German Chancellor Angela Merkel has told Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back the Kremlin's military build-up near the border with Ukraine as he in turn accused officials in Kyiv of "provocative actions" in the conflict region.
Ukraine has raised the alarm over an increase in Russian forces near its eastern border as violence has risen along the line of contact separating its troops from Russian-backed separatists in its Donbass region.
"The Chancellor demanded that this build-up be unwound in order to de-escalate the situation," Germany's government said in a readout of a telephone call between Merkel and Putin.
Russia has said its forces pose no threat and are defensive.
The Kremlin dismissed a Ukrainian accusation that the build-up was intended to distract from domestic issues, including jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, ahead of September parliamentary elections.
"This has nothing to do with any detainees or anyone," Dmitry Peskov told Reuters.
Russia has to react with caution when it has "such a restless region as Ukraine near our borders with the potential for renewed hostilities", he added.
A senior Kremlin official said on Thursday that Moscow could under certain circumstances be forced to defend its citizens in Donbass and that major hostilities could mark the beginning of the end of Ukraine as a country.
The Kremlin said in its readout of the Merkel phone call that "Vladimir Putin noted provocative actions by Kyiv which is deliberately inflaming the situation along the line of contact".
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy flew to eastern Donbass in a show of support on Thursday two days after he called on NATO to lay out a path for Ukraine to join the military bloc, whose expansion Russia fiercely opposes.
Australian Associated Press