The Kremlin today said that Ukraine's desire to retake Crimea - which Moscow seized in 2014 - is a 'direct threat' and has ordered Russian to remain on 'combat readiness' amid speculation of an invasion of Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call that Moscow was worried about the possibility of a Ukrainian military move in eastern Ukraine, despite Russia having deployed close to 100,000 troops near the border in recent weeks.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had said on Wednesday that Crimea was Ukrainian territory and Kiev's goal was to 'liberate' it.
He focused however on diplomatic solutions and made no mention of taking the peninsula by force.
'Speaking in parliament, Zelensky said that the return of Crimea should be the main goal and philosophy of Ukraine,' Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters this morning.
'We see this as a direct threat to Russia.
'Such wording of course means that the Kiev regime intends to use all available means - including force - in order to encroach on a Russian region. This is how we are leaning towards perceiving it.'
Troops have been instructed by Defence Minister and Army General Sergei Shoigu to stay on alert at their posts on two weekends covering both 18 and 25 December.
It comes as top Russian and US diplomats meet in Stockholm, Sweden today to hold talks over the build-up of Russian military on the Ukrainian border.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin today said that an invasion of Ukraine would be met with a response from 'the international community', while US secretary of state Anthony Blinken warned of 'high-impact sanctions'.
'Whatever we do will be done as a part of an international community. The best case though is that we won't see an incursion by the Soviet Union into the Ukraine,' Austin said, accidentally calling Russia the former Soviet Union.
It comes amid rising tensions in the region after Russian authorities reported this morning that its FSB counter-intelligence service had detained three Ukrainian spies agents - one of whom was said to be planning a 'terrorist attack' - gathering information about 'strategic facilities'.
A militant of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic walks at fighting positions on the line of separation from the Ukrainian armed forces in the outskirts of Kirovsk in Luhansk Region, Ukraine December 1, 2021.
Tens of thousands of Russian troops have amassed near the Ukrainian border in recent weeks, sparking fears of an imminent invasion. (Pictured: Marines of the Baltic Fleet forces of the Russian Navy train in the zone of obstacles during military exercises at the Khmelevka firing ground in the Kaliningrad region, Russia November 24, 2021)
Ukrainian forces meanwhile are preparing to repel any offensive, with the government appealing to the international community for help in combatting any Russian incursion into Ukrainian territrory (Servicemen of the Ukrainian Air Assault Forces attend military drills in Zhytomyr Region, Ukraine November 21, 2021)
In this file handout satellite image released by Maxar Technologies taken on November 1, 2021 shows Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers and support equipment amid the presence of a large ground forces deployment on the northern edge of the town of Yelnya in Russia, close to the Ukrainian border
Russian troops have been instructed by Defence Minister and Army General Sergei Shoigu (pictured yesterday) to stay on alert at their posts on two weekends covering both 18 and 25 December
Close Putin ally Shoigu is seen on video telling top brass: 'I have signed an order granting military personnel rest days on 29 and 30 December.
'In return, we will work on 18 and 25 December.
'I request that the necessary level of combat readiness, law and order and military discipline be maintained in the troops.'
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin today said that a 'Soviet' invasion of Ukraine would be met with a response from 'the international community'
In response, Austin on Thursday declared any US response to Russia's actions towards Ukraine would be carried out in conjunction with the international community, while Blinken warned Moscow to pull back its troops from the Ukrainian border, saying a Russian invasion would provoke sanctions that would hit Moscow harder than any imposed until now.
Asked whether fallout on Russia would be strictly economic, Austin declined to answer directly, saying only that the 'best methods' would be used.
Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that aspires to join the European Union and NATO, has become the main flashpoint between Russia and the West as relations have soured to their worst level in the three decades since the Cold War ended.
Ukraine says Russia has deployed more than 90,000 troops near their long shared border, while US satellite images appear to show a mass build-up of military weapons, equipment and personnel being shipped to the border.
Conversely, Moscow accuses Kyiv of pursuing its own military build-up and has defended its right to deploy troops on its own territory as it sees fit.
It comes as the Kremlin reported that FSB security forces had detained three suspected Ukrainian spies, one of whom was thought to be planning an attack with explosives.
'Two agents of the security service of Ukraine, Zinoviy Zinovyevich Koval, born in 1974, and his son, Igor Zinovyevich Koval, born in 1999, were detained for collecting information and taking photographs and videos of strategically important enterprises and transport infrastructure facilities in Russia,' said an FSB statement.
A suspected agent of Ukraine's military intelligence directorate Oleksandr Viktorovych Tsylyk, born in 1998, had confessed he was working undercover in Russia, according to the FSB.
'An attack was planned to be carried out by detonating two improvised explosive devices with a total weight of 1.5 kg in TNT equivalent.'
'Two agents of the security service of Ukraine, Zinoviy Zinovyevich Koval (pictured), born in 1974, and his son, Igor Zinovyevich Koval, born in 1999, were detained for collecting information and taking photographs and videos of strategically important enterprises and transport infrastructure facilities in Russia,' said an FSB statement.
Russia continues to showcase its military muscle by announcing its Central Military District has formed the first unit in the Russian Armed Forces armed with Terminator tank support vehicles.
The Ural Tank Division stationed near Chelyabinsk has nine Terminators, say reports.
The crews of the tank support combat vehicles will take part in more than three dozen tactical exercises in the new training year, beginning now.
The Terminator BMPT is designed to conduct manoeuvre combat operations as a multi-purpose fighting vehicle under nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction.
Separately Shoigu announced that two serial nuclear-powered submarines - the Kniaz (Prince) Oleg and Novosibirsk - are to be handed over to the navy this month as another key plank inn a vast modernisation of Russian forces under Putin.
Meanwhile, videos show the deployment of Bastion coastal missile defence system on the disputed Kuril Islands close to Japan in the Pacific.
Footage shows Russian forces landing on the uninhabited volcanic island of Matua in an evident show of strength to Tokyo
'Pacific Fleet missile forces will be on round-the-clock watch to control the adjacent water area and strait zones,' said the Russian Pacific Fleet.
'Equipment for technical posts has been installed for the operation and maintenance of equipment, storage facilities for equipment and materiel have been deployed, and access roads to launching positions have been equipped.'
The Kuril archipelago was grabbed by Stalin at the end of the Second World War, but Japan refuses to accept Moscow's jurisdiction.
Referring to the southern Kurils by their Japanese name, new premier Fumio Kishida told parliament in October: 'The sovereignty of our country extends to the Northern Territories.
'It is necessary to resolve the issue of territories, not leaving it to the next generations.'