Russia has accused Ukraine of deploying half its army – about 125,000 troops – to confront pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, and said it had launched its own regular winter drills in its southern military district bordering Ukraine.
The Kremlin has consistently denied that, and sought to portray Ukraine and NATO as the aggressors.
“The Ukrainian army is building up its military strength, bringing in hardware and personnel,” said Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry.
She said according to some reports, the number of troops in the conflict zone in Donbass had already reached 125,000 people, “which is half of the entire Ukrainian army.” Ukrainian forces have been battling Russia-backed separatists there since 2014.
The Ukrainian military declined to comment on Zakharova’s statement.
Speaking to parliament on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Kyiv needs direct talks with Moscow in order to end the war in Donbass.
Zelenskiy was addressing parliament after Ukraine urged NATO to prepare economic sanctions on Russia and boost military cooperation with Kyiv as a way of deterring the Kremlin from launching a new attack after massing troops near the border.
“We must tell the truth that we will not be able to stop the war without direct negotiations with Russia, and today this has already been recognised by all, all external partners,” he said.
Zelenskiy’s administration says it has tried to arrange in-person talks between the president and Russian leader Vladimir Putin but that its requests were ignored.
The Kremlin has said Putin is not against the idea of talks with Zelenskiy, but that Moscow would want to see a proper agenda prepared for a meeting.
Kyiv’s parliament was surrounded by heavy security after Zelenskiy last week said Ukraine had uncovered a plot to overthrow his government. Russia has denied any involvement in the alleged coup, which was meant to take place this week.
On Wednesday, Moscow’s defence ministry said the Russian winter drills would involve 10,000 troops across more than 30 training grounds.
They would also take place in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and in a Russian region bordering the separatist-controlled Donbass area of eastern Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was alarmed by Kyiv’s bolstering its forces in the Donbass region and he would discuss the situation with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a meeting in Stockholm on Thursday.
NATO and the United States have issued stark warnings to Russia that it would pay a high price for any new military aggression, amid worries that the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine could erupt into open war between the two neighbours.
Reuters / AP