Talks between top advisers to the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany to cool tensions in eastern Ukraine yielded few tangible results, diplomats said on April 19, as the EU warned a Russian military buildup near Ukraine's borders could “spark” a larger conflagration.
Speaking after EU foreign ministers were briefed by Ukraine's foreign minister, the bloc's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called on Russia to pull back troops amassed near Ukraine’s border and in occupied Crimea amid concerns over Moscow’s intentions.
A fragile cease-fire negotiated last summer in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed separatists has unraveled in recent weeks, leaving at least 30 Ukrainian soldiers killed since the start of the year. On April 19, Ukraine’s army said one soldier was killed and one more wounded after their positions were attacked with automatic grenade launchers on April 18.
"The risk of further escalation is evident," said Borrell.
“It is the highest military deployment of the Russian army on the Ukrainian borders ever. It’s clear that it’s a matter of concern when you deploy a lot of troops," Borrell said. “Well, a spark can jump here or there.”
Borrell said more than 150,000 Russian troops had gathered near Ukraine and in Crimea, but the EU’s foreign policy service later issued a correction putting the figure at more than 100,000 troops.
The United States and NATO say the Russian military buildup is the largest since 2014, when Moscow illegally annexed Crimea and backed separatists in the east of Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people.
The Kremlin denies its military movements are a threat and maintains its a sovereign issue.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged the EU to prepare "a new set of sectoral sanctions" against Russia in talks with his counterparts from the 27-nation bloc.
But Borrell said no further sanctions were being proposed or under consideration. Diplomats suggested that for the moment the EU would seek to apply pressure on Russia through more diplomacy.
But the diplomatic front appeared to make little, if any, progress.
Top political advisers to the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany held separate talks under the so-called Normandy Format, but diplomats said they yielded no tangible results.
The Normandy Format has brought together the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Following the political advisers meeting, a Ukrainian statement said all sides reaffirmed their commitment to reaching a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and would continue to work on the issue.
The talks come after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron met in Paris last week. They were joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel via video link.
Zelenskiy said while in Paris that the goal of the political advisers meeting was to revive implementation of the so-called Minsk Agreements, aimed at reaching a durable cease-fire in eastern Ukraine leading to steps towards a political solution to the conflict.
Zelenskiy has said he is seeking a four-way summit under the Normandy Format that would include Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ukraine's position is that a cease-fire is a basic precondition for the implementation of the Minsk agreements and would pave the way for the implementation of other difficult provisions of the agreements, such as local elections in the separatist-controlled Donbas and control over the Ukrainian-Russian border.