Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has ambitions for the former Soviet state to join the NATO alliance / © AFP/File
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday called for a summit with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and a new ceasefire, as France and Germany urged Moscow to pull back troops after a build-up on borders raised fears the Kremlin was planning to invade Ukraine.
French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Zelensky for talks in Paris -- later joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel by video conference -- in a show of support for his pro-Western government in the face of Moscow's assertive stance.
The tensions have escalated seven years after the 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea by Moscow and declaration of breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists prompted the worst decline in ties between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
Putin and Zelensky last met face-to-face in Paris in December 2019 for meeting hosted by Macron, and also attended by Merkel, which was credited with helping to reduce tensions in subsequent months.
"I want to get the four of us" together to discuss "the issue of the security situation in eastern Ukraine and the de-occupation of our territories," Zelensky said at the Ukrainian embassy in Paris after the talks.
The leaders of France and Germany have been mediators in the conflict since 2015 in the so-called Normandy format and have been overseeing a fragile ceasefire.
Zelensky said he hoped a ceasefire could be restored after a meeting of senior advisors from the four countries scheduled for Monday.
Merkel's spokesman said in a statement that the three leaders had "shared concerns about the build-up of Russian troops".
"They called for the reduction of these troop reinforcements in order to bring about a deescalation of the situation," he added.
Map of Ukraine locating regions under separatist control and the Crimea, annexed by Russia. / © AFP
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had urged Merkel and Macron to tell Kiev to "decisively stop any provocative actions on the contact line and emphasise the need for an unconditional observance of the ceasefire regime".
- 'Same family' -
In recent weeks Moscow has amassed tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine's northern and eastern borders, as well as in annexed Crimea.
A fresh bout of clashes in eastern Ukraine effectively ended a ceasefire agreed last July that ushered in a period of relative calm to the conflict.
The fighting, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives, has seen 28 Ukrainian soldiers killed since the start of the year compared to 50 in all of 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron are pictured with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena Zelenska in Paris / © AFP
Ukraine, where a pro-Kremlin president was ousted in a popular uprising in 2014, has made clear its ambition to join NATO, in statements that have riled the Kremlin.
"We cannot stay indefinitely in the EU and NATO waiting room," Zelensky told French daily Le Figaro in an interview ahead of his visit.
"If we belong to the same family, we must live together. We cannot go out together forever, like eternal fiances, we must legalise our relations."
France's Europe Minister Clement Beaune however emphasised that supporting Ukraine was not the same as giving it EU membership, "which is not a serious prospect".
- 'Alter stakes' -
The situation in eastern Ukraine comes against the background of a new spike in tensions between Moscow and Washington as new US President Joe Biden seeks a tougher line against Putin.
The US on Thursday announced sanctions and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats in retaliation for what the White House says is the Kremlin's US election interference, a massive cyber attack and other hostile activity.
Russia said Friday it would expel US diplomats and sanction US officials in response while recommending the US envoy leaves Russia "for consultations".
Biden on Wednesday had proposed a summit with Putin -- an offer that Russia is still considering. Finland has said it is prepared to host such a meeting.
Meanwhile both Europe and the United States have expressed disgust over the jailing of opposition figure Alexei Navalny in a prison camp after he returned to Russia from Germany, after what the West says was an attempted assassination using the Russian nerve agent Novichok.
Some observers have cast the escalation as an attempt by both Moscow and Kiev to test Biden to see how far he is willing to go to defend Washington's ally and confront Russia.
Zelensky, a former comic actor elected in 2019 on the back of promises to win a fair peace, is under immense pressure from nationalists at home to take a tough line against Russia.
"There is little doubt that Russia is pulling together an assault force capable of invading Ukraine," Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in a research note.
He said Moscow did not appear to be planning "an all-out invasion of Ukraine" but said it was more plausible "Russia will engage in other forms of limited escalation to alter the stakes of the war in Ukraine".