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Ukrainian President Visits Eastern Front As Tensions With Russia Rise

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) shakes hands with a serviceman in the town of Zolote in the Luhansk region on April 8.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has visited the volatile eastern part of the country as rising tensions with Russia over the conflict moved closer to the boiling point.

Zelenskiy's "working trip" on April 8 saw the president meet with Ukrainian servicemen serving on the front lines separating them from Russia-backed fighters and comes after a recent accumulation of photographs, video, and other data suggesting major movements of Russian armed units toward or near Ukraine's borders and into Crimea.

As Zelenskiy toured the area, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged President Vladimir Putin in a phone call to reduce Russia's troop buildup near Ukraine, while Putin in turn accused Kyiv of "provocative actions."

Meanwhile, the White House said it was "increasingly concerned by recent escalating Russian aggressions in eastern Ukraine, including Russian troop movements on Ukraine's border."

"Russia now has more troops on the border with Ukraine than at any time since 2014," when the conflict started, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "Five Ukrainian soldiers have been killed this week alone. These are all deeply concerning signs."

In Moscow, the deputy head of Russia's presidential administration, Dmitry Kozak, took the situation a step further, warning that major military hostilities could mark "the beginning of the end of Ukraine."

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Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries after Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted amid a wave of public protests.

Since then, overwhelming evidence suggests Russia has continued to lend diplomatic and military aid to armed separatists fighting in the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas.

Despite multiple cease-fire agreements, the violence has never really ended with more than 13,000 people killed since April 2014, according to the United Nations, and more than 1 million displaced.

Images released by Zelenskiy's office showed the 43-year-old president in the trenches clad in a helmet and bulletproof vest, handing out awards to soldiers and shaking their hands.

Zelenskiy visited positions where "the largest number of violations" hadtaken place, thanking the soldiers "for defending our land," his office said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (center) greets soldiers during his working visit to the eastern conflict zone on April 8.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (center) greets soldiers during his working visit to the eastern conflict zone on April 8.

Moscow has called the recent troop movements defensive and says it has no plans to intervene in the conflict, which has seen both sides blame each other for recent violations of a cease-fire agreement.

But when asked whether Moscow would protect Russian citizens in eastern Ukraine, Kozak said on April 8, "It all depends on the scale of the fire."

Western countries have called for restraint after Ukraine raised the alarm over the buildup of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border with Russia. Violence has risen along the line of contact between government forces and separatists in Ukraine's east.

The West is already dealing with the Kremlin on several different fronts, including the poisoning and jailing of opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, Russia's Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and other thorny issues, including Crimea.

Merkel's call on April 8 for a "reduction of these troops reinforcements to de-escalate tensions" came two days after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on Zelenskiy "to express serious concern about Russia's military activities in and around Ukraine and ongoing cease-fire violations."

Zelenskiy reportedly told Stoltenberg that a path toward NATO membership was the only way to end war in eastern Ukraine.

He also urged NATO member states to strengthen their military presence in the Black Sea region as a "powerful deterrent" to Moscow.

With reporting by Reuters, TASS, Interfax, and AFP
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