(CNSNews.com) – Amid deepening Western concern over Russia’s actions and intentions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged President Vladimir Putin on Thursday to reverse the recent massing of troops near the Ukraine border, where according to the U.S. government Russian has deployed more soldiers than at any time since the conflict began in 2014.
A spokeswoman for Merkel said the chancellor in a phone conversation with Putin “called for these troop reinforcements to be dismantled in order to de-escalate the situation.”
Germany, together with France, is a partner in a process known as the Normandy Format, designed to mediate between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbass region. Ukraine and Russia are also part of the contact group, which has not met since December 2019, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In response to Merkel’s appeal, Putin accused the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky of “provocative actions” that are “deliberately aggravating the situation along the line of contact” – the demarcation point separating Ukrainian and separatist forces.
The Kremlin said in a readout Putin and Merkel had “urged the parties to the conflict to display restraint and to invigorate the negotiating process in order to fully implement” a 2015 ceasefire agreement.
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitors have recorded thousands of ceasefire violations in Donbass in recent weeks.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she had no interactions between U.S. and Russian officials to report since the end of last week, but she did reiterate the administration’s concerns about the situation.
“Russia now has more troops on the border with Ukraine than at any time since 2014,” she said. “Five Ukrainian soldiers have been killed this week alone. These are all deeply concerning signs.”
2014 is when the conflict in eastern Ukraine erupted, sparked by Moscow’s support for a pro-Russian uprising against Kyiv. The United Nations says more than 13,000 lives have been lost since then.
The Biden administration has since late January been carrying out a comprehensive review of the Russian state’s “troubling actions,” ranging from the attempted poisoning of dissidents to hacking to reports of bounties offered on the lives of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Psaki said Thursday the review would be completed in “weeks, not months,” and that “there will be consequences” for Moscow’s actions.
State Department spokesman Ned Price also signaled that a response would be coming soon, telling a briefing, “President Biden has made very clear that Russia will be held to account. President Biden is a man of his word, and I think you will have another reminder of that.”
The Kremlin has rejected Western criticism of the troop movements near Ukraine, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that Russia moves its forces around its own territory at its own discretion, posing no threat to anyone.
Zelensky visited the Donbass region on Thursday to support frontline troops, 26 of whom have been killed since the beginning of the year.
“You are a true example of heroism and dedication,” he told the troops. “We remember every warrior who died defending our state.”
Earlier this week, Zelensky urged NATO to move ahead with a long-delayed step of putting Ukraine on a path to membership. He also called on the transatlantic alliance to strengthen its military presence in the Black Sea region as a deterrent to Russia, “which continues the large-scale militarization of the region.”
The U.S. Navy regularly operates in the Black Sea; warships visited more than half a dozen times in 2020, including for annual Sea Breeze joint exercises with Ukrainian and NATO forces over the summer. Most recently, two Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers and a fleet replenishment oiler carried out drills with NATO aircraft there in late January.
A defense official told CNN on Thursday that the U.S. was considering deploying naval vessels in the Black Sea again in the coming weeks in a show of support for Ukraine.
Also on Thursday, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet announced artillery drills in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula occupied by Russia since 2014. The TASS news agency reported that the frigate involved in the exercises is armed with Kalibr cruise missiles boasting a range of up to 1,600 miles.