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Biden holds first call with Ukraine's Zelensky as Russia tensions escalate

President Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday for the first time since taking office, as U.S. and NATO officials warn of a Russian military buildup near eastern Ukraine that could ignite the long-simmering conflict, according to the White House.

Why it matters: 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.

  • Zelensky was dragged into U.S. domestic politics in 2019 with the first impeachment of Donald Trump, who attempted to pressure the Ukrainian president into investigating Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, over unsubstantiated allegations of corruption.
  • Biden is deeply familiar with Ukraine, having led international anti-corruption efforts there as part of the Obama administration's push to bring the troubled country closer to Europe and away from hostile Russia.

What they're saying: The White House said Biden "affirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression," and that the two leaders discussed the importance of anti-corruption reforms in Ukraine.

Driving the news: Four Ukrainian soldiers were killed by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine this week, the deadliest flare-up this year in a slow-moving conflict that first broke out in 2014.

  • 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 reaffirming the administration's "unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing 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.

The big picture: Relations between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have gotten off to a frosty start, with the U.S. rolling out sanctions against senior Russian officials in March for the poisoning and detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

  • The Biden administration is also expected to sanction Russia for the massive SolarWinds hack of U.S. agencies.
  • Moscow recalled its ambassador to Washington for "consultations" last month after Biden called Putin a "killer" in an interview, prompting Putin to challenge the U.S. president to a debate.

Go deeper: Zelensky calls Capitol riots "strong blow" to U.S. democracy in Axios interview

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