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Russia warns ‘the beginning of the end of Ukraine’ will be imminent if it ‘has to defend citizens’

A senior Kremlin official today warned that if Russia is forced to defend its citizens in the disputed Donbass region it would be ‘the beginning of the end Ukraine.’

Tensions have soared in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks after Vladimir Putin dispatched tanks, helicopters and thousands of troops to the Ukrainian border.

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy flew into Donbass today to shake hands with officers and talk to troops along the frontier which separates them from Russian-backed rebels. 

Putin insists the build up of military hardware close to the border is defensive and that upcoming drills are part of routine ‘combat readiness’ inspections. 

But the deputy head of Russia’s presidential administration, Dmitry Kozak, continued the Kremlin’s tough rhetoric, as he warned: ‘The start of military action – this would be the beginning of the end of Ukraine.’ 

A Ukrainian soldier walks along a trench at the frontline close to the rebel-held city of Donetsk in the pro-Russian Donbass region

A Ukrainian soldier walks along a trench at the frontline close to the rebel-held city of Donetsk in the pro-Russian Donbass region

A Ukrainian soldier walks along a trench at the frontline close to the rebel-held city of Donetsk in the pro-Russian Donbass region

Russian president Vladimir Putin is massing forces at the borders of Ukraine (pictured at the Kremlin during a meeting on March 24)

Russian president Vladimir Putin is massing forces at the borders of Ukraine (pictured at the Kremlin during a meeting on March 24)

Russian president Vladimir Putin is massing forces at the borders of Ukraine (pictured at the Kremlin during a meeting on March 24)

Kozak was asked if Russia would protect its citizens in eastern Ukraine.

Referring in his reply to Srebrenica, where about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces during Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war, he said: ‘It all depends on the scale of the fire. If there is, as our president says, Srebrenica, apparently we will have to step in to defend (them).’

Putin has made previous analogies to a ‘second Srebrenica’ if Ukraine does not submit to an amnesty on new border lines which have emerged since the conflict started in 2014. 

Putin today accused Ukraine of ‘provocative actions’ in a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

Merkel advised her counterpart to pull his forces back from Ukraine’s eastern border amid escalating violence along the frontier.  

‘The Chancellor demanded that this build-up be unwound in order to de-escalate the situation,’ Berlin said in a readout of the call.

Russia has said its forces pose no threat and were defensive, but that they would stay there as long as Moscow saw fit.  

The Kremlin said in its readout of the Merkel phone call that ‘Vladimir Putin noted provocative actions by Kyiv which is is deliberately inflaming the situation along the line of contact.’ 

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy flew to eastern Donbass in a show of support on Thursday. He is pictured shaking hands with officers after landing by helicopter

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy flew to eastern Donbass in a show of support on Thursday. He is pictured shaking hands with officers after landing by helicopter

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy flew to eastern Donbass in a show of support on Thursday. He is pictured shaking hands with officers after landing by helicopter

Pictured: More military hardware reportedly on the way to Ukraine

Pictured: More military hardware reportedly on the way to Ukraine

Pictured: More military hardware reportedly on the way to Ukraine

Pictured: More military hardware reportedly on the way to Ukraine

Various videos and photos have emerged on social media in recent weeks purporting to show a build up of Russian military hardware close to the border with Ukraine

German Chancellor Angela Merkel advised Vladimir Putin to pull his forces away from the border during a phone call on Thursday. Putin insisted his actions were defensive

German Chancellor Angela Merkel advised Vladimir Putin to pull his forces away from the border during a phone call on Thursday. Putin insisted his actions were defensive

German Chancellor Angela Merkel advised Vladimir Putin to pull his forces away from the border during a phone call on Thursday. Putin insisted his actions were defensive

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy flew to eastern Donbass in a show of support on Thursday two days after he called on NATO to lay out a path for Ukraine to join the military bloc, whose expansion Moscow fiercely opposes. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said those living in eastern Ukraine would not tolerate NATO membership, and that rhetoric could further destabilise the Donbass region.

‘So far we’re not seeing an intention by the Ukrainian side to somehow calm down and move away from belligerent topics,’ he said.

The rouble hit a five-month low on Wednesday after Russia said it had begun a planned inspection of its army’s combat readiness involving thousands of drills. 

The standoff has also pushed Ukrainian sovereign bonds to their lowest level since November.  

Ukraine and Western countries say Donbass separatists have been armed, led, funded and aided by Russians. Moscow has denied interfering.

While a ceasefire halted full-scale warfare in 2015, sporadic fighting never ceased.    

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