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Ukraine crisis: Up to 50% of Russian troops near border are now in ‘attack positions,’ US official says

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Joe Biden has said he is “convinced” that Vladimir Putin has already decided to invade Ukraine – and has “reason to believe” it will happen in the coming days.

A US defence official is now estimating that 40% to 50% of Russian troops deployed in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border are now in attack positions.

The number of Russian ground units in the area – known as battalion tactical groups – has also grown to between 120 and 125, compared with 83 two weeks ago.

Satellite imagery shows increasing military activity at a number of key locations across Belarus, Crimea and western Russia. Pic: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies
Image:
Satellite imagery shows increasing military activity at a number of key locations across Belarus, Crimea and western Russia. Pic: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

Each of these battalion tactical groups has between 750 and 1,000 soldiers.

Although Moscow has released footage to show it is withdrawing troops from the region, Washington believes Russia’s military presence along the border has been ramped up further.

Estimates suggested 100,000 soldiers were in the area at the end of January – but now, this may have risen to 150,000 troops.

Speaking at the White House, the US president said: “We have reason to believe the Russian forces are planning to and intend to attack Ukraine in the coming week. In the coming days, we believe that they will target Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million innocent people.”

Maxar Technologies – which has been monitoring the build-up of Russian for weeks – has released satellite imagery that suggests additional ground attack aircraft, air defence units and drone equipment have been deployed near the border.

The US private company said the photographs also showed a large new deployment of at least 50 helicopters had arrived in northwest Belarus.

Read more: Why is Russia so concerned about NATO?

A new unit featuring more than 20 helicopters has been deployed near the Russian town of Valuyki - 16 miles east of Ukraine's border. Pic: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies
Image:
A new unit featuring more than 20 helicopters has been deployed near the Russian town of Valuyki – 16 miles east of Ukraine’s border. Pic: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

Ukrainian civilians told to leave breakaway regions on buses

According to the Reuters news agency, Moscow-backed separatists have been telling civilians to leave breakaway regions of Ukraine on buses – a move the West fears is part of a pretext for an attack.

Warning sirens blared Donetsk and Luhansk on Friday after rebel leaders announced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people to Russia.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, queues of cars and buses stretched for miles from Donetsk to the border checkpoint in Russia.

Later today, Mr Putin is set to personally supervise exercises of its strategic nuclear missile forces – but the Kremlin has said these drills are no cause for alarm.

Mr Biden told reports that he doesn’t think his Russian counterpart is “remotely contemplating using nuclear weapons”, adding: “I think he is focused on trying to convince the world that he has the ability to change the dynamics in Europe in a way that he cannot.”

Tens of thousands of Russian troops are also staging exercises in Belarus, to the north of Ukraine, and these drills are due to end on Sunday – with Moscow claiming that the troops will return to Russia shortly afterwards.

Read more: Eyewitness – Shelling ramps up on Ukraine’s frontline

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What is happening in east Ukraine?

‘Still a chance to avoid unnecessary bloodshed,’ Boris Johnson says

The prime minister is heading to the Munich security conference today, where he will tell world leaders there is “still a chance to avoid unnecessary bloodshed”.

Speaking before his departure, Mr Johnson said: “It will require an overwhelming display of Western solidarity beyond anything we have seen in recent history.

“Allies need to speak with one voice to stress to President Putin the high price he will pay for any further Russian invasion of Ukraine. Diplomacy can still prevail.”

He vowed that Western leaders will “redouble our efforts to prevent a grave miscalculation which would devastate Ukraine, Russia and the rest of Europe”.

The Foreign Office has announced that it is “temporarily” moving its diplomats out of Kyiv and relocating them to Lviv – a city in Ukraine’s west that is situated near the border with Poland.

Read more: Putin says military drills ‘purely defensive’ and ‘not a threat’

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Explosions heard during Sky report

High-level diplomatic talks continue

The US has said it is, alongside NATO allies, “converging” on a final package of sanctions against Russia if it invades.

Earlier on Friday, Mr Biden spoke with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, the UK, the European Union, and NATO.

The White House said that the group promised to continue pursuing diplomacy but that they were also preparing to impose swift, coordinated economic costs on Russia if it invaded its neighbour.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are due to meet on 24 February but Mr Biden said that any Russian action before this would prove Russia had “slammed the door shut on diplomacy”.

Analysis by Martha Kelner, US correspondent

A huge – and bleak – moment in this ongoing and unpredictable crisis.

The Biden administration had said three weeks ago that an invasion was “imminent”. They then revised that to “highly likely” to avoid – they said – causing undue panic in Ukraine.

But President Biden was very clear tonight in his view that Vladimir Putin has already decided to invade and, not only that, but he will attack the capital, Kyiv.

He said the door to diplomacy was still open but the chances of this situation being resolved around the negotiating table seem to be increasingly slim.

There was also another direct warning to President Putin and the Kremlin: “Make no mistake,” Mr Biden said, “if Russia pursues this plan, it will be responsible for a catastrophic and needless war of choice.”

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