Russian troops have painted their assault vehicles with 'invasion stripes' as Vladimir Putin continues to mass troops on the Ukrainian border amid fears that he may try to invade.
An onlooker in the Astrakhan region of Russia, 350 miles from the border, filmed a column of Russian BTR 80 armoured personnel carriers with white crosses painted across the top of the vehicles.
Similar stripes were painted on Soviet Army tanks during the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to help Moscow's forces identify friend from foe because Czech forces used the same tanks. The stripes also appeared on some Russian vehicles during the Cold War.
While modern-day technology largely negates the need for such a rudimentary system, the sight has none-the-less jangled nerves in an already-tense region.
Putin has been mobilising his forces on the border of Ukraine for weeks and there are now thought to be some 80,000 Russian troops there supported by hundreds of vehicles and tanks, with a leaked Ukrainian government report suggesting another 30,000 may be on the way.
The report, seen by the Daily Mail, is based on intelligence intercepts and satellite photographs as troops and equipment travel hundreds of miles across Russia to amass around its neighbour.
Meanwhile Ukraine's defence minister warned a meeting of NATO leaders yesterday that Russia could be preparing to move nukes into Crimea - the Black Sea peninsula it seized from Ukraine in 2014 - a hugely provocative move that would drag the region closer to all-out war.
It comes despite Joe Biden's calls for Putin to 'de-escalate' the situation alongside an offer of a summit between the pair, which was hailed in Moscow as evidence that the US had blinked first amid the standoff.
'It was a very important step forward... news on a global scale,' said Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament's upper house
'It was Biden who asked for yesterday's phone call, Biden called and Biden wanted to talk about a summit,' pro-Kremlin talk show host Vladimir Solovyov said on his morning radio programme.
Referring to the US readout, he said: '200 words! But where are those on human rights? Not a word on gays in Chechnya, not a word on LGBT+ and especially not a single word on Navalny'.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said the Kremlin would see Biden's invitation now as an about-face.
'In Russia, the prospect of a meeting will be presented as a major achievement, and in a sense it is, because not long ago Biden said offensive things about Putin and, when asked to talk, said there was no time,' he said.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said the Russian president is 'studying' plans for a summit but added that it is 'too early' to discuss specifics. Russia has called neighbouring Finnish leader Sauli Niinisto, where the last summit between Trump and Putin was held, but no details have been announced.
In another sign that Biden is now softening his tone towards Moscow, the deployment of two US destroyers into the Black Sea was cancelled last night.
Turkey had originally confirmed that Washington had asked for permission for two warships - the USS Donald Cook and USS Roosevelt - to transit through straits which it polices and into the Black Sea in a move that was assumed to be a deterrent to Putin.
But last night Turkey said the U.S. Embassy in Ankara had notified the foreign ministry of the decision, without giving a reason. U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment.
Russia's defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, has previously denied plans to invade Ukraine - saying that Russia is merely carrying out training exercises in response to a NATO troop build-up and drills near its border.
NATO denies that any troops have been massed near Russia.
There are now thought to be some 40,000 Russian troops in the region at a large military camp south of the city of Voronezh along with tanks, artillery, armoured personnel carriers, missile launchers and support vehicles.
Another 30,000 pro-Russian rebel troops are also stationed in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine where they are engaged in a years-long fight with Ukrainian forces that has largely reached a stalemate.
An additional 40,000 Russian troops are also stationed in Crimea, where the Black Sea Fleet is based along with reinforcements being moved across from the Caspian Sea.
At a meeting of NATO defence and foreign ministers in Brussels yesterday, Mr Taran voiced his concerns that troops in Crimea would be used to stage 'substantive military provocations' - including the potential of nukes being moved into the region.
'Crimea's infrastructure is being prepared for potentially storing nuclear weapons,' Mr Taran told the European Parliament's defence subcommittee.
'The very presence of nuclear munitions in the peninsula may spark a whole array of complex political, legal and moral problems.'
He spoke just hours after ships of the Black Sea Fleet staged a snap live-fire drill, firing missiles at both sea-level and aerial targets.
Russian state TV showed two missile ships, the Graivoron and the Vyshny Volochek, taking part in sea-level and aerial target practice alongside a missile hovercraft, a frigate and a mine-sweeping ship.
We are in Week 3 of #Russia Military build up on border with #Ukraine.— Joyce Karam (@Joyce_Karam) April 12, 2021
Video of tanks reportedly from Chuvashia today as US warns of consequences & Blinken heads to Brussels pic.twitter.com/vBx6ySUTZ4
The drill, described as a 'combat readiness check' by Russian officials, was staged shortly before the USS Donald Cook and the USS Roosevelt were expected to arrive and before the missions was called off.
The Graivoron and Vyshny Volochek are Buyan-M class missile corvettes and are armed with 100mm naval guns, anti-ship cruise missile launchers, anti-air cruise missile launchers and anti-submarine hardware.
Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov had previously warned the American vessels to stay away 'for their own good' and said there was a risk of 'incidents' between the US and Russian ships.
He added: 'There is absolutely nothing for American ships to be doing near our shores, this is purely a provocative action. If there is any aggravation we will do everything to ensure our security and safety. But Kiev and its allies in the West will be entirely responsible for the consequences.'
Ukraine staged its own exercise, with troops rehearsing repelling a tank and infantry attack near the border with Crimea.
The report seen by the Mail, from the Ukrainian defence ministry and entitled 'RUS troops massing around UKR', says: 'By the end of April 2021, Russians are going to deploy up to 26 BTGs (Battalion Tactical Groups), several artillery tactical groups, air defence units, reconnaissance units and 4 Special Operations Forces detachments.
'The total amount estimated to be 54 BTGs, up to 107,000 troops, up to 1,300 tanks, 3,700 armoured vehicles, up to 1,300 artillery systems and mortars and up to 380 multi-launch rocket systems.'
Dr Nigel Gould-Davies, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said last night: 'The gravity of opinion among those closely following developments has shifted noticeably.
'They are more alarmed, due to the scale of the Russian military presence, the distances the troops and equipment are travelling towards eastern Ukraine and the statements issued by Russian government officials.
'While this does not mean there will be all-out war, we are much closer to conflict than we have been. We could be looking at both a show of strength by the Kremlin and genuine steps towards military action – it does not have to be one or the other.'
German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer accused Russia of seeking provocation in a bid to justify the advance of so many troops towards Ukraine.
She warned Moscow that the world would not be 'drawn into Russia's game', adding: 'If it is a manoeuvre like the Russian side says, there are international procedures through which one can create transparency and trust.
'We are committed to Ukraine, that is very clear. It is clear that Moscow is just waiting for a move, so to speak, from Nato, to have a pretext to continue its actions. But together with Ukraine, we will not be drawn into this game. And so far Ukraine has reacted in a sober manner.'
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.