014.
The West has expressed concern in recent weeks over a huge build-up of Russian forces close to Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Kyiv in 2014.
The U.S. State Department said on Monday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg had discussed “the immediate need for Russia to cease its aggressive military buildup.”
Foreign ministers from the G7 group of nations, including the United States, Britain and France, have condemned an increase in Russian troop numbers near its border with Ukraine and in Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014.
“These large-scale troop movements, without prior notification, represent threatening and destabilising activities,” the joint statement released by Britain’s foreign ministry said.
Russia has said it moves its forces around as it sees fit, including for defensive purposes.
Iuliia Mendel, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s spokeswoman, told Reuters on Monday the leader had tried and so far failed to speak to Putin about the matter.
“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,” said Mendel.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had not seen such a request for talks “in recent days” and was unaware one had been recently made.
When asked if Putin had anything to say to Zelenskiy, Peskov said he hoped “political wisdom” would prevail in Kyiv when it came to de-escalating and avoiding a potential war.
Mendel said Russia had more than 40,000 troops deployed on Ukraine’s eastern border and more than 40,000 troops in Crimea, and that around 50,000 of all those soldiers were new deployments.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on a visit to Egypt, said Washington, not Moscow, had questions to answer about its activities in and around Ukraine.
“Questions are being asked about what Russia is doing on the border with Ukraine,” said Lavrov. “The answer is very simple. We live there, it’s our country. But what is the United States doing thousands of kilometres from its own territory with its warships and troops in Ukraine?”
Turkey said on Friday that Washington, which has provided arms to Ukraine, would send two warships to the Black Sea this week. The Pentagon declined to discuss Turkey’s comments but said the military routinely sends ships to the region.
Zelenskiy held talks in Istanbul on Saturday with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan who said that the developments in eastern Ukraine were worrying.
Lavrov on Monday told Turkey and other “responsible” nations not to feed what he described as “belligerent sentiment” in Ukraine.
The standoff has sparked concern from Ukraine’s Western backers. Washington has accused Russia of a “provocative” build-up.
Zelenskiy has spoken of the need for NATO to admit Ukraine, a step Russia, citing its own security concerns, opposes.
(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth, Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow and David Milliken in London; writing by Matthias Williams/Andrew OsbornEditing by William Maclean)