Russian tanks and missile launchers surround Ukraine border as US warships prepare to head to Black Sea

RUSSIA has surrounded Ukraine's border with tens of thousands of troops as US warships prepare to head to the Black Sea amid rising tensions.

Russia is massing huge military firepower on the border of the disputed Donbass region in eastern Ukraine as it threatens "full-scale combat operations".

The White House said Russia now has more troops on its border with Ukraine than at any time since 2014.

Terrifying footage has emerged of Russian tanks and missile launchers being transported to the area, sparking fears of an "all-out war".

And chilling satellite images show new Russian encampments and artillery batteries in the provinces of Voronezh and Krasnodar which lie to the east of Donbass.

At least six 2S4 Tyulpan self-propelled mortars – capable of firing warheads 12 miles – were filmed on a flatbed train in southwest Russia on Tuesday.

Dubbed the "city destroyer", it is the largest mortar system in the world and has been used to demolish fortifications from Chechnya to Afghanistan.

On Friday, the Kremlin said it fears the return of full-scale fighting in eastern Ukraine and could take steps to protect Russian civilians there.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the situation was "very unstable" and risked leading to "full-scale combat operations".

Ukraine's military chief has dismissed Russian claims that the country's armed forces are preparing for an attack on the rebel east.

Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists have been fighting in eastern Ukraine since shortly after Moscow's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

More than 14,000 people have died in the conflict, and efforts to negotiate a political settlement have now stalled.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of sending in troops and weapons to help separatists – accusations that Moscow has denied.

On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said 26 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed so far this year.

"Increasingly frequent breaches of a July truce agreement mean that we again face the need to establish a ceasefire," Zelenskyy said.

The separatist authorities in Donetsk said 20 troops and two civilians have been killed this year.

Western and Ukrainian officials have raised concerns in recent weeks about the Russian troop build-up along the border with Ukraine.

The concerns intensifed on Friday as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his French and German counterparts.

The State Department said Blinken, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian discussed the need for Russia to cease its military build-up and heated rhetoric.


During a call with Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for the removal of the troop reinforcements to a deescalate the situation.

And on Friday, a Turkey foreign ministry official said the US has notified Turkey that two US warships will sail to the Black Sea on April 14 and April 15 and stay there until May 4 and May 5.

"A notice was sent to us 15 days ago via diplomatic channels that two US warships would pass to the Black Sea, in line with the Montreux Convention. The ships will remain in the Black Sea until May 4," Turkey's foreign ministry said.

Putin, during a telephone conversation with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan on Friday, accused Ukraine of "dangerous provocative actions" in the Donbass region.

Speaking to Reuters, the Pentagon declined to discuss Turkey's comments but said the military routinely sends ships to the region.

"That's not anything new," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in Washington, referring to US military ships in the Black Sea.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko raised concerns over what he claimed was increasing Black Sea activity by powers that did not have a coast line in the region – an apparent reference to the US.

"The number of visits by NATO countries and the length of the stay of (their) warships have increased," he was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

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