The security situation in eastern Ukraine has hit a new low as Russia concentrated significant military forces near the Ukrainian border and refused to extend a moribund ceasefire in Donbas.

Fiery Russian rhetoric and concerns about the possibility of an all-out war prompted the U.S. Department of Defense on April 1 to restate its commitment “not to leave Ukraine alone” in case of a large-scale invasion by Russia.

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According to Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, the ongoing escalation “is systemic and the largest in recent years.”

“With its actions, Russia has led the situation into a deadlock,” the official said in an April 1 statement.

“The only way out is diplomacy. Moscow must stop fueling the military frenzy and immediately and explicitly confirm its commitment to a diplomatic settlement and ceasefire.”

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke by phone on April 1 with Ukrainian Minister of Defense Andrii Taran to discuss the regional security situation, according to a U.S. Defense Department readout.

“Secretary Austin reaffirmed unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. He condemned recent escalations of Russian aggressive and provocative actions in eastern Ukraine and offered condolences to Minister Taran on the deaths of four Ukrainian soldiers on March 26.”

“Secretary Austin reiterated the U.S. commitment to building the capacity of Ukraine’s forces to defend more effectively against Russian aggression. Since 2014, the United States has committed more than $2 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, including a recently announced $125 million package that featured defensive weapons and other key capabilities to enhance the lethality, command, and control, and situational awareness of Ukraine’s Armed Forces. Minister Taran expressed gratitude for the open dialogue and continued support.”

The crisis escalated in late March when Ukraine’s commander-in-chief Ruslan Khomchak told parliament that Russia was expected to mass nearly 25 new battalion task groups in addition to the 28 that are already deployed near the Ukrainian border and in occupied Donbas. Russia’s assets include 28,000 militants and 2,000 Russian instructors in Donbas and 32,700 regular troops in Crimea.

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According to Ukraine’s top commander, the Russian buildup, in light of its Zapad-2021 strategic drills with Belarus, “poses a threat to the military security” of Ukraine.

Russian troops are pictured in a joint convoy with Turkish troops (unseen) patrolling in oil fields near the town of al-Qahtaniyah, in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province close to the Turkish border, on Feb. 4, 2021. (AFP)

On April 1, Ukraine’s military intelligence also asserted that Russia was considering an armed provocation in Donbas to create an excuse for an intervention to “protect Russian citizens” in the conflict zone.

According to Ukraine’s delegation to the Minsk peace talks, Russia also refused to declare yet another ceasefire in Donbas after a series of armed clashes resulted in Ukrainian fatalities.

Later on April 1, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying that “any attempts to start a new military conflict in Ukraine’s war-torn east could end up destroying Ukraine.”

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According to the official, the confrontation between Moscow and the West has recently reached its nadir, although he expressed a hope that “everybody understands the risks entailed by further escalation of tensions.”

In his own address on April 1, President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of “flexing its muscles” near Ukrainian borders.

“It tries to create a threatening environment and, at the same time, put pressure on negotiations concerning a ceasefire… Our military is not only about power and might. It is also about wisdom and reason. Our nation is unity. We’re always ready for any provocations.”

Tanks of Russian-backed separatists ride on the road from Donetsk to Novoazovsk, Mariupol district on Feb. 24, 2015. (AFP)

Earlier, on March 31, the senior U.S. Armed Forces commander Mark Milley spoke with his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts. According to the U.S. military, the top generals “exchanged their views on issues of mutual concern.”

The troubling events last week prompted the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) to raise its threat monitoring for Ukraine to its highest level.

Numerous Ukrainian media outlets on April 1 misinterpreted the announcement to mean that the U.S. military is imposing combat readiness in Europe, fueling public fears.

In reality, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, changes in the so-called WATCHCON scale only concern vigilance about “a potential threat and the ability to provide future warnings.”

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“We’re discussing our concerns about this increase in tensions and ceasefire violations and regional tensions with NATO allies,” Kirby said on March 31.

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