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KYIV -President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on NATO on Tuesday to lay out a path for Ukraine to join the Western military alliance, after days in which Russia has massed troops near the conflict-hit Donbass region.
Zelenskiy's comments drew an immediate rebuke from Moscow, which said Kyiv's approach to NATO could further inflame the situation in Donbass, where violence has increased in recent days.
The restrained response to Zelinskiy's request by the United States - which has strongly supported Ukraine as it faces the Russian military buildup - suggested a desire to avoid unnecessarily antagonizing the Kremlin any further.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted that Ukraine has long aspired to joining NATO and that Washington and Kyiv have been discussing the issue.
State Department spokesman Ned Price restated U.S. policy of supporting an "open door" to NATO for countries meeting "the standard for membership." But Ukraine, he said, still must "implement the ... reforms necessary to build a more stable, democratic, prosperous and free country."
A Pentagon spokesman declined to answer when asked at a briefing to comment on Zelenskiy's request. But hours later, the Pentagon released a statement noting that the alliance in 2018 reaffirmed a decision that Ukraine "will" become a member, adding that any questions on the matter be addressed to NATO.
Russian-backed separatists have fought since 2014 against Ukrainian forces in the Donbass, a conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people. Kyiv reported two more soldiers killed on Tuesday and, in a separate statement, Zelenskiy said 24 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since the start of the year.
"NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbass," Zelenskiy told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a phone call, according to a statement from Zelenskiy's office. A Membership Action Plan laying out Ukraine's entry path into the alliance "will be a real signal for Russia", he said.
He also called for NATO members to strengthen their military presence in the Black Sea region.
Stoltenberg in a tweet expressed "serious concern about Russia's military activities in and around Ukraine & ongoing ceasefire violations".
Ukraine has launched a diplomatic offensive to shore up support from Western countries and NATO in its standoff with Russia over Donbass, sounding the alarm since late March over the build-up of Russian troops. Russia says the troop movements are defensive and that NATO involvement would inflame the situation.
The standoff has also pushed Ukrainian sovereign bonds to their lowest level since November.
KREMLIN SAYS RHETORIC COULD INFLAME
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said those living in eastern Ukraine would not accept NATO membership, and that rhetoric could further destabilise the Donbass region.