"Russian Troop Movements and Talk of Intervention Cause Jitters in Ukraine"
On Friday, Russian officials claimed that recent troop buildups near Ukraine's border and on the occupied Crimean Peninsula were a reaction to provocations from Kyiv.
Kremlin and Foreign Ministry spokespeople cited fears of a civil war or even the possibility of a genocidal attack on Russian-speaking minorities in Ukraine as well as "provocative actions" by Kyiv as motivation for the unusual troop movements.
"The Kremlin has fears that a civil war could resume in Ukraine," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday, reacting to statements by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. "If a civil war — a full-scale military action — resumes near our borders that would threaten the Russian Federation's security," he said.
Peskov also repeated a common Kremlin response on the issue of its troop presence near Ukraine's border: that Russia has the right to move troops within its borders however it sees fit.
In a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, Merkel had "called for the removal of these troop reinforcements in order to achieve a de-escalation of the situation."
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also held consultations with fellow foreign ministers Heiko Maas of Germany and Jean-Yves Le Drian of France on Friday, according to the US State Department.
In separate calls, 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," said State Department Spokesman Ned Price; while Blinken and Maas, "emphasized the importance of supporting Ukraine against unilateral Russian provocations."
When asked about a statement in which Dmitry Kozak — Russia's top negotiator with Kyiv — expressed fears of a massacre like the one that took place in Srebrenica in 1995 during the Bosnian War, Peskov claimed nationalist rhetoric in Ukraine was inflaming hatred against the Russian-speaking population of the east.
Officials in Ukraine and in the West have raised concerns in recent weeks about increasingly frequent ceasefire violations in the Donbas region — where much of the fighting has taken place since 2014. Though combat has decreased in recent years, more than 14,000 people have died in the conflict, and efforts to negotiate a political settlement have proved unfruitful.
The roots of the conflict go back to March 2014, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea. Pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych had fled the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in February, after massive street demonstrations and clashes.
Russia's military intervention sparked a major rift with Western nations, prompting the European Union and the US to impose sanctions on Russia.
A month later, Russian-backed rebels in the mainly Russian-speaking Donbas seized much of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Western governments and Nato accused Russia of sending regular troops over the border into Ukraine, but Russia maintains any Russian fighters there are "volunteers".
Ukraine's President Zelensky came to power promising to bring about peace, and a ceasefire was signed last July. Both sides have since accused each other of violating it.