Pope Francis has voiced concern over Russia's military mobilization near the border with Ukraine and called for efforts to ease tensions between the two countries.
In remarks to the public gathered in the Vatican's St. Peter's Square on Sunday, the Supreme Pontiff said he observed the military buildup in western Russia with "great apprehension".
“Please," he said, "I strongly hope that an increase of tensions is avoided, and that on the contrary, gestures are made capable of promoting reciprocal trust and favouring the reconciliation and peace which are so necessary and so desired.
“Take to heart the grave humanitarian situation facing the population, to whom I express my closeness and for whom I invite prayers."
In recent weeks Russia has deployed 41,000 troops near the border with eastern Ukraine and another 42,000 troops in Crimea.
The military mobilization has been described by the US and NATO as the largest in the area since the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
For its part, Russia has said the buildup is part of "readiness drills" organized in response to what it claimed were ongoing threats from NATO and "provocations" from Ukraine.
Despite this, the Russian presidency said it had "positively" received an invitation by US President Joe Biden for a bilateral meeting.
The Russian and American leaders had spoken spoke on the phone earlier in the week. According to the White House, Biden had "emphasised the United States' unwavering commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Macron hints at possible fresh sanctions
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris and held a virtual conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the situation on Friday.
Following the meeting, in an interview with American broadcaster CBS that aired on Sunday, Macron said that while dialogue with Russia was essential, “clear red lines” carrying possible sanctions must also be drawn with Moscow over Ukraine.
“We will never accept new military operations on Ukrainian soil,” he said. "I think after an unacceptable behavior, indeed, we have to sanction, and I think we have to define clear red lines with Russia. This is the only way to be credible."
However, he added: “I think that sanctions are not sufficient in themselves, but sanctions are part of the package.”