Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky. FILE PHOTO: Reuters
Kyiv , Ukraine — President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday called on Western leaders to avoid stirring "panic" as Ukraine faces a Russian troop buildup on the border that has sparked fears of an invasion.
His plea came just after a phone call between French President Emmanuel Macron and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who confirmed there was appetite for more negotiations to de-escalate ratcheting tensions.
Russia denies any plans to invade but has demanded wide-ranging security guarantees from the West, including that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO.
Those demands have been the subject of intensive negotiations, with the West warning of far-reaching consequences if diplomacy fails and Russia attacks.
"We don't need this panic," Zelensky told a news conference with foreign media, insisting he wanted to avoid hurting his country's already battered economy.
"There are signals even from respected leaders of states, they just say that tomorrow there will be war. This is panic — how much does it cost for our state?," he asked.
NATO and the United States this week delivered responses to Moscow's demands, which Putin told Macron on Friday had fallen short of Russia's expectations, the Kremlin said.
"The US and NATO responses did not take into account Russia's fundamental concerns including preventing NATO's expansion," Putin said, according to the Kremlin's readout of the call.
He added that the West had ignored the "key question," that no country should strengthen its security at the expense of others, adding Russia would "carefully study" the responses "after which it will decide on further actions".
A French official said the Russian leader had "expressed no offensive plans and said he wanted to continue the talks with France and our allies."
In a sign of tensions however Russia announced Friday evening it had added several EU officials to a list of people banned from entering the country saying they were responsible for "anti-Russian policies."
'Dialogue' with separatists
Friday's phone call followed what the Elysee described as "positive" talks in Paris this week between Russia and Ukraine — as well as France and Germany.
The meetings produced the first joint written statement on the conflict in eastern Ukraine signed up to by Moscow and Kyiv since 2019.
Representatives agreed to preserve a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine — where pro-Moscow separatists declared breakaway regions — and to hold new talks in Berlin in February.
Putin on Friday told Macron it was important for Ukrainian authorities to establish "direct dialogue" with separatist leaders.
"Taking into account the results of the meeting" in Paris, the Kremlin said, "the mood for further work of Russia and France in this format was confirmed."
Zelensky on Friday meanwhile called on Russia to prove it has no intention of invading after deploying an estimated 100,000 troops around the ex-Soviet country.
"They say this openly, in different media, from different officials — so they could at least show some steps to prove it," he said.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned Russia could conduct a "wide range" of aggressive acts against Ukraine — citing cyber attacks and "coup efforts" — but said the window was still open to a peaceful and negotiated resolution.
Russia's demands, delivered last month, include the ban on NATO membership for Ukraine but also a pullback of NATO forces deployed to Eastern European and ex-Soviet countries that joined the alliance after the Cold War.
Washington replied in coordination with NATO allies this week, saying Ukraine had the right to determine its own allies but offering Russia talks on missile placements and other mutual concerns.
Threat to key pipeline
In tandem with the diplomacy, the West has upped its threats of possible action in response to an invasion, with the United States and Germany warning that a major gas pipeline was at stake.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which Germany has defiantly built despite criticism by the United States and Eastern Europeans, will more than double supplies of Russian natural gas to Europe's largest economy.
US President Joe Biden spoke Thursday by telephone with Zelensky and said the United States was considering economic support after $650 million in military assistance over the past year.
Ukrainian officials have looked to play down fears of an invasion, but have welcomed Western shows of support.
NATO has put 8,500 troops on standby over the Ukraine crisis and Western backers have stepped up shipments of military aid to the country.
Russia, which has a fraught historical relationship with Ukraine, has fuelled an insurgency in the former Soviet republic's east that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.
That year Russia also seized Crimea after the overthrow of a pro-Russian government in Kyiv, sparking widespread Western condemnation and sanctions.
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