The Weekend Australian

Putin masses tanks close to Ukraine border

- MARC BENNETTS MOSCOW

Russia has moved troops, tanks and heavy artillery to a new base about 240km from the Ukrainian border, stoking fears of a military offensive.

Moscow has also sent shortrange ballistic missiles, according to the Janes defence intelligen­ce group.

It is thought to be Russia’s biggest show of force in the area since 2015, when Ukraine and Kremlinbac­ked separatist­s signed a peace deal to end fighting in the eastern Donbas region. At least 26 Ukrainian personnel have been killed since January, compared with 50 for all of last year.

Ruslan Khomchak, the Ukrainian commander-in-chief, said last week that Russia had amassed 25,000 troops in the border regions of Bryansk, Rostov and Voronezh, as well as in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. Russia has expressed concerns about a potential Ukrainian assault on separatist-held territorie­s within its borders. A senior Kremlin official warned on

Thursday night that any attack could lead to the destructio­n of Ukraine as an independen­t state. “This would be the beginning of the end of Ukraine,” Dmitri Kozak, deputy head of Russia’s presidenti­al administra­tion, said.

Mr Kozak said Russia could move to protect its citizens in Donbas if Ukraine tried to recapture the breakaway regions. Moscow has handed out at least 200,000 Russian passports to residents of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic since 2019. It claims that any Russian servicemen in east Ukraine are there “on holiday”.

The newly deployed Russian forces are massing in a camp near the southweste­rn city of Voronezh, according to images posted by the Conflict Intelligen­ce Team, a Russian investigat­ive group.

Number plates indicate that the vehicles came from hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away. The Voronezh region does not border either separatist-held territory, making it an implausibl­e base for operations in Donbas.

“It is obvious that the dispositio­n of Russian forces, at least in the Voronezh region, is more offensive than defensive in nature,” the CIT said.

Analysts at Janes also identified TOS-1A thermobari­c multiple rocket launchers at the camp. They said a similar military buildup was under way in the Krasnodar region, south of Rostov.

President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a call on Thursday night that Ukraine was raising tensions.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who urged NATO this week to admit his country quickly, on Thursday travelled to the eastern frontline.

Mr Zelensky thanked the soldiers “for protecting our land” and said “there is indeed an escalation”. He said: “All commanders understand that snipers are targeting our guys.”

 ?? Frontline AFP near ?? Volodymyr Zelensky visits the Zolote, Lugansk, on Thursday troops at the
Frontline AFP near Volodymyr Zelensky visits the Zolote, Lugansk, on Thursday troops at the

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