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Putin orders Ukraine attack, as UN calls emergency meeting

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Russia has reportedly closed airspace in eastern Ukraine to civil aviation as it prepares to launch an attack on the country within hours.

There are multiple reports from Kyiv that an attack is imminent – and likely to come at 4am local time Thursday (1pm AEDT).

It came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia had approved an offensive against his nation. In an address posted to his Facebook account, Mr Zelensky said the trigger for a Russian invasion could come at “any minute”.

“The whole world is saying this can happen any day now. The trigger can appear any minute,” he said, addressing Russians in Russian.

“You are being told this fire will free the Ukrainian people. But Ukrainian people are free.”

Guardian journalist Luke Hardin, who is in Kyiv, tweeted that the mood was grim ahead of the rumoured attack. US news agency Politico was also reporting that a 4am attack appeared likely.

It came as separatists in Ukraine asked for Russian help to repel “aggression” and Kyiv announced compulsory military service and a state of emergency, while the West slapped more sanctions on Moscow.

“I want to address all the Russian citizens. Not as a president. I address Russian citizens as a citizen of Ukraine,” Mr Zelensky said in his address.

“There are over 2000 kilometres of common border between us. Your army is along that border now. Almost 200,000 soldiers. Thousands of military vehicles.

“Your leadership approved for them to take a step further, to the territory of another country.”

Mr Zelensky concluded: “This step can become a beginning of a great war at the European continent.”

Ukraine has also requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council due to the Russian threat. It is expect to begin at 1.30pm (AEDT).

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News in recent hours that while he couldn’t give specifics, “everything we’ve seen over the last 24 to 48 hours has Russia of putting the final touches on having its forces in place across all of Ukraine’s borders, to the north, to the east, to the south, to be ready for a full on invasion”.

Announcing Australia had joined Western allies in imposing sanctions on Russia on Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison also said there were reports of a likely full-scale attack within 24 hours.

Pentagon officials also told a briefing Russian troops were moving into disputed breakaway regions.

A Reuters witness has reported seeing convoys of military equipment, including nine tanks, moved towards the eastern Ukrainian area of Donetsk from the direction of the Russian border late on Wednesday (local time).

Shelling has intensified in the east, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has recognised two separatist regions as independent and ordered the deployment of what he called peacekeepers, a move the West calls the start of an invasion.

Moscow has long denied that it has plans to invade, even though Mr Putin has tens of thousands of troops massed on the Ukraine border.

The leaders of the two breakaway areas want Mr Putin to intervene.

“I am asking for help to repel the Ukrainian regime’s military aggression against the population of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” said Denis Pushilin, who heads the area Moscow recognised as independent, according to TASS news agency.

The White House rejected the comments as another Russian false flag operation, a fake crisis manufactured to justify greater Russian military intervention in Ukraine.

“This is an example of it,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

“That is suggesting that they feel under threat. By whom? The Ukrainians that the Russians are threatening to attack?”

Mr Zelenskiy said Moscow had approved an offensive and not replied to an invitation for talks.

“Today I initiated a telephone conversation with the President of the Russian Federation. The result was silence,” he said.

UN chief Antonio Guterres has dismissed claims of a genocide in eastern Ukraine. Under international law, genocide is an intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.

A total of 80 per cent of the soldiers assembled were in a position to launch a full-scale invasion on Ukraine, a senior US defence official said.

Satellite imagery taken on Wednesday showed new deployments in western Russia, many of them within 15 kilometres of the border with Ukraine and less than 80 kilometres rom the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, a US company Maxar said.

The images showed field deployment, military convoys, artillery and armoured personnel carriers with support equipment and troops. The images could not be independently verified by Reuters.

A 30-day state of emergency in Ukraine restricting the freedom of movement of conscripted reservists, curbing the media and imposing personal document checks, according to a draft text, began on Thursday.

The Ukrainian government has also announced compulsory military service for all men of fighting age.

While the West has held off the most stringent sanctions measures it could impose, the US stepped up the pressure by imposing sanctions on the firm building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and its corporate officers.

“We will not hesitate to take further steps if Russia continues to escalate,” said US President Joe Biden.

The White House said the sanctions did not affect former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has headed the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream since 2005.

Germany on Tuesday froze approvals for the pipeline, which has been built but was not yet in operation.

Ukrainian government and state websites, which have experienced outages in recent weeks blamed by Kyiv on cyber attacks, were again offline on Wednesday. Ukraine’s parliament, cabinet and foreign ministry websites were affected.

For months, Russia has presented the crisis mainly as a dispute with the West, demanding security guarantees, including a promise never to allow Ukraine to join NATO.

But the recognition of the separatist regions was accompanied by much stronger language against Ukraine, which Putin called an artificial construct wrongly carved out of Russia by its enemies.

-with AAP

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