Russian forces have painted a mysterious “Z” on their vehicles as they close in on Ukraine – raising suspicions it is an attack code.
The tag has been spotted on tanks, self-propelled guns, fuel trucks and supply vehicles amid fears of an invasion.
Moscow’s troops amassed on Ukraine’s eastern flank now number over 130,000 – with tens of thousands more teamed up with Belarusian troops to the north.
Warning about the apparent intention to invade, Boris Johnson said: “The plan we’re seeing is for something that could be the biggest war in Europe since 1945.
“All the signs are the plan has already begun in some senses.” Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said: “Everything we see indicates invasion is very, very, highly likely and very, very imminent.”
Russia now has nearly 75% of its conventional forces threatening Ukraine, according to US intelligence analysis.
Belarus suddenly announced yesterday that Vladimir Putin’s troops would remain in the country for exercises which are meant to have finished.
Around 30 Russian warships are gathered in the Black Sea, threatening Ukraine’s southern coastline. Throughout the weekend pro-Russian separatists pounded civilian areas in the contested Donbas region with shells and mortar fire.
It is feared wants Russia to provoke a major battle and use it as a ruse for invading the area under the pretense of protecting Kremlin-backed rebels. The military equipment daubed “Z” – which has increased fears of even more fighting along the front line of trenches – was between six and 25 miles from the border.
In one case, some 200-plus military vehicles were seen around Bershakovo, Maksimovka, and Shebekino in the Belgorod region.
The convoy included amphibious infantry fighting vehicles, mine clearing vehicles, howitzers and rocket launchers.
Sometimes the “Z” – seemingly in Western lettering – is in a box.
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Last year the Mirror revealed Russian troops had daubed tanks with “invasion stripes” – a white line intended to show them as friendly to other Moscow forces. In a new suspected stunt, the pro-Moscow rebel authority in Donetsk claimed to have seized a Ukrainian spy who was said to be confessing that Kyiv aims to overrun the Donbas.
It is believed this is an attempt by Moscow to hit back at Western claims Russia wants to create a false flag pre-text attack for war.
This would be by self-inflicting an attack and then reacting to it as if it was by Ukrainian forces.
Named Anton Matsanyuk, the so-called spy conveniently confirmed a plan touted in recent days by Russia of a Ukrainian plan to invade Donetsk and Luhansk.
This detailed offensive plan, which fell into the hands of Donetsk intelligence officers, was broadcast by Russian TV.
Russia has extended military drills near Ukraine’s northern borders.
Russian exercises, originally set to end on Sunday, brought a sizable contingent of forces to Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north.
The presence of the Russian troops raised concern that they could be used to sweep down on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
The announcement came from the defense minister of Belarus, who said the two countries would “continue testing the response forces”.
Russia held nuclear drills on Saturday as well as the conventional exercises in Belarus, and has ongoing naval drills off the coast in the Black Sea.
The US and many European countries have said for months that Russia is trying to create pretexts to invade.
According to the latest US intelligence assessment, Russia now has close to 75% of its conventional forces threatening Ukraine.
The concentration of forces within striking distance of Ukraine is highly unusual and part of the reason the US believes Russia is ready to attack, an official has said.
A RUSSIAN invasion of Ukraine could unleash Europe’s biggest conflict since the Second World War – and the opening phase may already have started, Boris Johnson warned yesterday.
The Prime Minister feared Vladmir Putin might have already triggered his game plan for an attack.
MPs are expected to debate the crisis today when Parliament returns from the February half-term recess.
“The plan that we’re seeing is for something that could be the biggest war in Europe since 1945 just in terms of sheer scale,” the PM told the BBC yesterday.
“All the signs are that the plan has already begun in some senses – that’s what our American friends think.”
Western intelligence agencies have pointed to potential “false flag” attacks the Kremlin could stage and exploit as an excuse for going to war.
Daily Mirror/Andy Stenning)
Over the weekend, blasts were heard in the disputed Donbas area of eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian government forces for the past eight years in clashes that have left about 14,000 people dead.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called for an immediate ceasefire in the region.
Mr Johnson said: “You’re seeing these provocations now in the Donbas, you’re starting to see these explosions and so on that we have been warning about for some time.”
The PM will be back in Parliament today after a week of shuttle diplomacy across Europe aimed at averting war.
But the efforts have so far failed to curb Russian aggression – and Mr Johnson was forced to admit the threat of sanctions against individuals linked to Putin’s regime may fail to threaten an invasion.
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He admitted a joint venture by Britain and the US to prevent Russian state-linked firms from trading in pounds and dollars – a move he predicted would hit the Kremlin “very hard” – may “not be enough on its own”.
Moscow has called for NATO forces to leave former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries in eastern Europe.
But western nations are deploying extra troops to the region to counter Russian threats.
The PM warned Mr Putin: “If he thinks he’s going to get less NATO as a result of this, he’s totally wrong. He’s going to get more NATO.”
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But Mr Johnson added: “We have to accept at the moment that Vladimir Putin is possibly thinking illogically about this and doesn’t see the disaster ahead.”
The US embassy in Russia warned Americans last night to prepare evacuation plans.
The grim warning cited the threat of attacks in Moscow and along the Russian border with Ukraine, drawing condemnation from Russian foreign ministry.
“There have been threats of attacks against shopping centres, railway and metro stations, and other public gathering places in major urban areas, including Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as in areas of heightened tension along the Russian border with Ukraine,” the embassy said.
“Review your personal security plans,” the embassy said.
“Have evacuation plans that do not rely on US government assistance.”