Tensions between Russia and Ukraine are at their highest in years, with NATO and the Kremlin now entering a tit-for-tat ratcheting rhetoric of bellicose "warnings" - and Joe Biden has yet to even pick up the phone and speak to Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky... until today.
Axios is reporting Friday mid-morning the two leaders belatedly held their first phone call since Biden taking office: "It took more than two months for Biden to speak directly with the president of Ukraine, a key frontline partner in eastern Europe that has been pleading for more help from the West in its fight against Russian aggression."
The White House call readout emphasized Biden expressing the United States' "unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas and Crimea."
"He emphasized his administration’s commitment to revitalize our strategic partnership in support of President Zelensky’s plan to tackle corruption and implement a reform agenda based on our shared democratic values that delivers justice, security, and prosperity to the people of Ukraine."
The two also spoke of "Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations" — language which will no doubt smack of suggesting a future invitation to join NATO, which would certainly trigger greater conflict in the region with Russia.
Biden's reference to Russian "ongoing aggression" is likely to fan the flames amid increased fighting in the restive Donbass region on the same day the Kremlin put NATO on notice, warning that any NATO troop deployment would result in immediate counter-action from Russia to ensure its own security and interests, as Reuters noted earlier in the day.
Reuters is meanwhile reporting that Zelensky told Biden that the Ukrainian Army is ready to retaliate in Donbass.
Muscle-flexing in the form of military exercises on the border with #Ukraine is an attempt to put pressure in the negotiations on ceasefire and peace as our value. We are always ready for provocations. 🇺🇦 army is not only strength and power, but also wisdom and balance.— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) April 1, 2021
Here's more context of where things stand, according to Axios, after Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that a "frightening" escalation is happing in Donetsk following the deaths of four Ukrainian soldiers last week:
Zelensky accused Russia of amassing troops at the border with the intent of creating "a threatening atmosphere" in violation of the most recent ceasefire brokered in July 2020, describing the military exercises as "traditional Russian games."
Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement on Wednesday noting that he had spoken with Ukraine's foreign minister and condemned Russia's aggression.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan have also held phone calls with their Ukrainian counterparts, Politico reports.
Just prior to Friday's belated White House phone call with Zelensky, Axios' Jonathan Swan observed the cold shoulder toward Kiev seemed intentional and based on appeasing the Russians...
Not to mention ... President Biden didn't invite Ukraine to the climate summit. Notable invitees included one Vladimir Putin. .. Extraordinary snub for a supposed ally at a time Russia is escalating.— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) April 1, 2021
Meanwhile, there's been more confirmation that a major Russian forces build-up is indeed underway along the border with Ukraine, also through dozens of social media videos out of the region, at a moment Zelensky has charged that Moscow is behind the bloody escalation in Donbass.