Ukraine conflict live updates: Ominous ‘Z’ symbol appearing on Russian tanks

The UK has warned Europe is facing its “biggest war since 1945” and that Russia’s plan “has already begun” as troops and tanks encircle Ukraine.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is heating up, with reports of tanks rolling to the border and a “powerful explosion” rocking a gas pipeline near Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

The blast has been blamed on sabotage, according to Tatiana Bogorodko, the head of Luhanskgas, which manages the gas pipeline.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a speech that the “world has been watching in disbelief” as Russia masses troops on the border with Ukraine. Russia has repeatedly denied having plans to invade.

Rebels in eastern Ukraine have declared a full military mobilisation, just hours after they ordered women and children to evacuate to southern Russia due to fears of a conflict.

Two Ukrainian soldiers were also killed in attacks around rebel-held enclaves.

NATO is relocating staff from Ukraine’s capital Kiev to Lviv, in the west of the country, because of fears for their safety.

The US has threatened an extreme punishment on Russia if the invasion goes ahead, saying they will impose sanctions so severe that it has “never [been] seen before”.

And there’s rife speculation about what Russia could be planning after a mysterious symbol keeps appearing on their military vehicles gathering at the border.

Stream the latest news on the escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine live & on demand on Flash. New customers try 14 days free >

British Prime Minister’s chilling warning

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned Europe is facing its “biggest war since 1945” and that Russia’s plan “has already in some senses begun”.

His statements at the Munich Security Conference follow US President Joe Biden’s statement yesterday that he believed Vladimir Putin had decided to invade and that it was only a matter of days until it happened.

In Germany, Mr Johnson told the BBC’s Sophie Raworth that intelligence suggested Russia’s plan was to encircle Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and invasion is imminent.

“You’re looking at not just an invasion through the east, but coming down from the north, down from Belarus and actually encircling Kyiv,” he said.

“People need to understand the sheer cost in human life that could entail.”

The BBC’s Damian Grammaticas called Mr Johnson’s comments his “most serious warning yet about both the scale of the military attack Vladimir Putin is planning on Ukraine and the extent of the sanctions that would come in response.”

According to the US government between 169,000 and 190,000 Russian troops are now stationed along the border.

In a speech Saturday to the conference in Germany, Johnson warned that Western sanctions in response to any invasion would make it “impossible” for President Vladimir Putin’s regimen to access the City of London’s deep capital markets.

He indicated a global reach for the sanctions also involving US measures, telling the BBC that they would stop Russian companies “trading in pounds and dollars” — which he said would hit Russia “very, very hard”.

‘They’re trying to provoke us’

Ukraine has temporarily suspended operations at one of the seven checkpoints in the eastern Donbas region controlled by Russian-backed separatists, due to heavy shelling across the line dividing government forces and separatists.

There has been a sharp increase in violence in the region, with the Ukrainian government describing it as “provocation”.

On Saturday separatists fired three times, using mortars and heavy antitank grenade launchers, on the Schastya checkpoint.

It comes as ceasefire violations by separatists along the frontline increased to 136 from 66, according to the military’s Facebook page.

“They’re trying to provoke us into a massive response so they can accuse us – as if we had started this thing – and hold the situation at a peak of maximum tension,” said Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council.

Video shows Ukrainian Interior Minister under fire

Video released today by Radio Free Europe shows Ukraine’s Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy under mortar fire while on a tour of the front lines of eastern Ukraine on Saturday, which has been a focus of violence and military action.

In the footage, taken at the Novoluhanske village in the Donetsk region, Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy is among a group of officials and journalist seen running for their lives as mortar fire is heard in the background.

The group can be seen hurrying into a shelter. “Just now they opened fire. That’s the situation as you can see,” a reporter says to camera.

New video ‘shows over 200 tanks rolling to Ukraine border’

Alarming footage has been shared on social media reportedly showing over 200 Russian tanks and rocket launchers rolling towards the Ukraine border.

The video shows the military vehicles travelling through Bershakovo, around 10 kilometres from the border.

Macron and Putin to talk in bid to avert Ukraine invasion

French President Emmanuel Macron will call Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Sunday to try to avert what Western powers predict will be an imminent invasion of Ukraine

Over the weekend, civilians were evacuated from increasingly barraged front line regions where Kiev said Saturday two of its soldiers had died in an attack – the first fatalities in the conflict in more than a month.

Speaking to Macron on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he would not respond to Russia’s provocations, according to the Elysee.

But in his speech to the Munich Security Conference, he also condemned “a policy of appeasement” towards Moscow.

“For eight years, Ukraine has been holding back one of the greatest armies in the world,” he said.

He called for “clear, feasible time frames” for Ukraine to join the US-led NATO military alliance – something Moscow has said is a red line for its security.

He has also called for Mr Putin to meet him and seek resolution to the conflict.

“I don’t know what the President of the Russian Federation wants, so I am proposing a meeting,” Mr Zelenskyy said.

“Ukraine will continue to follow only the diplomatic path for the sake of a peaceful settlement.”

The United States insists that, with around 150,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders – as many as 190,000, when including the Russian-backed separatist forces in the east – Moscow has already made up its mind to invade.

Russia has in recent days announced a series of withdrawals of its forces from near Ukraine, saying they were taking part in regular military exercises.

Around 30,000 Russian troops are in Belarus for an exercise due to end on Sunday.

Afterwards, Moscow says these forces will return to barracks, but US intelligence is concerned they could take part in an invasion of Ukraine.

China: ‘Ukraine’s territory should be respected’

Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi has called for Ukraine’s territory to be respected during the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, local time.

The move from China is notable. While Moscow and Beijing have found common ground in pushing back against the West, Russia may have been hoping China would have given a level of support to any moves against Ukraine.

The Chinese press, which never strays far from the party line, has been relatively tepid in prosecuting Russia’s case.

Mr Yi called for reconciliation and reiterating China’s stance that all countries’ sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence needs to be respected and safeguarded, including Ukraine.

He also urged those involved in the Ukraine dispute to adhere to the Minsk II agreement reached in 2015, saying all sides need to “shoulder their responsibilities and work for peace”.

Russia could attack Ukraine ‘at any time’, US warns

Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine “at any time”, the White House reaffirmed on Saturday local time, as Western politicians gathered in Munich to discuss the crisis.

US Press Secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden was due to hold a rare Sunday National Security Council meeting over Russia-Ukraine tensions, having said on Saturday he was “convinced” Moscow planned to invade its ex-Soviet neighbour within days.

Psaki said Biden was briefed on meetings at the Munich Security Conference, where Western representatives, including Vice President Kamala Harris, gathered to discuss the mounting tensions.

The president’s national security team “reaffirmed that Russia could launch an attack against Ukraine at any time,” she added.

Ominous ‘Z’ symbol appearing on Russian tanks

Journalists and military experts are concerned about a recurring symbol appearing on Russian tanks massing at the border with Ukraine.

Aric Toler, a reporter from Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based investigative journalism group, noted that some Russian vehicles but not others have been marked out with a white square and a ‘Z’ over the top.

Mr Toric said his news organisation had “been monitoring this stuff non-stop for 8 years and has no idea what they [the Zs] are, and hasn‘t seen it before.

“So, assume the worst, I guess/fear.”

Some have referred to it as the ‘Zorro squad’.

The trend has only been observed in the past 24 hours as far as can tell.

Some have speculated that the ominous signs are a way to make sure Russians can tell their own vehicles apart from their enemies.

This was a practice employed by the Allies in World War II to reduce the chance of soldiers firing on ‘friendly’ forces.

At this point it is unclear as to the purpose of the mystery marks.

‘Never seen before’: Russia threatened with severe punishment

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned on Saturday local time (Sunday AEDT) that her government would impose the harshest ever sanctions on Russia if the nation invades Ukraine.

She said the trade restrictions put into place will be “never seen before in terms of the intensity and timing”.

Ms Pelosi said the US wanted to avoid sending troops to war if it all possible, which was why she was pursuing a diplomatic resolution.

“We’re not for any war,” she said. “Diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy — and that’s why we’re talking about sanctions in the event of an invasion. These are sanctions as if you’ve never seen before in terms of the intensity and timing …

“We have not seen sanctions as we’re going to see now.”

She added later on: “This isn’t about sanctions on trade violations, or sanctions on one thing or another. This is sanctions in response to hostilities that are deadly and unnecessary.”

People evacuate into Russia

The leaders of two separatist republics in east Ukraine ordered women and children to flee and as soon as possible make their way to Russia.

Their poor and industrial rebel-controlled territories in Ukraine have been at the centre of weeks of tensions between Russia and the West.

Conflict monitors have warned of a sharp escalation in ceasefire violations in fighting between Ukraine’s army and the separatists.

NATO moves Ukraine staff from Kiev to Lviv

NATO is relocating staff from Ukraine’s capital Kiev to Lviv, in the west of the country, and to the Belgian capital Brussels for their safety, an alliance official said on Saturday.

“The safety of our personnel is paramount, so staff have been relocated to Lviv and Brussels. The NATO offices in Ukraine remain operational,” the official told AFP, without giving numbers.

Several Western countries have already moved diplomats from Kiev to Lviv, located near the border with Poland, in anticipation of Russian military action.

Minefields, abandoned homes

Ukraine says it is under constant pressure from Russia. Two soldiers were killed on Saturday and President Joe Biden says US intelligence indicates that Russia plans to invade.

One of the dead, 35-year-old Captain Anton Sidorov and father-of-three, was shot dead near Novoluganske, the scene of the minister’s shelling incident.

If the more than 150,000 Russian soldiers Kiev and Washington say are massed on the border do launch an assault, they will have to pass through frontline communities like Novoluganske.

Andriy, a 26-year-old infantryman, is based there, and confirmed that the situation is “heating up”.

“The situation is even worse than yesterday, they’ve been firing 152mm heavy artillery,” he said. “There are wounded in several battalions.”

There were 4000 people in the town before the conflict erupted, isolated by potholes roads and now by minefields marked by little painted red posts.

Three kilometres from the rebel frontline, the town lives in a sort of no-man’s land and many of the homes have been abandoned.

Massive blasts hit Ukraine

Explosions have reportedly been heard in the Russian separatist city of Luhansk.

Part of a gas pipeline caught fire late on Friday after being struck by a “powerful explosion”, Interfax news agency reported. It comes hours after a car bomb was detonated in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.

Major General Denis Sinenkov was not believed to be in his car when the huge blast shook the separatist-held city.

It was feared to be a Kremlin-inspired “false flag” con to give Vladimir Putin his excuse to invade Ukraine – as his fighting force rose to 190,000.

A security expert in Kiev said: “It looks like a false flag. They will blame Ukraine but how would they have been able to booby trap it?”

– with AFP