Ukraine's Zelensky visits frontline amid rising tensions with Russia

Handout picture released by Ukrainian Presidential Press Service on April 8, 2021 shows the President Volodymyr Zelensky arriving in eastern Ukraine.
Handout picture released by Ukrainian Presidential Press Service on April 8, 2021 shows the President Volodymyr Zelensky arriving in eastern Ukraine. AFP - STR

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday visited the country's eastern frontline after a recent surge in clashes between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists. The visit came amid rising tensions, with Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing Kiev of provocative action during a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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Zelensky’s visit to positions where a ceasefire "has been systematically violated in recent days" was aimed at "maintaining the fighting spirit", the presidency said in a statement.

“Thank you for keeping people calm and defending our land,” Zelensky told troops during the trip. "You are a true example of heroism and dedication. We remember every warrior who died defending our state.”

Images released by Zelensky's office showed the 43-year-old leader in the trenches clad in a helmet and bulletproof vest, handing out awards to Ukrainian soldiers and shaking their hands.

Another soldier was killed early Thursday after separatists opened fire on Ukrainian positions with mortars and artillery, the Ukrainian military said, bringing to 25 the number of its troops killed since the start of the year.

Reporting from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, FRANCE 24’s Gulliver Cragg said the clashes were the worst escalation of violence since Zelensky, a former TV comedian, took office in 2019. 

“Volodymyr Zelensky wants to show his support to the soldiers on the frontline. He also wants to make sure that the soldiers have confidence in him because a lot of Ukranian officers voted for his rival, Petro Poroshenko in 2019, worrying that Volodymyr Zelensky would be too soft on Russia. He’s very much now about showing that he’s not too soft on Russia,” said Cragg.

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Fears have been mounting of a major escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have battled separatists in the mainly Russian-speaking Donbas region since 2014.

Ukraine last week accused Russia of massing thousands of military personnel on its northern and eastern borders as well as on the Crimean peninsula annexed by Moscow.

The Kremlin has not denied the troop movements but insisted that Moscow was "not threatening anyone".

Kiev's Western allies have rushed to its defence with a series of statements warning Russia against taking further action and seeking explanations for its troop build-up.

Putin, Merkel express 'concern'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday "expressed concern" over the spike in tensions in east Ukraine during a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin

The Kremlin readout of the call also said Putin “drew attention to the provocative actions of Kiev, which has recently been purposefully exacerbating the situation on the frontline".

The two leaders also discussed the case of jailed Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny and Libya, the Kremlin said.

The German government’s readout said, "The Chancellor demanded that this build-up be unwound in order to de-escalate the situation."

Biden offers 'unwavering support'

Earlier this week, Zelensky urged NATO to speed up his country's request for membership in the alliance, saying this was the only way to end the conflict.

Alliance members responded with calls for Kiev to continue military and defence reforms.

It is unclear what set off the latest escalation in tensions and clashes, though some observers say Moscow may be testing US President Joe Biden's committment to defend Ukraine.

In his first call with Zelensky earlier this month, Biden affirmed Washington's "unwavering support" for Kiev in the conflict, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives since 2014.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday said the US was “increasingly concerned” about escalating Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.

"Russia now has more troops on the border with Ukraine than at any time since 2014," Psaki told reporters, referring to the period when Russia annexed Crimea. 

She said the US was discussing its concerns about regional tensions and ceasefire violations with its NATO allies.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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