WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump said he was willing to work with both Kiev and Moscow to resolve a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, following a telephone call with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko last Saturday.
The call was the first direct contact between the two leaders since the inauguration of Mr Trump, whose aim to improve relations with the Kremlin has alarmed Kiev while the nearly three-year-old conflict remains unresolved.
It followed fresh artillery attacks in Ukraine's Donbass region that broke a lull in shelling at a front-line hot spot that had raised hopes that the conflict's worst escalation in months was waning.
"We will work with Ukraine, Russia and all other parties involved to help them restore peace along the border," Mr Trump said in a statement after the phone call.
Mr Trump's open admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and a campaign pledge to mend ties with Moscow have raised questions about his administration's commitment to maintaining sanctions against Russia for its involvement in the fighting and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Mr Poroshenko's office said the conversation with Mr Trump paid particular attention to "settlement of the situation in the Donbass and achieving peace via political and diplomatic means".
"The two sides discussed strengthening the strategic partnership between Ukraine and the United States," it said in a statement.
Earlier, the Ukrainian military and Russia-backed separatists accused each other of launching a new wave of shelling. The past week has seen a flare-up in hostilities in which more than 40 people have been killed in both government- and rebel-held areas.
The escalation near the town of Avdiyivka has left thousands on both sides of the front line with little or no power or water amid freezing winter temperatures, prompting aid agencies to warn of a possible humanitarian crisis.
The US and European Union sanctions are linked to accusations from Kiev and Nato that the Kremlin had fuelled the conflict by supporting separatists with troops and weapons - a charge it denies.
Russia says Ukraine instigated the latest surge to firm up Western support, while Kiev accuses the Kremlin of stirring up violence to test the new US administration's will to involve itself in the crisis.
Mr Trump said his respect for Mr Putin would not affect his foreign policy. "I respect a lot of people but that doesn't mean I'm going to get along with him. He's a leader of his country. I say it's better to get along with Russia than not," Mr Trump said in an interview with Fox News host Bill O'Reilly last Saturday.
In the interview, Mr Trump doubled down on his "respect" for Mr Putin - even in the face of accusations that Mr Putin and his associates had murdered journalists and dissidents in Russia. Mr O'Reilly pressed on, declaring to the President that "Putin is a killer". Unfazed, Mr Trump did not back away. "There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers," he said. "Well, you think our country is so innocent?"
The exchange surfaced last Saturday night in an excerpt from the interview to be broadcast before the Super Bowl yesterday.
Mr Trump has long expressed his admiration for Mr Putin's strength. But his willingness to seemingly draw a moral equivalence to actions by Mr Putin, who has brutally suppressed dissent by eliminating political enemies, led to an eruption on social media. Many asked how conservatives would have reacted had former president Barack Obama, or other Democrats, compared US actions to Mr Putin's.