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US Asks Russia to Explain 'Provocations' on Ukraine Border

FILE - State Department spokesman Ned Price takes questions from reporters at the State Department in Washington, March 31, 2021.

The United States, finding reports of Russian military movements on Ukraine's border credible, asked Moscow to explain the "provocations" and is ready to engage on the situation, the U.S. State Department said Monday.

The reported Russian troop buildup and movements bordering eastern Ukraine have become the latest point of tension in icy U.S.-Russian relations less than three months after U.S. President Joe Biden took office.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told a news briefing that the United States would be concerned by any effort by Moscow to intimidate Ukraine, whether it occurred on Russian territory or within Ukraine.

He declined to say whether the United States believed Russia was preparing to invade the neighboring former Soviet republic.

Later Monday, a State Department spokesperson told Reuters that the United States is "open to engagement with Moscow" on the situation, describing as credible reports of Russian troop movements on Ukraine's border and Crimea, the peninsula seized by Russia in 2014.

The movements, the spokesperson said, were preceded by violations of a July 2020 cease-fire that killed four Ukrainian soldiers and wounded four others.

"We call on Russia to refrain from escalatory actions," the spokesperson said.

FILE - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a news briefing in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 12, 2020.
FILE - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a news briefing in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 12, 2020.

The comments followed a telephone call Friday in which Biden reassured his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, of "unwavering support" in Ukraine's confrontation with Russia-backed separatists holding parts of the country's eastern Donbas region.

Russia on Monday denied that Russian military movements posed a threat to Ukraine and dismissed fears of a buildup, even as it warned that it would respond to new Ukrainian sanctions against Russian companies.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that "recent escalations of Russian aggression and escalation in eastern Ukraine" is "something we're watching closely."

Biden's call with Zelenskiy came after the NATO alliance expressed concern over what it said was a large Russian military buildup on Russia's side of the border with eastern Ukraine.

"We've asked Russia for an explanation of these provocations," Price said. "But more importantly, what we have signaled with our Ukrainian partners is a message of reassurance."

Pressed on whether the United States viewed troop movements on Russia's side of the border as intimidation of Ukraine, Price responded, "Of course, the Russians have for quite some time sought to intimidate and bully their neighbors."

Ukraine, Western countries and NATO accuse Russia of sending troops and heavy weapons to prop up proxies who seized a swath of the eastern Donbas region in 2014. Moscow says it provides only humanitarian and political support to the separatists.