Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has travelled to the country’s eastern frontline after a surge in clashes with separatist forces and rising tensions with Russia.
It comes as tens of thousands of Russian troops mass near the border with Ukraine.
There are growing fears that Vladimir Putin’s military squeeze on his neighbour may spark an all-out war, which could drag NATO into the conflict.
Russian tanks, missile trucks and long-range guns have been filmed heading to Crimea and the border of the disputed Ukrainian region of Donbass.
There were also reports Mr Putin’s so-called robot army could soon be deployed to the flashpoint border.
Kiev estimates there are now 85,000 Russian troops between 10km and 40km from its frontier and in Crimea.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the UK and the US were “firmly opposed” to Russia’s campaign to destabilise the region.
The G7 foreign ministers on Monday called on Russia to stop its “provocations” and “de-escalate tensions” following its large troop build-up on the border with Ukraine.
“We call on Russia to cease its provocations and to immediately de-escalate tensions in line with its international obligations,” the ministers said in a statement.
Fighting between the Ukrainian army and separatists has intensified in recent weeks. At least 25 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the start of this year.
Tensions rise between Russia and Ukraine
Russia and the Ukraine have been in conflict since 2014 when Russian soldiers — without insignia — took control of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.
Russia then annexed Crimea after a highly-suspicious referendum in which 97 per cent voted for integration into the Russian Federation. The two sides are also involved in conflict in the Donbass region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky heads to trenches
As tensions flare, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made the extraordinary move to head to the trenches.
“They (Russia) want us to be afraid,” he said defiantly.
“They want the West to be frightened of Russia’s strength, of her power,” he told TIME.
“There’s no big secret here.”
He said Moscow hoped the West’s support for Ukraine would waver as Russia massed forces on the border.
“It’s a kind of test,” he said.
President’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak said Ukraine was “holding the line against Russia”.
“And where does the US deploy its Patriot Missiles? The closest ones are in Poland. They should be here.”
Ukraine could be ‘provoked’
Ukraine’s government, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, has accused Moscow of planning to invade Donbass, which has been occupied by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.
And Mr Zelensky has slammed the Kremlin for inciting violence between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russian rebels in his country.
However, Dmitry Kozak, deputy head of Russia’s presidential administration, said Kiev’s leaders were like “children playing with matches”.
He chillingly added any “military action … would be the beginning of the end of Ukraine”.
Ukraine’s Defence Minister said on Saturday that his country could be “provoked” by Russian aggression pointing the finger of blame firmly at Mr Putin and the Kremlin.
“It should be noted the intensification of the armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine is possible only if an appropriate political decision is made at the highest level in the Kremlin,” he said.
However, Moscow denies its troops are a threat, but says they will remain for as long as it sees fit.
Britain and the US are “firmly opposed” to Russia’s campaign to destabilise the region and called on Moscow to de-escalate the situation, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said today.
“(US Secretary of State Antony Blinken) and I agreed Russia must immediately de-escalate the situation and live up to the international commitments that it signed up to at (the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe),” he said in a tweet.
And a NATO official told the Reuters news agency that Russia was undermining efforts to reduce tensions in eastern Ukraine.
“Allies share their concerns about Russia’s recent large-scale military activities in and around Ukraine,” the unnamed official said.
‘Ready for conflict’
A video leaked on Saturday captioned ‘Ready for conflict’ showed armoured vehicles moving through the mud and into position near the flashpoint border.
The chilling clip, thought to have been filmed by Russian soldiers, also shows a train convoy of military trucks moving within striking distance of Ukraine.
Satellite images then showed new Russian encampments and artillery batteries in the provinces of Voronezh and Krasnodar which lie to the east of Donbass.
At least six 2S4 Tyulpan self-propelled mortars – capable of firing warheads nearly 20km – were filmed on a flat-bed train in southwest Russia.
Dubbed the “city destroyer”, it is the largest mortar system in the world and has been used to demolish fortifications from Chechnya to Afghanistan.
On Friday, the Kremlin said it fears the return of full-scale fighting in eastern Ukraine and could take steps to protect Russian civilians there.
Mr Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the situation was “very unstable” and risked leading to “full-scale combat operations”.
Ukraine’s military chief has dismissed Russian claims that the country’s armed forces are preparing for an attack on the rebel east.
Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists have been fighting in eastern Ukraine since shortly after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
More than 14,000 people have died in the conflict, and efforts to negotiate a political settlement have now stalled.
Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of sending in troops and weapons to help separatists – accusations that Moscow has denied.
West calls for de-escalation
Western and Ukrainian officials have raised concerns in recent weeks about the Russian troop build-up along the border with Ukraine.
It comes after footage appeared to show a MiG-31 fighter jet intercepting a US RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft off the coast of Russia as tensions mount.
The concerns intensified on Friday as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his French and German counterparts.
The State Department said Mr Blinken, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian discussed the need for Russia to cease its military build-up and heated rhetoric.
During a call with Mr Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for the removal of the troop reinforcements to a de-escalate the situation.
And on Friday, a Turkey Foreign Ministry official said the US had notified Turkey that two US warships will sail to the Black Sea on April 14 and April 15 and stay there until May 4 and May 5.
“A notice was sent to us 15 days ago via diplomatic channels that two US warships would pass to the Black Sea, in line with the Montreux Convention. The ships will remain in the Black Sea until May 4,” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said.
Mr Putin, during a telephone conversation with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan on Friday, accused Ukraine of “dangerous provocative actions” in the Donbass region.
Speaking to Reuters, the Pentagon declined to discuss Turkey’s comments but said the military routinely sends ships to the region.
“That’s not anything new,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in Washington, referring to US military ships in the Black Sea.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko raised concerns over what he claimed was increasing Black Sea activity by powers that did not have a coast line in the region – an apparent reference to the US.
“The number of visits by NATO countries and the length of the stay of (their) warships have increased,” he was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
With The Sun