The Ukraine crisis has stepped up a notch amid alarming reports undercover mercenaries have already snuck across the border.
Ukraine has declared a state of emergency over the unfolding crisis with Russia, which world leaders including Joe Biden and Scott Morrison have described as an “invasion”.
It comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared in a chilling video address after ordering Russian forces into the breakaway territories of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine – known collectively as the Donbas region.
Stream the latest news on the escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine live & on demand on Flash. 25+ news channels in 1 place. New customers try 14 days free >
Thousands of troops and vehicles have already crossed the border, with a string of Western nations, including Australia, imposing harsh sanctions in response.
Ukraine has also ordered an estimated three million citizens currently living in Russia to return home “immediately” over fears of looming violence.
Follow our live coverage for updates.
Undercover mercenaries enter Ukraine
European experts have claimed hundreds of Russian mercenaries have covertly snuck into Ukraine’s breakaway territories to begin preparations for war.
According to the New York Times, mercenaries from the Wagner Group – a Russian paramilitary organisation whose contractors have reportedly participated in a number of conflicts – have made it into Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
That’s according to two high-ranking European insiders, who claim the 300-odd task force entered the rebel regions in civilian clothing.
It was a tactic previously used by Mr Putin in 2014 during the annexation of Crimea, when mercenaries were used to assist rebel forces in the area.
Rebel leader’s wild demand
The leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic – one of two Ukrainian breakaway regions at the core of the escalating tension between Russia and Ukraine – has issued an outrageous demand to Ukrainian authorities.
The Russian-backed separatist leader, Denis Pushilin, urged Ukrainian forces to simply give up, leave the area – and withdraw their weapons.
“We will win … With such a country, with big Russia, which we respect and value,” he said. “We have no right to lose, or even to doubt in our victory.
“The best option for them to leave the territory voluntarily and take their weapons with them.”
Mr Pushilin also confirmed that fit and healthy men aged between 18 and 55 had already been tapped on the shoulder to fight in the region.
Putin’s brutal snub revealed
Russian President Vladimir Putin snubbed his Ukrainian counterpart, whose attempt to reach out and make contact amid the escalating crisis was met with “silence”.
That’s according to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky who claimed on Facebook he had tried to call his Russian counterpart on Wednesday.
“Today I initiated a telephone conversation with the President of the Russian Federation. Silence. Although there should be silence in the Donbas,” Mr Zelensky said.
Mr Zelensky also claimed today that Russia had given the green light for an offensive against Ukraine.
Russia slams Australia’s move
The Russian embassy in Australia has hit out at the PM’s sanctions against Russia, labelling them “xenophobic” and alleging ethnic Russians in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk faced the “imminent threat of ethnic cleansing”.
“In alignment with its key partners, Canberra has played its part in supporting and encouraging the xenophobic bullies based in Kyiv,” the embassy said, according to the ABC.
“Recognising the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics was the only solution Russia felt compelled to take.
“This decision by Russia will not be reverted.”
Breakaway regions plead for help
Sputnik is reporting that the leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) – the two pro-Russian, breakaway Ukrainian territories at the centre of the current crisis – have appealed to President Putin for help against Ukraine.
According to the Russian state-owned news agency, the DPR and LPR have requested assistance to “repel aggression from Kyiv forces”.
According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the leaders accused Ukraine of carrying out shell attacks which allegedly killed civilians and forced others to run.
However, the US said the plea for help was another example of a “false flag” operation designed to justify an invasion.
“We’ll continue to call out what we see as false flag operations or efforts to spread misinformation about what the actual status is on the ground,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
Putin’s ‘secret invasion’ army caught on video
A German news outlet has captured “Putin’s secret invasion army” making its way through southern Russia along the border with Ukraine.
The footage, originally taken by Bild and now circulating on social media after being shared with Russian defence policy student PhD Rob Lee, “likely shows an entire GRU Spetsnaz Brigade with 220 fully-loaded vehicles in Rostov 25km from the border of the Donbas, including 26 Rys, 14 Tigr-M SpN, 15K-63968 Typhoon-K MRAPs, a Linza MRAP ambulance, and trucks”.
According to Mr Lee, “many of the vehicles had foliage attached as camouflage, including on the roofs presumably to make it more difficult for satellites to ID them”.
PM: New tool against ‘illegal, unlawful behaviour’
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced a major update to our sanctions against Russia.
Fronting the media this morning, he said he had just returned from a meeting of the Executive Council with the Governor-General, and that he had signed an amendment “which creates the framework to target sanctions against individuals” and entities supporting the Russian regime.
“This is important legislation. It is targeted legislation. It adds a whole new tool to our toolkit when it comes to dealing with this illegal, unlawful behaviour,” he said.
The PM said the government was acting “in partnership with our allies and like-minded countries, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom”.
“We are taking actions against eight members of Russia’s Security Council, a series of banks and financial institutions that I indicated yesterday and extending existing sanctions on the transport, energy and telecommunications and oil and gas and mineral sectors to Donetsk and Luhansk,” he said.
“This is getting us the scope to cover people and entities of strategic and economic significance to Russia. So that gives us a broad remit in order to take targeted action.
“So, the sanctions we’re putting in place aren’t just what you would have seen in the past against a nation more broadly. This goes direct to those individuals who are at the heart of this bullying and aggressive behaviour. It targets their financial interests. It prevents them from travelling. It stops them from moving money around. It stops them from coming and having holidays in countries such as Australia or going shopping in Harrods or doing the things of that nature and trying to live their lives as if they have nothing to do with the violence and bullying and intimidation that they are supporting from the Russian regime.”
The sanctions will become law tomorrow and they will take effect at the end of March.
Australia at risk of ‘malicious activity’
With Ukraine being hit by a “pattern of cyberattacks”, the PM has warned that Australia could also be a target.
“Malicious cyber activity could impact Australian organisations through unintended interruption or unmaintained cyber activities,” Mr Morrison said.
“We are not aware of any current or specific threats against Australian organisations, but are adopting an enhanced cyber security posture and we have been for sometime now and increased monitoring of threats will help reduce threats to Australian organisations.”
‘Will be suffering’: US expert’s grim warning
A US official has warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine “won’t be bloodless”, and that there “will be suffering”.
The alarming comments were made by Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Wednesday US time, declaring that the sheer number of forces now positioned on Ukraine’s doorstep meant Russia was “at a state of readiness where they could attack at any time”.
“There will be suffering,” Mr Kirby said.
“There will be sacrifice. And all of that must and should be laid at [Putin’s] feet. Because he’s doing this by choice.
“We’ve seen sadly and unfortunately no indication that he’s willing to de-escalate, move those troops back home, and actually get to some sort of serious diplomatic solution, every indication rather that we see is quite the opposite.
Invasion expected ‘at any hour now’
A US official has revealed that insiders were bracing for Russia to ramp up a wider invasion of Ukraine at any moment.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, the unnamed senior defence official said there were concerning clues Moscow was preparing to strike.
“It is our assessment that [Russian leader Vladimir Putin] is fully prepared to conduct a large-scale invasion and that that is a likely option,” the official said, according to Defense One.
So far, Mr Putin has positioned more than 150,000 troops along the border, and has sent more than two dozen warships to the Black Sea.
“ … those ships exist for one reason, and that’s to put boots on the ground,” the official continued.
“They have uncoiled, they’re ready to go. They could go at any hour now.”
‘Worrying’ sign behind disturbing evacuation
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba has claimed that a chemical plant in Crimea has been evacuated, indicating Russia might be planning to strike.
Most Russia watchers agree the “invasion” of Ukraine actually began back in 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea.
Now, Mr Kuleba believes the latest move is a sign Putin was preparing to launch “another staged provocation”.
The potential attack would be a so-called “false flag operation” – an act committed (in this case, by Russia) with the intention of pinning the blame on another party – Ukraine.
According to BuzzFeed correspondent Christopher Miller, who recently spent time in Ukraine, Armyansk, where the plant is located, is strategically important as it is “the entry point to Crimea, the city on the northernmost edge of the Russian-occupied peninsula”.
“Evacuating the plant could be to lay the groundwork for a provocation. Or a move to clear people from the area because it sits smack on the entry to mainland Ukraine,” he said in a tweet.
‘Final ambition’: Expert reveals Putin’s sick plan
An expert has given a chilling prediction of Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal and motives as insiders brace for bloodshed in Europe.
Speaking to Reuters, Austria’s Innsbruck University professor Gerhard Mangott, who is also part of a group of Russia experts which convene annually with Mr Putin, said the President’s recent speech seemed to be a way of justifying greater aggression against Ukraine.
“He has questioned the right to sovereignty of Ukraine and he’s declared that this was a historic mistake, a historic accident that Ukraine is existing,” Prof Mangott said.
“So it’s most likely that his final ambition is to destroy this Ukrainian state, or at least make Ukraine divide into two separate halves.”
Biden reveals Nord Stream 2 pipeline sanctions
US President Joe Biden has announced fresh sanctions against Russia, this time regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
The pipeline’s parent company is Russian juggernaut Gazprom, and the move it expected to hit Russia where it hurts.
“These steps are another piece of our initial tranche of sanctions in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine,” Mr Biden said in a statement.
“As I have made clear, we will not hesitate to take further steps if Russia continues to escalate.
Ukraine hit by ‘massive’ cyber attack
A huge cyber attack has been launched against Ukraine, with major government websites inaccessible.
Deputy Prime Minister Mykailo Fyodorov confirmed the attack had impacted several banks and official websites.
While he did not confirm who was behind the attack, it is widely believed to have been orchestrated by Russia.
Russia will launch full invasion in 48 hours
US intelligence has revealed Russia will likely launch a full invasion of Ukraine within the next two days.
The claim was made by President Joe Biden himself, with the leader telling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Russian warplanes had already started carrying out short reconnaissance missions over Ukraine’s airspace.
“Reporting from aircraft observers indicates Russia violated Ukrainian airspace earlier today, flying possible reconnaissance aircraft for a short period over Ukraine,” a US source also told Newsweek.
‘Non-negotiable’: Putin’s vow
Vladimir Putin addressed his nation in a video on Wednesday, vowing Moscow would continue “strengthening and developing our army”.
“The interests of Russia, the security of our citizens, are non-negotiable for us,” he said in the clip.
“Our country stays open for direct and honest dialogue for the search of diplomatic solutions for the most complex issues.
“But I will repeat: Russia’s interests, our citizens’ safety, are absolute. So we will continue strengthening and developing our army and navy, increasing their efficiency and providing them with the most advanced equipment.”