Australian officials have been told to evacuate Ukraine immediately as war appears imminent between Russian and NATO forces.
Embassy staff have been told to make plans to leave the embattled country, with operations in the Australian building in Lviv now closed.
Workers had been moved to the city in Ukraine’s west after growing fears for the safety of people in the Australian embassy in Kyiv.
Bureaucrats are now being sent to nearby Poland and Romania to assist with the evacuation of all Australian workers.
Defence Minister Marise Payne confirmed the withdrawal of Australian officials in Ukraine and urged people: ‘do not delay’.
‘We continue to urge all Australians to leave Ukraine immediately. The safety of Australians and officials is our priority.
‘Due to the increased risk, Australian officials have been directed to depart Ukraine. Our Embassy and operations in Lviv are now temporarily closed. Australian officials have been deployed to eastern Poland and Romainia to assist Australians seeking to depart Ukraine.’
The Australian Embassy in Lviv (pictured) has been evacuated with all officials being told to leave Ukraine immediately
This handout video grab released by the Russian Defence Ministry on February 21, 2022, shows bombing during joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at a firing range near Brest
Ms Payne said the Russian dictator had led an ‘unprovoked assault’ on Ukraine and Australia stands in solidarity with its people.
‘The Australian Government condemns President Putin’s declaration today that the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine are independent states,’ she said in a statement on Wednesday.
‘This flagrantly undermines Ukraine’s soveriengty and territorial integriy and has no validity under international law.’
Ms Payne confirmed Australia continue to work closely with NATO forces and will be imposing heavy sanctions on Russia as a result of their aggression.
‘We are prepared to announce swift and severe sanctions that would target key Russian individuals and entitites responsible for undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,’ the defence minister said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressed the embassy situation last week, saying they had moved to the temporary location in Lviv due to the heavy buildup of Russian troops in the capital.
‘The situation is deteriorating and is reaching a very dangerous stage,’ Mr Morrison said.
‘I want to send a very clear message on behalf of Australia … that the autocratic, unilateral actions of Russia, to be threatening and bullying Ukraine, is something that is completely and utterly unacceptable.’
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs a document recognising the independence of separatist regions in eastern Ukraine in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Monday
Scores of military vehicles including tanks have been seen moving through Donetsk, the capital of one of two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine, just hours after Vladimir Putin recognised them as independent states.
A Reuters witness saw unusually large columns of military hardware in the city in the early hours of Tuesday, after the Russian President ordered his troops to enter Ukraine on a ‘peacekeeping mission’.
Putin on Monday ordered his defence ministry to send Russian troops to eastern Ukraine’s two separatist regions – the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic – according to a decree signed by Putin recognising their independence.
Following days of Moscow staging what are widely believed to be false flag attacks on Ukrainian soil and blaming them on Kiev, Putin said during a televised speech that Ukraine faces more ‘bloodshed’ if the country does not end military operations against pro-Moscow rebels in the eastern regions.
Recognising the rebel regions’ independence effectively shatters the Minsk peace agreements and opens the door for Russia to sign treaties with the ‘states’ and openly send troops and weapons there to defend them against Ukrainian ‘threats’.
And within hours of signing the decree, which paves the way for a long-feared Russian invasion, a Reuters reporter saw about five tanks in a column on the edge of the city and two more in another part of town. No insignia were visible, and it was not clear tonight if they belonged to Russian backed separatists or they were in fact the Russian military. Sources said tanks had not been seen on the streets in previous days.
The move to recognise the two eastern Ukrainian regions as independent fuels further tension with the West and narrows the diplomatic options available to avoid war, since it is an explicit rejection of a seven-year-old ceasefire mediated by France and Germany, still touted as the framework for any future negotiations on the wider crisis.
Ukrainian servicemen are seen outside of Svitlodarsk, Ukraine on February 21
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy accused Russia of wrecking peace efforts and ruled out making any territorial concessions in an address to the nation in the early hours of Tuesday.
Mr Johnson said Putin’s decision to recognise the two separatist Ukrainian republics was in breach of international law and an ‘ill omen’ and ‘dark sign’ that things are moving in the wrong while UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the move would not go ‘unpunished’ as she announced new sanctions on Russia.
The Prime Minister will chair a Cobra meeting on Tuesday morning to discuss the latest developments in Ukraine and agree on a ‘significant package of sanctions’ on Moscow as well as more weapons for Ukraine.
The EU’s top officials also said they will impose sanctions, while the U.S. has ordered sanctions which will prohibit new investment, trade and financing in the two separatist regions of Ukraine recognised by Putin.
All eyes will now turn to Ukraine’s border regions for evidence that Russian troops have crossed, after videos published earlier in the day showed tanks and armoured vehicles in ‘battle formations’ – some of them less than three miles from the frontier.