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Russian, U.S. defense chiefs discuss Ukraine

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's defense minister expressed concern about what he called an unprecedented increase in U.S. and NATO military activity near Russia's borders and urged U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to help "turn down the rhetoric" over the Ukraine crisis.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu held a "candid" hour-long telephone conversation with Hagel and the men agreed to remain in contact, the Russian ministry said in a statement that suggested no other agreement emerged from the call.

Russia has massed forces near Ukraine's border after annexing the Crimea region and reserved the right to send them in to protect Russian-speakers, raising fears in the West that Moscow could invade to support separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Shoigu told Hagel that Russian forces which had further alarmed the West by starting drills near the border last week after Ukraine launched an operation against the separatists had since returned to their permanent positions, the ministry said.

But it gave no indication of whether the overall number of Russian troops deployed near the Ukrainian border, which NATO has put at about 40,000, along with tanks, aircraft and other equipment, had been reduced.

Shoigu said there had been an "unprecedented" increase in activity by U.S. and NATO armed forces near Russia's borders, accompanied by "anti-Russian hysteria" in the Western media.

(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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