Russian tanks spotted entering Ukraine after Putin orders 'peacekeeping mission'

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The Ukrainian crisis is on the verge of becoming the bloodiest conflict in Europe since 1945 and diplomatic efforts are in peril.

Russian troops appear to be on the move towards the illegal republics in the east of the country after a dramatic 24 hours in which the stand-off gravely worsened.

There has been heavy fighting overnight around Luhansk and Donetsk, two areas which have been held by pro-Russian separatists since 2014.

Until last night, when Vladimir Putin formally recognised them, their status and future had been a grey area and the conflict around them effectively frozen.

Now it appears they are on the verge of being fully annexed after the Russian president signed an order for ‘peacekeeping’ forces to be sent in.

Western countries will set out new sanctions against Moscow today but there are fears the invasion is already effectively under way.

Unverified footage circulated on social media appeared to show convoys of vehicles, said to be containing Russian soldiers, heading into Ukraine.

Reuters also reported seeing new levels of heavy military vehicles around Donetsk overnight, including tanks.

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The Ukrainian military on Tuesday said two soldiers were killed and 12 wounded in attacks by pro-Russian separatists over the past 24 hours, the most casualties this year.

The military said on its Facebook page it had recorded 84 cases of shelling by separatists, who it said had opened fire on about 40 settlements along the front line using heavy artillery.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky signalled night his armies intend to fight in the Donbas, the mainly Russian-speaking region which has been the scene of fighting since a pro-Europe revolution and the invasion of Crimea.

He sought to project a calm but defiant line, saying: ‘We are not afraid of anyone or anything. We don’t owe anyone anything. And we won’t give anything to anyone.’

Mr Zelensky sought to calm the nation, saying: ‘As soon as we see a change in the situation, as soon as we see an increase in risks – you will know all this. 

‘There is currently no reason for chaotic action. We will do everything to keep it that way.’

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