Blinken and French, German counterparts reaffirm support for Ukraine -State Department

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announces his appointment of Gayle Smith as the new State Department Coordinator for Global COVID Response and Health Security as he speaks about U.S. leadership in fighting the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the State Department in Washington, U.S., April 5, 2021. REUTERS/Al Drago/Pool

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his French and German counterparts on Friday called on Russia to halt a troop buildup on Ukraine's borders and reaffirmed their support for Kyiv in its confrontation with Moscow, the State Department said.

The statements from the top diplomats suggested stepped-up consultations among the NATO allies on Russia's massing of forces and what Ukrainian and Western officials say have been ceasefire breaches by Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.

The Russian military movements have fueled concerns that Moscow is preparing to send forces into Ukraine. The Kremlin denies its troops are a threat, but says they will remain as long as it sees fit.

Blinken spoke separately with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in statements.

Blinken and Le Drian "discussed the need for Russia to end its dangerous and irresponsible rhetoric, its military buildup in occupied Crimea and along Ukraine’s borders, and unilateral Russian provocations along" the frontlines in eastern Ukraine, he said.

In their call, Blinken and Maas "emphasized the importance of supporting Ukraine against unilateral Russian provocations" along the frontlines, Price said.

The pair also discussed the need for Russia to "immediately cease its military buildup and inflammatory rhetoric," Price said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the United States has been diplomatically engaging with Russia and other countries about "the escalating Russian aggressions in eastern Ukraine, including Russia's troop movements on Ukraine's borders."

"We are, of course, in close consultation and working with partners and allies in the region, to assess, to share intelligence, to determine what's happening ... and what can be done about it," she said, declining to further discuss the "internal diplomatic process."

On Thursday, Psaki said that Russia had massed more troops on Ukraine's eastern border than at any time since 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea and backed the seizure by separatists of large parts of eastern Ukraine.

She did not elaborate, and the National Security Council declined to provide further details.

In March 2014, as the conflict in eastern Ukraine escalated, Western estimates put the number of Russian troops, militia or special forces on Ukraine's border at 25,000 to more than 30,000.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay, Andrea Shalal and Steve Holland; Editing by Chris Reese and Susan Fenton)

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