THE Russian military has been moving to locations from which it could potentially launch an invasion of Ukraine “contrary to Kremlin assurances”, the UK Defence Secretary has said.

Ben Wallace told the House of Commons that more than 110 tactical battalion groups had massed around Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus, as well as “cruise missile-capable vessels” being deployed in both the Caspian and Black seas.

The news comes amid reports that Russian president Vladimir Putin has met with some of his top advisers to discuss recognising two pro-Moscow separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, a move which would be seen as an attack on Ukrainian sovereignty and escalate tensions in the region.

On Monday, Putin’s Kremlin also claimed to have killed five Ukrainian soldiers and destroyed two military vehicles which had moved onto Russian soil. Claims of the incident - which would be the first direct clash between Russian and Ukrainian troops since the crisis began - are disputed by Kyiv.

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Wallace told MPs that a movement in Russian troops “from holding areas to potential launch locations” had been accompanied by a sustained propaganda campaign.

The Defence Secretary said: “In the last 48 hours, contrary to Kremlin assurances we have seen a continued increase in troop numbers and a change in force disposition moving from holding areas to potential launch locations.

“All the indicators point to increasing numbers and readiness of Russia forces and, not surprising to many of us, the pledge to withdraw Russian troops from Belarus at the end of their joint military drills on February 20, was not carried out and the exercise has now been extended until further notice.”

He went on: “Complementing this troop buildup has been a prolific proliferation of false-flag operations, propaganda stunts, and Russian news outlets carrying fictitious allegations. These are not the actions of a Russian government fulfilling its repeated declarations that it has no intention of invading Ukraine.

“In fact, we've seen over the last few weeks, the Russian playbook being implemented in a way that gives a strong cause for concern that President Putin is still committed to an invasion.”

Western officials have said they are seeing a number of Russian “provocations” - including a supposed car bomb attack on one of the leaders of the Moscow-backed separatist rebels in the east of the country.

Wallace added: “There are plenty of measures we can take, we are planning a serious set of sanctions and I think the reality and the question to President Putin is do you actually care what’s going to happen to your people because it’ll be them who suffer most as a result of the sanctions – and it’ll be interesting, as a responsible leader, whether he will listen to that.”

The National: Defence Secretary Ben Wallace (left) walking with his counterpart Defence Minister of the Russian Federation, Sergei ShoiguDefence Secretary Ben Wallace (left) walking with his counterpart Defence Minister of the Russian Federation, Sergei Shoigu

Earlier on Monday, Downing Street said there is still a “window for diplomacy” to avert war over Ukraine after Joe Biden and Putin tentatively agreed to a possible crisis summit.

Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said intelligence reports suggest Russia still intends to attack its neighbour, with the Kremlin’s plan beginning to play out.

However, after French President Emmanuel Macron worked to broker a meeting between the US and Russian leaders in a series of calls over the weekend, the spokesperson said there is still a chance of a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.

“Intelligence we are seeing suggests Russia intends to launch an invasion and President Putin’s plan has in effect already begun,” they said.

“We are seeing elements of the Russian playbook we would expect to see in those situations starting to play out in real time.

“Crucially we still think there is a window for diplomacy. I think that is what we have seen in discussions over the weekend and we want to explore those.”

Earlier, following talks in Brussels with Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said an invasion still appears to be “highly likely”.

“Diplomacy must be pursued but a Russian invasion of Ukraine looks highly likely,” she tweeted.

“The UK and allies are stepping up preparations for the worst-case scenario. We must make the cost for Russia intolerably high.”

The latest warnings came after Western leaders repeatedly claimed that Moscow could be preparing a “false flag” operation to provide a pretext for an attack after massing more than 130,000 troops on Ukraine’s border.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that while Putin and Biden could meet if they considered it necessary, no plans for a summit have been agreed.

“It’s premature to talk about specific plans for a summit. The meeting is possible if the leaders consider it feasible,” he said.

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Russia’s ambassador to the UK, Andrei Kelin (above), said it is still too early to say whether a meeting between Biden and Putin would take place.

He told the PA news agency it would be a “good result” if sufficient progress was made in talks to allow the summit to go ahead.

But he said the West is “not very interested in resolving the core question, the issue of the enlargement of Nato, the open door policy”.

Wallace said that if Putin “continues down this line, I suspect he’ll continue to get more forces on his border and greater defence spending across Nato – the very opposite of what he is trying to do”.

Conservative chairman of the Defence Committee Tobias Ellwood warned of a “wider realignment of global power with a formation of a new Russia-China alliance that is fuelling Putin’s adventurism and indeed perhaps taking us towards another Cold War”.

He asked about sanctions, adding: “There is a concern we are actually helping Putin in his intention of turning Russia away from the West and towards a new alliance with China in the long-term future.”

Wallace replied: “If Russia wants to be dependent on China then I think they will recognise that will be a wrong decision. China and Russia are directly in competition over the high north and the routes through the Arctic.”

Further discussions are expected to take place on Thursday between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

In a visit to the Commons, US House of Representatives speaker, Nancy Pelosi, suggested the Biden-Putin summit was contingent on the Lavrov talks being “successful”.