France, Germany, Ukraine call for Russian troops withdrawal

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In this photo released by Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy leads a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, April 15, 2021. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is heading Friday to Paris to discuss the tensions with French President Emmanuel Macron. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

PARIS (AP) — The leaders of France and Germany are demanding the withdrawal of Russian troop reinforcements recently deployed at the border with Ukraine, the German chancellor’s office said Friday after the two heads of state held security talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Zelenskyy met Friday in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined them by teleconference. The Ukrainian president is trying to rally backing from the European Union and NATOamid growing tensions between his country and neighboring Russia.

Merkel’s office said the three discussed “the security situation along the Ukrainian-Russian border, as well as in eastern Ukraine. They shared their concerns about the buildup of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine … They demanded the withdrawal of these troop reinforcements so as to achieve a de-escalation of the situation.”

Macron and Merkel underlined their support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, according to French and German officials.

The talks come as Ukraine and the West have sounded alarms in recent weeks about the concentration of troops along Russia’s western border, a buildup that the U.S. and NATO have described as the largest there since 2014. Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists have been fighting in eastern Ukraine for seven years.

“We’re hoping that the visit of President Zelenskyy will enable giving a new momentum” to negotiations with both Russia and Ukraine and ultimately to a political solution to the conflict, a French official at the French presidency said, speaking on condition of anonymity after the meeting.

“We seek to understand positions and tensions and see how we can figure out the narrow paths between the (different) views,” the official said.

France and Germany, which helped broker a peace deal that was signed in February 2015 in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, are working on preparing for more talks involving the leaders of Ukraine and Russia.

Their last meeting, which took place in Paris in December 2019, helped ease tensions but failed to make any progress on a political resolution that would end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Zelenskyy called on France and Germany for action. “They always support our integrity, our sovereignty … But I said very directly and very honestly that we need now to move very quickly,” the Ukrainian leader said during a news conference.

“I think it’s not only our problem, that it’s about the safety of Europe,” Zelenskyy said.

Commenting on a potential meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Zelenskyy said: “When there is a dialogue, the canons are silent.”

“I think it could help resolving some issues … When such important countries don’t talk, others suffer,” he added.

In a call with Putin this week, Biden voiced concern over the Russian buildup and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions. The Biden administration on Thursday raised pressure on Russia, announcing an array of new sanctions.

More than 14,000 people have died in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, which erupted after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Violations of a shaky truce have become increasingly frequent in recent weeks.

The Kremlin said it hoped Macron and Merkel would persuade Zelenskyy to observe the cease-fire agreement and implement a 2015 peace deal for eastern Ukraine that was signed in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

The Kremlin expects the French and German leaders to “use their influence and convey the need to resolutely stop any provocative actions along the line of control and emphasize the importance of the unconditional observation of the cease-fire,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said Friday.

Maj. Gen. Victor Hanushchyak, deputy commander of Ukraine’s Joint Forces Operation in the country’s east, said the likely goal of Russia’s recent actions is “to intensify efforts to prevent the reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories” under separatist control.

Despite what he described as increased shelling along the front line and a military buildup from the Russia-backed side, Hanushchyak said “there have been no signs of direct preparation of the enemy for active offensive actions.”

In the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka, close to the frontline with the separatist-controlled territory, Vitaly Barabash, head of the local military-civilian administration, told the AP Friday that “people hear shots, it does not pass by, people are a little scared … but there is no panic.”

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AP Journalists Dmytro in Avdiivka, Ukraine, and Frank Jordans in Berlin, Germany contributed to the story.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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