German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined a growing diplomatic effort by Ukraine’s allies to help avoid a potentially catastrophic miscalculation over the gathering of Russian forces at the border.
Merkel told Putin during a phone call Thursday that Russia should change the troop build-up in the eastern Ukraine area to help achieve a “de-escalation of the situation,” according to its spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer.
While Russia has downplayed the likelihood of an imminent attack by both sides, its increased military presence around the conflict that erupted after President Vladimir Putin seized Crimea in 2014 risks creating a renewed spiral of violence. The most intense fighting in recent days between the Ukrainian army and Kremlin-backed insurgents has already increased the death toll to more than 13,000.
With escalating concerns ahead and in the center, Merkel’s call to Putin on Thursday was the second in a week as Poland’s foreign minister met with his opposite number in Kiev. Their efforts follow a call between US President Joe Biden and his Kiev counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who also spoke with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and renewed a push for membership in the alliance.
The fear among many is a repeat of the five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 in which Western officials blamed provocations from the Kremlin.
“It is very important that Ukraine has direct contacts with its Western partners to deliver its messages,” said Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukrainian Forum and a researcher at Chatham House. “In Georgia, the Western partners realized it was a provocation, but they could not stop it. Here, we see a close contact between the Ukrainian top government and military officials with the Pentagon and the UK. There is much more information available. “
As diplomatic momentum continues, there are signs that tensions may begin to ease.
Talks late Wednesday between Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe dealt another blow to a ceasefire, although the Ukrainian military reported another death on Thursday morning.
Read more: What is causing tension between Russia and Ukraine ?: Get it fast
Russia, meanwhile, has called for aggression from its neighbor. The Kremlin’s chief negotiator with Ukraine, Dmitry Kozak, said Thursday that the activities of the Ukrainian army are unlikely to lead to a large-scale military operation and are more of a public relations move.
He warned, however, that Russia would intervene to protect its citizens if they were directly endangered. “It all depends on how big the fire is,” Kozak said.
Russia has repeatedly denied plans to “intervene” in eastern Ukraine, though Putin also refused to have any intention of annexing Crimea shortly before doing so.
For now, diplomacy – as well as catastrophe avoidance – may be more beneficial to Zelenskiy, who visited the front line of the conflict and spoke with troops there on Thursday.
“His domestic position, only recently very shaky, has improved in a patriotic wave, he won the coveted prize of a Biden call and he revived the machine of Ukraine’s NATO membership,” said Dmitry Trenin, director of Carnegie Moscow Center, in a tweet.
– With the help of Gregory White, Iain Rogers and Henry Meyer
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