Ukraine warned last night that 80,000 Russian troops were massing on its borders and could invade – as world leaders told Vladimir Putin to back off.
A senior security chief in Kiev said Moscow could launch a full-scale invasion and Russian troops would be in the Ukrainian capital within ‘two or three hours’ of the order to advance.
Photographs of Russian tanks and armoured personnel carriers close to Ukraine’s borders added to tensions.
Last night senior British officials told the Mail they had received reports about Russian troops massing on the border since Tuesday and were concerned by the show of force.
British intelligence is unsure whether the movements are intended to back up the annexation of Crimea, preparation for an invasion or simply defensive.
Moscow’s show of force came as Ukraine’s new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, met Barack Obama in the Oval Office and Nato continued military exercises in Poland.
On a day of rising tensions, G7 leaders, including David Cameron and Mr Obama, warned Russia not to annexe the Crimea after a referendum on Sunday in the province, which has been taken over by pro-Putin troops.
Their statement warns the Russian president ‘to cease all efforts to change the status of Crimea contrary to Ukrainian law and in violation of international law’ and threatens ‘further action’ if Moscow seizes Crimea.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said Russian MPs who voted to use force in Ukraine and Kremlin officials behind the invasion would be hit with asset freezes and a travel ban to the European Union – most likely at a Brussels summit on Monday.
But the main concern of Western leaders is to deter Russia from seizing the rest of Eastern Ukraine.
Andriy Parubiy, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, yesterday said that even Kiev may not be safe from Putin’s troops, who were regrouping in ‘an offensive manner’.
Mr Parubiy claimed the forces massing included ‘over 80,000 personnel, up to 270 tanks, 180 armoured vehicles, 380 artillery systems, 18 multiple-launch missile systems, 140 combat aircraft, 90 combat helicopters and 19 warships and cutters’.
He added: ‘Critical is the situation not only in Crimea, but along the entire north-eastern frontier. In fact, Russian troop units are two or three hours of travel from Kiev.’
Former Putin adviser Andrey Illarionov predicted this week that in addition to Crimea, his ex-boss intends to annex other major cities in Ukraine, including Kharkiv, Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk, Lugansk, Zaporozhye, Kherson and Odessa.
Pictures of Russian armoured vehicles on the move in regions close to the Ukrainian border – said to have been taken on Monday – include motorised infantry vehicles and tanks. The military movements are also said to include Grad BM-21 multiple rocket launch vehicles.
A driver travelling from the Donetsk region in Ukraine to the Rostov-on-Don region in Russia filmed one column, several miles long, heading towards the border.
Tanks have also been pictured being carried by rail in Belgorod, and are reported to be in a village 12 miles from the border.
The moves come as the Russian armed forces have announced a separate huge military exercise by its airborne troops. The three-day exercise ordered by Putin involves a vast ‘landing operation’ by 4,000 paratroopers.
Last night a Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘The Russians need to pull back to their bases.’
Nato has conducted its own show of force to reassure countries in Eastern Europe.
The US and Poland began war games on Tuesday that are expected to involve at least 12 American F-16 fighter jets. A joint naval exercise of US, Bulgarian and Romanian naval forces in the Black Sea started on yesterday.
Events are building to a crunch point on Sunday when Crimea votes on whether to join Russia. If Putin recognises the province as Russian, sanctions will follow.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov are expected to meet in London tomorrow, but British officials remain sceptical that Russia will make any concessions.
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