The German Chancellor calls on the Kremlin to relax the military reinforcement “in order to defuse” the situation in the Donbass.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw a military build-up near the country’s border with Ukraine amid heightened tensions in the conflict-ridden Donbass region.
Ukrainian government troops have fought Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions, which are part of Donbass, since rebels seized part of the territory in April 2014.
Fears of an escalation of hostilities have grown in recent weeks as Ukraine sounded the alarm of an increase in Russian forces along the country’s common border and the resumption of frontline clashes.
“The Chancellor demanded that this accumulation be unwound in order to defuse the situation,” said the German government when reading a phone call between Merkel and Putin.
The Kremlin, for its part, said in its reading of the phone call that “Vladimir Putin has noted Kiev’s provocative actions which are deliberately inflaming the situation along the contact line.”
Zelenskyy on the front line
The conversation between Merkel and Putin took place as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy flew to the front line of the Donbass conflict on Thursday.
Zelenskyy earlier this week called on NATO to chart a course for Ukraine to join the military bloc, which Moscow fiercely opposes expansion, saying it was the only way to end the conflict in the Donbass.
He said such a move would constitute a “powerful deterrent” for Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March 2014 after an uprising that toppled former friendly Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych.
Zelenskyy accused Russia of demonstrating military force in the face of the latter’s build-up of troops along its common border.
Russia has previously said its forces pose no threat and are on the defensive, but will stay there as long as Moscow sees fit.
However, Moscow announced on Tuesday that it had started a planned inspection of its military’s combat readiness involving thousands of exercises.
Kremlin official warns of ‘end of Ukraine’
Adding to concerns of a potentially imminent large-scale confrontation, a senior Kremlin official said on Thursday that Russia may under certain circumstances be forced to defend its citizens in the Donbass.
Dmitri Kozak, the deputy head of the Russian presidential administration, was quoted by the Russian Tass news agency as saying that the Ukrainian government was like “children playing with matches”.
“I support the assessment that the start of military action – it would be the start of the end of Ukraine,” he said.
Moscow has denied any interference in the Donbass, but Ukraine and several Western countries have said separatist forces in the region have been armed, directed, funded and aided by the Russians.
While a ceasefire ended a full-scale war in the region in 2015, the sporadic clashes have never ceased.
More than 14,000 people have died in the fighting, according to Kiev estimates.