Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits positions of armed forces near the frontline with Russian-backed separatists during his working trip in Donbass region, Ukraine April 8, 2021.
Ukrainian Presidential Press Service | Handout | via Reuters
WASHINGTON – The Biden administration said Thursday that it was engaged in discussions with NATO allies about escalating tensions in Ukraine as Russia has increased its military presence near the country's border.
"Russia now has more troops on the border with Ukraine than at any time since 2014, five Ukrainian soldiers have been killed this week alone," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing, calling the matter "deeply concerning."
"The United States is increasingly concerned by recent escalating Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, including Russian troop movements on Ukraine's border," she said, adding that the Biden administration was consulting with NATO allies about the uptick in tensions and cease-fire violations.
Psaki's comments follow a contentious phone call between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which she demanded that Moscow reduce its force posture in the area near eastern Ukraine.
"The Chancellor demanded that this build-up be unwound in order to de-escalate the situation," the German government wrote in a readout of the call between the two leaders.
In recent weeks, Russia has increased its military presence along the Ukrainian border, sparking concerns in the West of a budding military conflict between the two neighboring countries. The Russian Defense Ministry has said it is conducting more than 4,000 military drills this month to inspect its forces readiness.
"Russia's armed forces are on Russian territory in the places it considers necessary and appropriate, and they will stay there for as long as our military leadership and supreme commander consider it appropriate," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said when asked how long Russian forces would remain near Ukraine, according to Reuters.
Last month, the Ukrainian government said four of its soldiers were killed by Russian shelling in Donbass. Moscow has denied it has forces in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv has been battling Russian-backed separatists in a conflict that has left at least 13,000 people dead since 2014, according to U.N. figures.
The Kremlin has said that it is concerned about the rising tensions in eastern Ukraine and that it feared Kyiv's forces were attempting to restart a conflict.
"It's not completely clear what the Russians are doing there, we'd like to understand that more, and that uncertainty is obviously not contributing to a more stable, more secure situation," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.
"As I said, the full intentions are not 100% clear and we'd like to understand more about what it is the Russians are doing there and what they intend to do there, but it is not conducive, this buildup and a fairly rapid buildup, it's not conducive to greater stability," Kirby added.
The buildup of Russian troops has led to repeated calls from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to accelerate his nation's admittance into the NATO alliance. President Joe Biden spoke with Zelenskiy last week, expressing U.S. support for Ukraine's sovereignty "in the face of Russia's ongoing aggression."
When asked about Ukraine's potential entry into the alliance, the Pentagon, State Department and White House have reiterated that all eligible countries should meet NATO's standard for membership.
"We are committed to ensuring that aspirant countries wishing to join NATO meet the organization's standard for membership," State Department spokesman Ned Price said when asked about Ukraine's status.
"To that end, we continue to urge the government of Ukraine to implement the deep, comprehensive, and timely reforms necessary to build a more stable, democratic, prosperous, and free country," he added.