President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on NATO on Tuesday to lay out a path for Ukraine to join the Western military alliance, after days in which Russia has massed troops near the conflict-hit Donbas region.
Zelenskiy’s comments drew an immediate rebuke from Moscow, which said Kyiv’s approach to NATO could further inflame the situation in Donbas, where violence has increased in recent days.
The Pentagon, perhaps due to the sensitivities, flatly declined a request to comment on Zelenskiy’s request at a news briefing.
Russian-backed separatists have fought since 2014 against Ukrainian forces in the Donbas, a conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people. Kyiv reported two more soldiers killed on Tuesday and, in a separate statement, Zelenskiy said 24 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since the start of the year.
“NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbas,” Zelenskiy told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in a phone call, according to a statement from Zelenskiy’s office. A Membership Action Plan laying out Ukraine’s entry path into the alliance “will be a real signal for Russia”, he said.
He also called for NATO members to strengthen their military presence in the Black Sea region.
Stoltenberg said he had called President Volodymyr Zelensky “to express serious concern about Russia’s military activities in and around Ukraine and ongoing ceasefire violations”.
“NATO firmly supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We remain committed to our close partnership.”
The phone call from the NATO chief follows messages of solidarity for Ukraine from leading alliance powers the United States and Britain, and from the EU.
Ukraine has launched a diplomatic offensive to shore up support from Western countries and NATO in its stand-off with Russia over Don bass, sounding the alarm since late March over the build-up of Russian troops. Russia says the troop movements are defensive and that NATO involvement would inflame the situation.
The stand-off has also pushed Ukrainian sovereign bonds to their lowest level since November.
Last week the Pentagon said US forces in Europe had raised their alert status following the “recent escalations of Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine”.
The Kremlin has not denied the recent troop movements, but insisted that Moscow was “not threatening anyone”. It has warned it will take necessary “measures” in the event of any Western military deployment in Ukraine.
The reports of a Russian build-up came alongside an escalation of armed clashes along the front line between Ukraine’s forces and Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country.
The long-simmering conflict has claimed more than 13,000 lives since 2014, according to the United Nations.
Ukraine has denied reports that its forces had killed a five-year-old child in an attack on pro-Moscow eastern separatists after Russia said it would launch an investigation.
Kremlin says rhetoric could inflame
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said those living in eastern Ukraine would not accept NATO membership, and that rhetoric could further destabilise the Donbas region.
“So far we’re not seeing an intention by the Ukrainian side to somehow calm down and move away from belligerent topics,” he said.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking during a visit to India, said Russia was worried by statements coming out of Kyiv, and was in touch with European countries about them.
The Donbas conflict erupted in the months after Russian forces seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Ukraine and Western countries says Donbas separatists have been armed, led, funded and aided by Russians, including active Russian troops. Moscow has denied interfering. While a ceasefire halted full-scale warfare in 2015, sporadic deadly fighting never ceased.
Ukraine also said on Tuesday it wanted to move ongoing peace talks away from the Belarusian capital Minsk, saying Belarus was too much under the influence of Russia.
“We don’t know where (the talks) could be relocated. This is the subject of discussion,” Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told Reuters.