Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel “expressed concern” over a spike in tensions in east Ukraine and discussed jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny in a phone call on Thursday, the Kremlin said.
The call came as clashes between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian forces have increased in recent weeks and a Russian military buildup on the border heightened fears of an escalation in the conflict.
“The President of Russia and the Chancellor of Germany expressed concern over the escalation of tensions in the southeast of Ukraine,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
“Vladimir Putin drew attention to the provocative actions of Kiev, which has recently been purposefully exacerbating the situation on the frontline,” it added.
Earlier Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy traveled to the eastern frontline. He has in recent days appealed to his country’s Western allies for support.
The conflict broke out in 2014 after Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula and has claimed more than 13,000 lives.
Kiev and the West have accused Russia of supporting the separatists with weapons and troops. Moscow has repeatedly denied those claims.
Peace talks mediated by France and Germany since 2015 have failed to end the fighting.
While the Kremlin has not denied its recent troop movements on Ukraine’s border, it has insisted that Moscow is posing no threat.
In their call Thursday, the Russian and German leaders also broached the subject of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who went on hunger strike last week demanding proper treatment for back pain and numbness in his legs.
The two leaders also discussed the conflict in Syria and the political crisis in Libya.
Putin, Macron Call for ‘Complete’ Halt to Karabakh Fighting
Russian President Vladimir Putin and French leader Emmanuel Macron called for a “complete” halt to fighting in Karabakh and said they were ready to intensify diplomatic efforts to help solve the conflict.
“Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron called on the warring sides to halt fire completely and as soon as possible, de-escalate tensions and show maximum restraint,” the Kremlin said.
In a telephone conversation that came at Macron’s initiative, the two leaders discussed “concrete parameters of further cooperation, first and foremost within the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
The leaders expressed “readiness” to see a statement made on behalf of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group — Russia, France and the U.S. — that would call for an “immediate” end to fighting and start of talks, the Kremlin added.
Putin also told Macron that any attempts to meddle in affairs of a third country were “unacceptable” as the two discussed Belarus, the Kremlin said.
Putin noted Russia’s “principled position” that “any attempts to interfere in internal affairs of a sovereign state and outside pressure on legitimate authorities are unacceptable,” the Kremlin said.
The phone call between the two leaders came after Macron met Belarusian opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Vilnius on Tuesday. The Kremlin statement made no mention of the meeting.
Belarus has seen weeks of protests following an election in which strongman Alexander Lukashenko was declared a landslide winner but the opposition says was rigged.
France under Macron has pursued a policy of dialogue with Russia, a position that has sometimes put him at odds with EU allies.
But it has recently started to match Berlin’s tougher rhetoric, with the French foreign ministry describing the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny as a “criminal act.”
Last week, the French daily Le Monde reported that in a phone call when Macron demanded that Putin shed light on the incident, the Russian leader had suggested that Navalny may have taken the poison himself “for a non-specified reason.”