Ukraine says Putin won't talk to Zelenskiy about Russian troop build-up despite request


FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a joint news conference with European Council President Charles Michel in Kyiv, Ukraine March 3, 2021. Sergey Dolzhenko/Pool/File Photo

KYIV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has not yet been able to speak to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss the escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine despite lodging a request to do so, Zelenskiy's spokeswoman said on Monday.

Kyiv and Moscow have traded blame over the worsening situation in the eastern Donbass region, where Ukrainian troops have battled Russian-backed forces in a conflict Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people since 2014.

Iuliia Mendel, Zelenskiy's spokeswoman, told Reuters on Monday the Ukrainian leader had so far tried and failed to speak to Putin about the matter.

"The president's office, of course, made a request to speak with Vladimir Putin. We have not received an answer yet and we very much hope that this is not a refusal of dialogue," said Mendel.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had not seen such a request for talks "in recent days" and was unaware one had been recently made.

When asked if Putin had anything to say to Zelenskiy, Peskov said he hoped that what he called "political wisdom" would prevail in Kyiv when it came to de-escalating and avoiding a potential war.

Mendel said Russia had massed more than 40,000 troops on Ukraine's eastern border and more than 40,000 troops in Crimea.

Those figures are higher than those previously disclosed by the head of Ukraine's armed forces to parliament in March.

Zelenskiy is due to head to Paris for talks on Russia's troop build-up and the escalating conflict in Donbass, she added.

A meeting between Zelenskiy and French President Emmanuel Macron is expected by the end of this week.

Ukraine fears the Kremlin is engineering a crisis to rally Russians around a foreign enemy ahead of parliamentary elections in September and shift the narrative away from domestic irritants such as jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny, its security chief told Reuters last week.

Putin on Friday accused Ukraine of "dangerous provocative actions" in the Donbass region. The Kremlin says Russia is free to move forces around its own territory as it sees fit for defensive purposes.

The standoff has sparked concern from Ukraine's Western backers. Washington and the NATO alliance have accused Russia of a "provocative" build-up.

Zelenskiy has spoken of the need for NATO to admit Ukraine, a step Russia, citing its own security concerns, opposes.

"On the one hand, you cannot panic, on the other hand, you need to understand that Russia has shown more than once that it can invade different countries," Mendel said.

(Reporting by Ilya Zhegulev; writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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