KYIV (Reuters) – President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Tuesday called on NATO to outline a path for Ukraine to join the Western military alliance, after days in which Russia has massed troops near the Donbass region affected by the conflict.
Zelenskiy’s comments prompted an immediate reprimand from Moscow, which said Kiev’s approach to NATO could further inflame the situation in Donbass, where violence has escalated in recent days.
The Pentagon, perhaps due to sensitivity, flatly rejected a request to comment on Zelenskiy’s request at a press conference.
Russian-backed separatists have fought since 2014 against Ukrainian forces in the Donbass, a conflict Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people. Kiev reported the death of two more soldiers on Tuesday and, in a separate statement, Zelenskiy said 24 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since the beginning of the year.
“NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbass,” Zelenskiy told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a phone call, according to a statement from Zelenskiy’s office. A Membership Action Plan that sets out Ukraine’s path to entry into the alliance “will be a real signal for Russia,” he said.
He also called on NATO members to strengthen their military presence in the Black Sea region.
Stoltenberg in a tweet expressed “serious concern about Russia’s military activities in and around Ukraine and ongoing violations of the ceasefire.”
Ukraine has launched a diplomatic offensive to shore up the support of Western countries and NATO in its confrontation with Russia over Donbass, sounding the alarm since the end of March over the accumulation of Russian troops. Russia says the troop movements are defensive and that NATO involvement would inflame the situation.
The standoff has also brought Ukrainian sovereign bonds to their lowest level since November.
KREMLIN SAYS RHETORIC COULD FLAME
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that those living in eastern Ukraine will not accept NATO membership and that the rhetoric could further destabilize the Donbass region.
“So far we don’t see an intention on the part of Ukraine to somehow calm down and move away from belligerent issues,” he said.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, during a visit to India, said that Russia was concerned about the statements coming from Kiev and was in contact with European countries about it.
The Donbass conflict erupted in the months after Russian forces seized the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine and Western countries say Donbass separatists have been armed, led, financed and aided by Russians, including troops. active russians. Moscow has denied interfering. While a ceasefire stopped the full-scale war in 2015, the sporadic deadly fighting never stopped.
Ukraine also said on Tuesday that it wanted to move the ongoing peace talks away from the Belarusian capital, Minsk, and said Belarus was too under the influence of Russia.
“We don’t know where (the talks) could be relocated. This is the subject of discussion, ”Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told Reuters.
Reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets in Kiev, Tom Balmforth and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, Karin Strohecker in London, Phil Stewart in Washington Written by Matthias Williams Edited by Peter Graff and Jonathan Oatis