Kremlin says it fears full-scale fighting in Ukraine's east

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Ukrainian Presidential Press Office

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits the war-hit Donbas region, eastern Ukraine, Friday, April 9, 2021. Ukraine's president is visiting the area of conflict in his country's east amid an escalation of tensions that has raised fears of a resumption of large-scale hostilities. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

MOSCOW – The Kremlin said Friday it fears a resumption of full-scale fighting in eastern Ukraine and could take steps to protect Russian civilians there, a stark warning that comes amid a Russian troop build-up along the border.

The statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, reflected the Kremlin’s determination to prevent Ukraine from using force to try to retake control over separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine's military chief dismissed the Russian claims that the country's armed forces are preparing for an attack on the rebel east.

Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists have been fighting in eastern Ukraine since shortly after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. More than 14,000 people have died in the conflict, and efforts to negotiate a political settlement have stalled.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of sending in troops and weapons to help separatists, accusations that Moscow has denied. The White House says Russia now has more troops on its border with Ukraine than at any time since 2014.

Russia also claimed that it had to protect Russian-speakers in Crimea when it sent troops into the Black Sea peninsula and then annexed it in March 2014 following a hastily-called public vote.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Friday after visiting troops in the east that 26 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed so far this year. Increasingly frequent breaches of a July truce agreement mean that “we again face the need to establish a cease-fire,” Zelenskyy said.

The separatist authorities in Donetsk said 20 troops and 2 civilians have been killed this year.