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Photo: Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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.

Behind the scenes: "The Ukrainian side is very pleased with the call and sincerely believe President Biden prioritizes restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity and its Western integration," a source close to Zelensky told Axios' Jonathan Swan.

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 condemned Russia's 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

Go deeper

Mar 31, 2021 - World

U.S. affirms "unwavering support" for Kyiv amid rising Ukraine-Russia tensions

Ukrainian soldiers loading a machine gun in a trench in the Donetsk region on February 19. Photo: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Wednesday to affirm the United States’ "unwavering support" for Kyiv amid a rise of Russian-backed separatist aggression in eastern Ukraine.

Driving the news: The war in eastern Ukraine, ongoing since 2014, escalated after the Ukrainian military said four of its soldiers were killed during a battle against Russian-backed separatists on March 26, the New York Times reports.

2 hours ago - World

Biden adviser warns "there will be consequences" for Russia if Navalny dies

The Biden administration warned the Russian government "that there will be consequences" if jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny dies, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN on Sunday.

The big picture: Sullivan also defended President Biden for not mentioning Navalny in a Thursday speech about Russia or in a Tuesday call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying the White House aims to deal with the issue "privately and through diplomatic channels."

3 killed, 2 wounded overnight in Kenosha bar shooting

Three people died and two were hospitalized with serious injuries after a gunman entered bar in Kenosha County, Wisconsin, the police department said in a statement on Sunday. Police responded to the shooting at around 12:42 a.m. and the suspect has not been found.

The big picture: The midnight shooting is the latest in a string of deadly mass shootings to hit the U.S. since March, fueling a debate in Washington about how to regulate the weapons.

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