Russia announced the start of mass military drills, ratcheting up tensions with neighbouring 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, in comments posted on the ministry’s website.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy reiterated his country’s desire to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (WTO) 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 non-committal in a tweet later, saying the alliance remained “committed to our close partnership” with Ukraine.
Ukraine is appealing for support amid a build-up 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. “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, a day after he spoke with UK Premier Boris Johnson. Ukraine’s foreign and defense ministers held talks with their US and UK counterparts last week about tensions in the eastern Donbas region, while Zelenskiy’s chief
of staff spoke to US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
The US State Department signaled its concerns about Russian troop movements this week, with spokesman Ned Price saying 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.”
‘Intimidation and Aggression’
“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.
Russia’s ruble accelerated its decline amid the geopolitical tensions, weakening 1.1% against the dollar to 77.2552 at 6:34 p.m. in Moscow, the worst-performing emerging market currency.
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 anti-tank 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.