German chancellor Angela Merkel joined a growing diplomatic effort by Ukraine’s allies to help avoid a potentially catastrophic miscalculation over the buildup of Russian forces on the border.
Merkel told President Vladimir Putin of Russia during a phone call on Thursday that Russia must reverse the buildup of troops in the area of eastern Ukraine to help achieve “a de-escalation of the situation,” according to her spokeswoman, Ulrike Demmer.
While Russia has played down the likelihood of an imminent attack by either side, its heightened military presence around the conflict that erupted after Putin seized Crimea in 2014 risks setting off a renewed spiral of violence. More intense battles in recent days between Ukraine’s army and Kremlin-backed insurgents have already added to the death toll of more than 13,000.
With escalation concerns front and centre, Merkel’s call Thursday with Putin was the second in a week, while Poland’s foreign minister met with his opposite number in Kyiv. Their efforts follow a call between US President Joe Biden and his counterpart in Kyiv, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who’s also spoken with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and renewed a push for membership of the alliance.
The fear among many is a repeat of the five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 that Western officials blamed on provocations from the Kremlin.
“It’s very important Ukraine has direct contact with its Western partners to deliver its messages,” said Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum and a research fellow at Chatham House. “In Georgia, Western partners understood it was a provocation but couldn’t stop it. Here, we see close contact between Ukrainian top government and military officials with the Pentagon and the UK. There’s much more information available.”
As the diplomatic flurry continues, there are signs tensions may be starting to ease.
Talks late Wednesday between Ukraine, Russia and the organization for security and co-operation in Europe (OSCE) yielded another stab at a cease-fire, though Ukraine’s military reported another death on Thursday morning.
Russia, meanwhile, dialled back claims of aggression from its neighbour. The Kremlin’s chief negotiator with Ukraine, Dmitry Kozak, said Thursday that the activities of Ukraine’s army aren’t likely to lead to a large-scale military operation and are more of a public-relations move.
He warned, however, that Russia would step in to protect its citizens if they came under direct threat. “Everything depends on how major the fire is,” Kozak said.
Russia has repeatedly denied plans to “intervene” in eastern Ukraine, though Putin also rejected having any intention of annexing Crimea shortly before doing just that.
For now, the diplomacy, as well as averting disaster, may be of most benefit to Zelenskiy, who visited the front line of the conflict and spoke to troops there on Thursday.