President Vladimir Putin says "Russophobia" in eastern Ukraine, where Kiev's army and pro-Russian separatists are locked in bitter fighting since 2014, "is the first step towards genocide."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the conflict in eastern Ukraine between Kiev's army and pro-Russian separatists "looks like genocide", as the US discussed ways to provide security, financial and political support to Ukraine.
"I have to say that Russophobia is the first step towards genocide," the Russian leader said on Thursday.
"You and I know what is happening in Donbass," referring to the conflict zone in the east of the country, adding that: "It certainly looks like genocide."
Putin was responding to a query on discrimination against Russian speakers beyond Russia's borders.
Putin has previously made similar comparisons about the war in eastern Ukraine including in 2015 and 2019.
Most people in Ukraine speak both Ukrainian and Russian, though regions in the south and east, and some in the centre, are predominantly Russian-speaking and have traditionally been more Russia-friendly.
A popular uprising in Ukraine forced a Moscow-backed regime out of office in 2014.
Since then Moscow has annexed Crimea and Kiev's forces are locked in conflict with separatists supported by Russia in the east of Ukraine. The fighting there has cost some 13,000 lives so far.
Biden gives Ukraine reassurances
Also on Thursday, US President Joe Biden phoned the leaders of Ukraine and nine eastern European NATO allies, promising support if Russia attacks Ukraine, as well as severe economic sanctions against Moscow.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked Biden for his "strong support" and tweeted that they'd spent 90 minutes on the phone.
Zelensky said that Biden briefed him on his Tuesday video summit with Russian President Putin and they "discussed possible formats for resolving the conflict" in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have carved out a self-declared state.
The White House said that after Zelenskyy, Biden spent 40 minutes talking to the leaders of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia –– all of which, unlike Ukraine, have joined NATO in the wake of the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The calls came as the United States and European partners are pressuring Putin to step back from Ukraine, where nearly 100,000 Russian troops have massed on the border.
Western and Ukrainian officials say they fear Russia is preparing an even larger scale invasion.
Putin says Russia has no intention of invading but is adopting a defensive posture out of alarm that Ukraine is getting too close to the Western NATO military alliance.
READ MORE: Why Ukraine matters to Russia so much