How Putin will take Ukraine': MoD reveal 'Russia's battle plan'

‘How Putin will take Ukraine’: MoD reveals Moscow’s ‘battle plan’ as US warns of ‘moment of peril’ but Russia denies it will launch a false flag chemical weapons attack before an invasion – and insists their troops are retreating

  • Ministry of Defence has published ‘Putin’s battle plan’ showing possible routes of attack for Russian soldiers 
  • US has warned that Russia’s Vladimir Putin might launch a chemical weapons attack before invading Ukraine
  • Russia dramatically upped price of de-escalating the Ukraine crisis, all-but dashing faint hopes of diplomacy
  • Moscow has demanded the US remove all weapons and troops in central and eastern Europe and the Baltics 
  • It came as Putin kicked out the US deputy ambassador, prompting Biden to warn of invasion within ‘days’
  • Russia-backed rebels also launched mortar attacks in eastern Ukraine, attempting to blame Kiev in what Boris Johnson said was a ‘false flag’ operation aimed at providing a ‘spurious pretext’ to invade

The Ministry of Defence tonight published Vladimir Putin’s ‘battle plan’, explaining the Russian strongman’s plan of attack hours after the US warned of a false flag chemical weapons attack and President Biden was told to withdraw all troops from Central and Eastern Europe.  

The report said Putin has massed troops on Ukraine’s northern border in a way that ‘directly threatens Kiev, the capital’ and showed a series of possible routes Russian soldiers could take in an invasion that could see them take much of the east of the country. 

The ministry warned there would be ‘considerable’ civilian casualties in the event of war and that Putin ‘would be willing’ to sustain the losses ‘to get what he wants’. 

The report also echoed warnings from NATO and Washington that there is ‘no evidence’ to back up Russian claims troops are being withdrawn from the border regions following large scale drills in recent weeks.   

NATO and Washington have claimed Russia is instead moving forces closer and continuing to build up troop numbers, with an extra 7,000 arriving yesterday and today.  

There are now thought to be around 150,000 troops backed by tanks, artillery, attack helicopters and fighter jets stationed near Ukraine – more than half of Russia’s total ground forces – which are at a high level of readiness and could invade at short notice, according to Western allies.  

For Putin, the procession of foreign dignitaries flying in for talks, including France’s president, Germany’s chancellor and two British ministers is already a win, pushing Moscow’s security worries to the top of the world agenda.

‘His biggest achievement is that he’s got the West’s attention,’ said Andrey Kortunov, head of RIAC, a think-tank close to Russia’s foreign ministry. 

‘At least they are now fully aware of Russia’s position and narrative… I think it’s a major accomplishment and let’s see what happens next and whether he can claim anything on top of that.’

The West has dismissed as outlandish many of Moscow’s security demands, which include a proposal for NATO to pull back its infrastructure to 1997 lines, to end the alliance’s expansion and to declare a veto on Ukraine joining. 

The latest warning comes after a day of fraught relations after Moscow’s foreign ministry handed a lengthy document to the US ambassador to Russia demanding that all of Washington’s weapons in central and eastern Europe and the Baltics be removed – along with all weapons already sent to Ukraine – and repeated demands that Ukraine is banned from joining NATO. 

In the document, which the US is expected to reject, Moscow accused Washington of failing to respond constructively to the demands it presented in December, including for a halt to the eastern enlargement of NATO. 

Russia’s ‘red lines’ were still being ignored, it said in a riposte to US and NATO counter-proposals received last month.  

At the same time, the US deputy ambassador to Moscow was expelled – prompting Joe Biden to say he now expects Russia to invade Ukraine in a ‘matter of days’ and that he will not be speaking to Putin in the meantime. 

Meanwhile the UK and US today warned that Putin might launch a false flag chemical weapons attack before invading after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson accused Russia of staging a ‘false flag’ operation in eastern Ukraine by firing mortars at a kindergarten in order to give the Kremlin a ‘spurious pretext’ to invade the country.    

The UK Prime Minister, speaking during a visit to RAF Waddington, said he fears that more such attacks will take place in the coming days and that the picture on Ukraine’s border ‘continues to be very grim’. 

He later announced in a tweet that he will travel to the Munich Security Conference, which the Kremlin said last month Putin would not attend, for ‘discussion with partners’. ‘The West is united: De-escalation and dialogue is the only way forward,’ he wrote.  

This week is seen as a decisive moment that could take the crisis into a new phase. Huge military exercises in Belarus, to Ukraine’s north, are due to end on Sunday. Moscow continued to announce troop withdrawals from annexed Crimea on Thursday and the Kremlin rebuffed the West’s scepticism, saying the process took time.

‘If we actually see the beginning of a troop withdrawal, then we’ll be able to say this phase of the crisis is over. It’s too early to relax,’ said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Kyiv-based Penta think-tank.

Sir John Sawers, the former head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence service, told the BBC on Wednesday that the crisis could be at a turning point, though he said Putin still had various military options in Ukraine.

‘I think in some ways, President Putin will think he’s ahead on points on this,’ Sawers said. He listed Moscow’s promotion of its security concerns, the intimidation of Ukraine and the highlighting of Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas.

Antony Blinken, addressing the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, gave the fullest account of what Washington knows of Russia’s plans and he demanded that Russia immediately begin withdrawing troops from Ukraine’s borders. 

Blinken, who upended his travel plans to speak at the UN, said Russia was preparing for an invasion ‘in the coming days.’ ‘We don’t know exactly the formal take,’ he said, explaining that he believes Putin will start an invasion by creating an excuse to attack. 

‘It could be a fabricated so-called terrorist bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of the mass grave, a staged drone strike against civilians, or a fake – even a real – attack using chemical weapons.’          

Meanwhile satellite images revealed a new pontoon bridge has been build across the Pripyat River in Belarus, close to Chernobyl and about 80 miles north of Kiev. It is feared the bridge, which has appeared close to areas where Russian tanks are stationed, could be used for an assault on the capital. 

And on Thursday evening, Yaşar Halit Çevik, chief monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, said that some 500 explosions had been recorded between Wednesday evening and Thursday morning. In a sign that tensions could be easing, he said: ‘After 11.20 (am) we have recorded about 30 explosions.’ 

The report said Putin has massed troops on Ukraine’s northern border in a way that ‘directly threatens Kiev, the capital’ and showed a series of possible routes Russian soldiers could take in an invasion that could see them take much of the east of the country

Boris Johnson, pictured at RAF Waddington today, accused Putin of launching a ‘false flag’ operation in Donbas with the aim of providing a ‘spurious pretext’ for an invasion of Ukraine

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the UN in New York (pictured fist bumping the UK’s Minister of State for Europe James Cleverly) on Thursday warned that Vladimir Putin might launch a chemical weapons attack before invading Ukraine after Russia demanded America pull all of its troops out of Central and Eastern Europe

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited soldiers stationed not far Donetsk, a city controlled by pro-Russian militants, on Thursday as the US warned that Russia’s President Putin might launch a chemical weapons attack before invading Ukraine

Artillery has opened fire in eastern Ukraine – striking a kindergarten located in Stanytsia Luhanska, on the Ukrainian side of the frontline with Russian-backed rebel forces

Pictured: Marine Guard of the State Border Guard Service maneuver during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visit to get acquainted with the order of service at Azov sea in Mariupol, Ukraine, 17 February 2022

This handout video grab taken and released by the Russian Defence Ministry on February 17, 2022, shows the Grad multiple rocket launcher firing at mock enemy targets during a joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin chairs a video conference meeting on Thursday

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (right) during a visit to the front line not far from pro-Russian militants controlled city of Donetsk, Ukraine, 17 February 2022

Artillery opened fire at multiple points along the frontline between Ukraine and Russia-backed rebels in the country’s east today, with at least two locations hit with witnesses reporting hearing artillery firing at a third

US deployments in Europe in January, before Biden ordered more troops to the region as the crisis escalated

Ukraine’s ministry of defence issued images of the damaged building early Thursday, saying it is located in Stanytsia Luhanska and was hit by shells fired by Russian rebels. Pro-Moscow accounts then picked up the same images, but claimed the building is actually on their side of the frontline and was hit by Kiev’s men

Around an hour after the kindergarten was shelled, Ukraine reported another attack which hit a school in Popasna along with two nearby houses and a water pipe

Damage to Popasna, a town on the border between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels, which Ukraine says was caused by shelling from the rebel side

A partially-destroyed building is seen in the town of Popasna, on the Ukrainian side of the frontline with Russia-backed rebels, after artillery opened fire in the early hours

An image put out by the Ukrainian security services shows a partially-destroyed water pipe in the town of Popasna

A satellite image reveals that a new pontoon bridge has been constructed across the Pripyat River in Belarus (left), around 80 miles north of Kiev amid fears it could be used to provide an attack route to the capital 

Before and after images show how the bridge has been constructed in recent days, providing a route for Russian tanks to cross the river and advance south towards Kiev

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, center, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, right, attend a wreath-laying ceremony at a the monument to the victims of the Great Famine as she visits Kiev to give her backing to the government

Liz Truss pays tribute to Ukrainian Holodomor victims who starved to death in Stalin’s ‘man-made famine’ 

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (third from right) and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (second from right) put flowers in front of the Holodomor Monument at the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide in Kyiv

Foreign secretary Liz Truss today visited the Holodomor Monument at the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide alongside Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba.

They lay flowers at the foot of the statue which pays tribute to the millions of victims of the famine that struck Ukraine in late 1932 and 1933, and was one of the most lethal catastrophes in European history. 

Today’s visit by Ms Truss is a marked event as many in Ukraine believe the famine counts as a genocide – a result of a policy by Soviet Union leader Josef Stalin – and comes at a time when Ukraine faces a new looming threat from Russia who have amassed troops on its border with Ukraine. 

Estimates of the death toll from the Holodomor famine have varied, with the UN declaring in 2003, with the agreement of 25 countries, that seven to ten million people died, while scholars estimate the number was between four and seven million.

The Court of Appeal of Kyiv, in 2010, concluded the loss of life amounted to 10 million – 3.9 million directly from the famine and a further 6.1 million from birth defects.

In Ukraine, the Holodomor — translated as the ‘hunger extermination’ — is often seen as the equivalent of the Holocaust, a gigantic, ‘man-made’ operation to murder millions of people.

The famine that struck Ukraine in late 1932 and 1933 was one of the most lethal catastrophes in European history

And behind it was Stalin — who ruled the Soviet Union from the mid-Twenties to 1953 — and an entire warped ideology which sought to remake a peasant society according to a Utopian Communist blueprint.  

After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Ukraine made a bid for freedom, only to be crushed by the Red Army and turned into a republic of the new Soviet Union. At the end of the Twenties, Stalin, determined to consolidate his rule after succeeding Lenin at the top of the Communist system, ordered the collectivisation of the entire Soviet countryside.

The aim – which had Stalin’s fingerprints over it – was to ‘liquidate’ richer, more successful peasants by starvation, murder or exile. The rest would be herded into vast state-run farms where they would toil ceaselessly for the greater Soviet good, instead of for private profit.

As Stalin’s thugs roamed the fertile Ukrainian countryside, seizing grain that he could sell abroad — which would allow him to buy the industrial machinery he desperately wanted — reports of growing hardship began to trickle back to Moscow.

By spring 1932, secret police reports were full of peasants streaming from their homes in search of food, children swollen with hunger, families living on grass and acorns, even bodies lying in the streets of Ukraine’s cities.

Some suggested this must be part of a secret ‘capitalist plan to set the peasant class against the Soviet government’.

But Stalin did nothing. Far from intervening to help the afflicted, he blamed Ukrainian nationalists, told the secret police to search ever more closely for hidden grain supplies, and even ordered blacklists of farms and villages.

As 1932 gave way to 1933, with Stalin continuing to order relentless grain requisitioning, hunger became starvation. Ukrainians dropped dead in the streets, lay dying and rotting in their houses, and some women became so desperate for food that they ate their own children.

If they managed to fend off starvation, they were deported and shot in their hundreds of thousands.

The disaster, which Stalin wrote was designed to ‘break the back of the peasantry’ – to shatter their independent spirit – remained a state secret, denied by the government.  

From pretext to ground troops: The four steps in a Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to Antony Blinken at the UN

Blinken said he was outlining Russia’s plans during a meeting of the UN Security Council ‘not to start a war but to prevent one’

Secretary of State Antony Blinken used a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to outline how the US believes a Russian invasion of Ukraine would unfold

1) Manufactured pretext – Russia would accuse Ukraine of a violent outrage such as a fabricated terrorist bombing inside Russia, a faked mass grave, a drone strike against civilians or a fake – or even a real – chemical weapons attack.

2) Emergency meetings in Moscow – Blinken said the highest levels of government may ‘theatrically’ convene emergency meetings to address the so-called crisis, before issuing a proclamation that they must defend Russians in Ukraine.

3) Attack – the next stage will come with Russian missiles and bombs dropping on Ukraine, jammed communications, and cyberattacks designed to shut down ‘key Ukrainian institutions.’

4) Ground invasion – Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans. Blinken said that would include Ukraine’s capital Kiev.

Blinken offered another chilling line.

‘Conventional attacks are not all that Russia plans to inflict upon the people of Ukraine,’ he said.

‘We have information that indicates Russia will target specific groups of Ukrainians.’

The US has faced repeated questions about the validity of its intelligence. And those seated around the table from Blinken will remember the false claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction presented there almost 20 years ago. 

‘Let me be clear, I am here today not to start a war but to prevent one,’ said Blinken.

‘Information presented here is validated by what we’ve seen unfolding in plain sight before our eyes for months.’

Blinken was in New York on Thursday after pushing back his plans to travel to the Munich Security Conference, which is likely to be the focus of international diplomacy for the next few days.

He laid out what Washington knew of Kremlin planning, starting with a ‘manufactured provocation and theatrical emergency meetings of the Russian government.

Next would come a promise to protect Russians in Ukraine, before cuber attacks and air strikes would begin. Tanks and soldiers would then move on key targets, including Kiev.

His purpose, he said, in laying out the intelligence findings was to persuade Putin to follow a different course.

Instead he demanded that Moscow issue an unequivocal promise that it will not invade Ukraine.

‘The Russian government can announce today, with no qualification, equivocation or deflection, that Russia will not invade Ukraine,’ he said.

‘State it clearly. State it plainly to the world, and then demonstrate it by sending your troops, your tanks, the planes back to their barracks and hangars and sending your diplomats to the negotiating table.’  

In response, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin said Blinken’s scenarios were ‘regrettable.’

‘I would even go so far as to say that they are dangerous because they bring in more tension into the unready tense atmosphere,’ he said, while repeating Moscow’s claims that some troops were already heading home after completing drills.

Earlier he called on the gathered foreign ministers not to turn the meeting into a ‘circus’ or use it to spread ‘baseless accusations.’

Blinken, speaking in front of the UN Security Council on Thursday, said: ‘As we meet today the most immediate threat to peace and security is Russia’s looming aggression against Ukraine.

‘The stakes go far beyond Ukraine. This is a moment of peril for the lives and safety of millions of people.’

‘This crisis directly affects every member of this council and every country in the world because the basic principles that sustain peace and security – principles that were enshrined in the wake of two world wars and the Cold War – are under threat,

‘The principle that one country cannot change the borders of another by force. The principle that one country cannot dictate another’s choices or policies or with whom it will associate. The principal of national sovereignty.’

The Russian document sent to the US ambassador on Thursday listed a series of demands to de-escalate the situation around Ukraine. 

These included a halt to Western weapons supplies and removal of those already sent, the withdrawal of Western military advisers and instructors from Ukraine, and a halt to any joint NATO exercises with Ukraine.

‘In the absence of the readiness of the American side to agree on firm, legally binding guarantees of our security from the United States and its allies, Russia will be forced to respond, including through the implementation of military-technical measures,’ the document said.

Russia has suggested in the past that ‘military-technical measures’ could include missile and troop deployments.  

Meanwhile satellite images revealed a huge movement of forces across Belarus, Russia and occupied Crimea. Some showed camps once full of Russian tanks have emptied, others showed new build-ups of attack helicopters and vehicles, while more showed tanks and artillery pieces formed up in convoy and getting ready to move.

It comes amid warnings from NATO and Washington that Putin is not withdrawing troops from Ukraine’s borders as he has claimed, but is instead moving forces closer and continuing to build up troop numbers, with an extra 7,000 arriving yesterday and today.

There are now thought to be around 150,000 troops backed by tanks, artillery, attack helicopters and fighter jets stationed near Ukraine – more than half of Russia’s total ground forces – which are at a high level of readiness and could invade at short notice, according to Western allies.   

On Thursday, Truss, wearing her new-favourite fur hat in 7C (44F) temperatures, took part in a flower-laying ceremony at a monument to the victims of Ukraine’s Great Famine before joining Defence Minister Dmytro Kuleba for talks.  

The pair were speaking about mortar attacks launched by Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine’s east who fired mortar rounds and artillery at the towns of Stanytsia Luhanska and Popasna earlier in the day – hitting a kindergarten in the former and a school in the latter – before claiming it was actually they who had been attacked. 

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, speaking after the talks with her Ukrainian counterpart, said the Kremlin’s demand the UK recognise the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk showed ‘flagrant disregard’ for Moscow’s peace process commitments. 

 ‘The Duma’s request that Vladimir Putin recognises the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent shows flagrant disregard for Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements, Truss said on Thursday.

‘If this request were accepted, it would represent a further attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, signal an end to the Minsk process and demonstrate a Russian decision to choose a path of confrontation over dialogue.

‘We urge Russia to end its pattern of destabilising behaviour against Ukraine and to implement the commitments it has freely signed up to, including the Minsk agreements.’

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday criticised the move by Russian lawmakers towards recognising the two Russian-backed breakaway regions as independent.   

Truss told Putin to ‘think again’ and described today’s shelling of a school and a kindergarten near the Ukrainian front line a ‘false flag operation.’

She said: ‘We have spoken about the likelihood of a false flag operation and that is what we are seeing taking place. And we are very clear the aggressor in this situation is Russia.

‘We will continue to call out false flag operations, we will continue to call out their cyberattacks and their attempts to undermine Ukraine, which is a democratic sovereign country.’

She added: ‘We need Russia to step back from the brink. They must take the path of diplomacy.’   

Around 20 Russian warships started drills in the Caspian Sea on Thursday, Russia’s defence ministry said, part of broader war games involving most of its army and navy.  

Putin claimed earlier this week that ‘genocide’ is underway against Russians in Donbas, an unsubstantiated claim that was immediately followed by reports in state media outlets of the discovery of ‘mass graves’ dating back to 2014 when Moscow last invaded.

The White House has been warning for weeks that such claims could be used to justify a Russian attack, with State Department spokesman Ned Price saying: ‘Over the past several weeks, we’ve also seen Russian officials plant numerous stories in the press, any one of which could be elevated to serve as a pretext for an invasion.’

Those claims, which have spread on social media, include genocide, mass graves and the potential of the Ukrainian government to use chemical weapons against the people of Donbass. 

‘There is no basis of truth to any of these allegations,’ Price said. ‘These are false narratives that Russia is developing for use as a pretext for military action against Ukraine.’ 

It comes after Russia’s rubber-stamp Duma parliament passed a resolution earlier this week calling on Putin to officially recognise the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states and take measures to help them defend themselves.

The Kremlin has, for now, resisted the calls – saying it would violate the ceasefire agreements currently in place in the region. But there are fears it opens the door for Putin to quickly change his mind and move troops in. 

Video also emerged purporting to show a thick column of smoke rising from the Russian embassy in Kiev, raising fears that sensitive documents are being burned before diplomats evacuate. 

Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, meanwhile, said on Thursday that fire from a tank operated by Russia-backed separatists has been recorded in the east of the country.

‘These shells came from the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, which are controlled by Russia,’ Kuleba said at a joint press conference in Kyiv after meeting his British counterpart Liz Truss.

Also today, the website of Russia’s foreign ministry went down on Thursday, a ministry official told Reuters, the same day that Russia submitted its response to Western security proposals.

The TASS news agency cited the ministry as saying that the website had been down for an hour due to technical issues. The official did not say why the site was down, although Russia has been accused of launching cyber attacks against key Ukrainian government websites in recent weeks.   

Satellite images released overnight show Russia has moved some of its military equipment that was deployed near Ukraine, but other hardware has arrived and Moscow still has a lot of forces and equipment in the region. 

In Crimea, from where Russia has shown videos of it pulling out tanks and military equipment, Maxar pointed to armoured vehicles positioned at the Yevpatoria railyard that could be preparing to depart.

Troops and equipment remained deployed, however, at other sites on the peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, including the Opuk training area, and sites at Lake Donuzlav and Novoozernoye, it said.

In Belarus, where Russia is holding exercises, Maxar pointed to a new military pontoon bridge over the Pripyat river less than six kilometres from the border with Ukraine, and a large new field hospital at one training site.

At an airfield in Belarus, a new unit of nearly 20 attack helicopters had been deployed, but significant troop and ground forces units recently deployed there had departed and were unaccounted for, Maxar said. 

Troops and armoured equipment were still deployed at other sites and were training. Most of the equipment and troop housing area that had been present near Rechitsa in southeast Belarus has departed and was unaccounted for, it said, adding that a military convoy was seen heading west. 

Waiting for news of a possible Russian invasion is ‘absolutely unbearable’, the chairman of a Ukrainian organisation in Bolton has said.

Yaroslaw Tymchyshyn, from the Bolton branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, said: ‘I’m on tenterhooks and listening to the radio this evening it is even worse.

‘First thing in the morning you switch the television on and think is it going to be good news or bad news. If there’s no news then that’s good news.

‘It’s unbearable at times, absolutely unbearable.’

He spoke of his worries as US president Joe Biden warned that Russia could invade Ukraine within days.

Mr Tymchyshyn, 68, said his 24-year-old daughter had returned to the UK last year after studying in Kyiv for five years and was worried about friends still living in Ukraine.

He said: ‘I cannot imagine what a wreck I would have been if she was still over there.’

He added: ‘I’ve got family over there, I have cousins.

‘The cousin I speak to most regularly hasn’t contacted me in a number of months and I wonder if she doesn’t want to tell me that one of the family is in the armed forces at the front.’

Mr Tymchyshyn, whose Ukrainian father settled in Bolton after the Second World War, said many members of the community were in contact with relatives still living in Ukraine.

He said: ‘We are trying to do our bit. The organisation has set up a GoFundMe page to try and raise £50,000 minimum for humanitarian aid.

‘If, god willing, nothing happens, that will be used for hospitals desperately in need of medical supplies.’

He said he had to console one branch member, an elderly woman who survived the famine of the 1930s, over her fears for the country’s future.

He said: ‘She was crying on my shoulder in church over what was going to happen.’ 

Speaking Thursday morning, UK Minister for the Armed Forces James Heappey said that intelligence he has seen over the last 48 hours indicates Russia is continuing to build its forces near Ukraine. 

‘You saw overnight that the US administration has briefed out that a further 7,000 are moving towards the border,’ he told the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme.

‘Those aren’t necessarily numbers that we’ve been able to verify for ourselves, but certainly the trend is that more is moving towards Ukraine rather than away from it, and we’re concerned that that’s the case.’ 

Asked on Times Radio whether Moscow was ‘lying’ about withdrawing from the area around the border, he added: ‘I would offer that we have seen intelligence – open source intelligence – over the last few days that clearly shows the build-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border continues.

‘That there are more moving to the area than people moving away, and that the key combat enablers that we saw moved towards the Ukrainian border over the last few days now include bridges having been built and a number of other things, suggest the final preparations are being made for them to invade.’

Asked whether he was saying Moscow was ‘ramping up’ preparations for an incursion rather than moving back, Mr Heappey replied: ‘That’s exactly what I believe to be happening, yes.’ 

A senior US administration official said some forces arrived only recently and that there had been a marked increase in false claims by Russians that the Kremlin might use as pretext for an invasion. 

The official said those claims included reports of unmarked graves of civilians allegedly killed by Ukrainian forces, assertions that the U.S. and Ukraine are developing biological or chemical weapons, and claims that the West is funnelling in guerrillas to kill Ukrainians.

The official was not authorised to speak publicly about sensitive operations and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The official did not provide underlying evidence for the assertions. 

‘We haven’t seen a pullback,’ US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News. Russian President Vladimir Putin ‘can pull the trigger. He can pull it today. He can pull it tomorrow. He can pull it next week. The forces are there if he wants to renew aggression against Ukraine.’

Asked why Russians would claim to be withdrawing when government intelligence, commercial satellite photos and social media videos showed no evidence of that, State Department spokesman Ned Price said: ‘This is the Russian playbook, to paint a picture publicly . while they do the opposite.’ 

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace also said there had been an increase of up to 7,000 troops in recent days.

‘We have seen the opposite of some of the statements,’ he said in Brussels. ‘We’re going to judge Russia by their actions and at the moment the troop buildup continues.’

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also said the alliance had not seen ‘any withdrawal of Russian forces.’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy similarly dismissed the Russian claims.

‘What is this? Rotations, withdrawal, returning back again,’ he said on a visit to the southeastern city of Mariupol. ‘It’s too early to rejoice.’

The Ukrainian leader, who has repeatedly sought to project calm and strength during the crisis, declared Wednesday a day of ‘national unity’ – a day that had been floated as a possibility for the start of an invasion. 

Protesters clash with police in central Kiev today, as part of a march of small business owners to demand extra support as the economy suffers amidst the threat of war

Ukrainian protesters scuffle with law enforcement officers in front of Kiev’s parliament building on Thursday

Protesters demonstrate outside the Ukrainian parliament against high government taxes in small business in Kiev

Ukrainian riot police tussle with protesters during demonstration outside the Ukrainian parliament against high government taxes in small business in Kiev

Russian state media has been pushing claims that civilian ‘mass graves’ have been uncovered in Donbas dating back to the last time Russia invaded, in 2014, which 

An image put out by Russian state media purporting to show bodies of civilians exhumed from a mass grave in Donbas being reburied in what the US warns could be a false flag to justify an invasion

Russian armoured vehicles are shown formed up in convoy at the Yevpatoria garrison in occupied Crimea, amid a huge movement of Putin’s forces which he claims is a withdrawal but the West says is a build-up

A satellite image shows a Russian military base on the shores of Lake Donuzlav, Crimea, with vehicles formed up in convoy as if preparing to move – though their destination is unclear

This satellite image released by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of a battlion sized unit in convoy at the Filativka training area, in Crimea

Four American B-52H bombers arrived last week in the UK and have been training with the RAF and Norwegian Air Forces. Pictured today, the bombers on the ground at a UK RAF base

Priti Patel turns up the heat on Russian oligarchs as she announces IMMEDIATE end to ‘golden visas’ 

Priti Patel today turned up the heat on Russian oligarchs as she announced the immediate end of a ‘golden visas’ giving anyone with £2million to invest access to the UK.

The Home Secretary cited ‘security concerns’ as she declared that the Tier 1 scheme will be closed to new applicants from all countries. 

Fears had been raised that the route was being abused by criminal gangs and the super-rich from overseas, 13 years after they were introduced by Labour in an effort to draw investment to the UK.

More than 12,000 have been doled out, including 2,500 to Russians. 

The Ukraine crisis has led Ms Patel to bring forward the demise of the scheme, after efforts to reform it in the past.

‘I have zero tolerance for abuse of our immigration system. Under my New Plan for Immigration, I want to ensure the British people have confidence in the system, including stopping corrupt elites who threaten our national security and push dirty money around our cities,’ she said.

‘Closing this route is just the start of our renewed crackdown on fraud and illicit finance. We will be publishing a fraud action plan, while the forthcoming Economic Crime Bill will crackdown on people abusing our financial institutions and better protect the taxpayer.’ 

Across the country, Ukrainians of all ages waved flags in the streets and from apartment windows.

Hundreds unfolded a 200-meter (650-foot) flag at Kyiv’s Olympic Stadium, while another was draped in the center of a shopping mall in the capital.

In the government-controlled part of Ukraine’s eastern region of Luhansk, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops since 2014, residents stretched another huge flag across a street.

‘This event, this number of people united around the Ukrainian flag will show that we stand for united Ukraine,’ resident Olena Tkachova said.

A 2015 deal brokered by France and Germany helped end the worst of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but implementation has stalled. The deal, known as the Minsk agreement, would offer broad self-rule to the separatist territories and thus is resented by many in Ukraine.

A Ukrainian government official said in a television interview that Zelenskyy would consider holding a referendum on the Minsk agreement ‘if there are no other options or instruments.’ 

But Vice Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said she was unaware that such an idea was under serious discussion.

The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to hold its annual meeting on the Minsk agreement on Thursday. Russia, which holds the rotating council presidency this month, will chair the meeting. 

At last year’s council meeting, Russia clashed with the U.S. and its Western allies over the conflict in eastern Ukraine and a similar confrontation is expected this year.

Putin has signaled that he wants a peaceful path out of the crisis. His country has repeatedly complained that the U.S. and NATO have not responded satisfactorily in writing to its security concerns. 

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that Russia is in the final phase of preparing its formal response to the West.

‘After that, a schedule of further steps will be developed,’ she said on state television.

It appeared to be another indication that the Kremlin is determined to keep up the pressure for a while.

Defiant Ukrainians sing and wave flags on their ‘Unity Day’ even as threat of Russian invasion hangs over them, writes IAN BIRRELL

Ukraine celebrated the hastily-declared Unity Day yesterday with passionate words from the president, patriotic events across the land and more than 50 MPs singing the national anthem outside parliament in defiance of the Russian troops massed at their border.

President Volodymyr Zelensky demanded the combative display of patriotism late on Monday to mark the day that Western intelligence had warned might be chosen by the Kremlin to launch an invasion of his country.

Yet the response was muted from his beleaguered fellow citizens – who woke up fearing the worst, waved a few flags and carried on with their lives, trapped wearily in the midst of a destructive geo-political struggle that has gripped them for years.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrives to watch Ukrainian troops take part in a military drill outside the city of Rivne, northern Ukraine

Ukrainian army soldiers pose for a photo as they gather in Odessa, Ukraine, to celebrate Unity Day on Wednesday

The former comedian’s demand led to flags appearing on streets and in windows, school pupils singing the anthem clad in traditional embroidered clothes, special prayers at St Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv and Ukrainian films shown in cinemas.

‘We are all different but we are united by one desire – to live in peace, happily, as one family – and we have a right to it because we are at home, we are in Ukraine,’ said Zelensky, during five hours on television showing celebrities and politicians discussing Ukrainian unity in face of the destabilising Russian aggression.

The president, wearing a blue shirt, also published a selfie on Instagram alongside his wife Olena clad in a yellow jersey to reflect Ukraine’s national colours – then asked everyone to post similarly-patriotic pictures on social media.

Some of the country’s best-known football players – including Andriy Yarmolenko of West Ham and Everton’s costly new signing Vitaliy Mykolenko – responded with a video in which they told of their pride in Ukraine.

British ambassador Melinda Simmons tweeted: ‘The UK and Ukraine share fundamental values of peace, freedom, democracy and respect. Our continued support for Ukraine is unwavering.’

Later Zelensky flew to Mariupol – the major port seen as a key possible target for Putin – where he met soldiers on the frontline facing Moscow-backed separatists. ‘It’s a great honour to be a president of such people, of such a state,’ he said.

Lasers and pixel lights shine from five factory chimneys in Ukraine as citizens across the country celebrate the hastily-declared Unity Day

A long Ukrainian flag is unfolded at the Olympiyskiy stadium in Kiev after President Volodymyr Zelensky called for a Day of Unity

Further along the frontline in Severodonetsk, a town in the government-controlled part of Luhansk region, residents stretched a 650ft blue-and-yellow flag across the street as they marched along in a display of their loyalties.

Zelensky only announced the celebratory day on Monday. But there was no public holiday, dampening the support, while some people said they had not heard about the plan and others had mixed reactions.

‘I don’t see the point of creating this show to please Western politicians,’ said one pensioner in Kyiv.

Others were more enthusiastic. ‘Unity Day helps unite the people,’ said Vladyslav, 19, serving in the National Guard.

Liydmyla, a 48-year-old housewife who said she is avoiding watching the news on television since it made her too ’emotional’, felt her nation needed such events. ‘It’s the right thing to do – we are being attacked, so we need to stay strong and united.’

Earlier the government said the cyber-attack that hit the ministry of defence, armed forces and several major banks on Tuesday was the biggest in Ukraine’s history. It was traced to sources in Russia, China, Czech Republic and Uzbekistan.

The shutdown, which lasted five hours, was backed by a foreign security service, said Ukraine’s cyber-security chief. Russia has denied any responsibility.

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