KIEV: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday called for direct talks with Moscow as tensions mounted over claims that Russia is laying the groundwork for an invasion.
Zelensky’s call came as Nato looks to counter what it says is a build-up of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken set to meet Russia’s top diplomat Sergei Lavrov in Stockholm on Thursday.
“We must tell the truth that we will not be able to end the war without direct talks with Russia,” Zelensky said during an annual address to lawmakers in Kiev. “Let’s be honest, the war in Donbass has been going on for eight years,” Zelensky said, referring to eastern Ukraine.
“We must talk, knowing that we have a strong and powerful army,” Zelensky added, saying he was “not afraid” to speak directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In Moscow, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov appeared to pour cold water on the idea, reiterating that the war was Ukraine’s domestic issue.
“We know of attempts to present Russia as a party to this conflict. This is not the case,” Peskov told reporters. “The war in Donbass can only be stopped through negotiations of Ukrainians with Ukrainians.”
More than 13,000 people have been killed in a war between Kiev troops and Russian-backed separatists who have carved out two “People’s Republics” in eastern Ukraine. Kiev and its Western allies have accused Russia of stirring up the separatist conflict to prevent Ukraine from joining Nato and the EU and sending troops and arms to support the breakaway regions. Moscow has denied those claims.
The war broke out after a popular uprising in Kiev ousted a Kremlin-backed president and Moscow moved to annex Crimea in 2014. Even though active fighting has decreased, the West has been concerned by Russia’s troop movements on Ukraine’s border this year. Kiev’s Western allies have since last month warned of a fresh Russian troop buildup around Ukraine’s borders and a possible winter invasion.