RUSSIA has claimed its fighter jets have intercepted a US spy plane which was flying over the Black Sea.
Fears of war are growing in the region as US intelligence revealed they believe Vladimir Putin is preparing for a massive offensive against Ukraine.
Washington believes that Moscow is massing some 175,000 men along with a large arsenal of tanks and artillery to prepare for an attack on Kiev.
Western observers have been nervously watching the rumbling of Russian troops and armour near the former Soviet state over the past few months.
And in the latest flashpoint, Su-27 and Su-30 fighter jets saw off an American RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft over the Black Sea.
Black Sea waters and airpsace regularly patrolled by Western militaries and their Russian counterparts, often leading to tensions.
And the landlocked sea is believed to be a key tactical point for a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, pictures also show Russian military drills underway in regions close to Ukraine, including Voronezh and Belgorod.
A report said: “Servicemen of the (Vistula) division’s tank and motorized rifle units, as well as logistics specialists, were the first to begin the field exercises.”
The drills “will soon be joined by the liaison, air defence, radiation, chemical and biological defence units and military engineers.”
Sniper drills involving 700-plus military shooters are underway in four regions in striking distance of Ukraine.
And separately Moscow warned Western navies to stay out of Arctic waters close to Russia, accusing NATO of “provocative” activity in a vast region where Kremlin war games are now underway.
Russia has long been feared to have ambitions to seize back parts of Ukraine, which broke away with the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s.
Putin illegally annexed Crimea from the country in 2014 – a move that plunged the region into Chaos.
Moscow always claims it was merely liberating people who wanted to be part of Russia.
And meanwhile a civil war has also been raging in Eastern Ukraine ever since, which sees Kiev pitted against pro-Russian rebels who allegedly receive material support from the Kremlin.
The Russian plans call for a military offensive against Ukraine as soon as early 2022
US intelligence reportedly fears Russia is preparing for a “massive offensive” against Ukraine in a move that would test the West’s resolve.
Kiev’s allies have always pledged to support them, but intervening against Russia could risk spiraling into a conflict that could explode into World War 3.
Russia has been demanding Ukraine will not join NATO and raging the US must stop all military activity in the region.
“The Russian plans call for a military offensive against Ukraine as soon as early 2022 with a scale of forces twice what we saw this past spring during Russia’s snap exercise near Ukraine’s borders,” a US official told The Washington Post.
“The plans involve extensive movement of 100 battalion tactical groups with an estimated 175,000 personnel, along with armor, artillery and equipment.”
The unclassified document obtained by The Post, shows Russian forces have been deployed in four locations- there are currently 50 battlefield tactical groups tanks and artillery.
The US map shows approximately 70,000 troops near the border but it predicts the number is set to rise to 175,000.
According to the official the analysis is partly based on satellite images that “show newly arrived units at various locations along the Ukrainian border over the last month.”
Additionally, the document states that “equipment may be left behind at different training ranges to enable a rapid, final buildup.”
Kyiv’s defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov said intelligence indicated a possible Russian invasion in late January.
And Ukrainian commander Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Kyiv’s defence intelligence agency, said Russia could invade Ukraine by the end of January with an attack involving some 100,000 soldiers.
Russia has previously warned war is “highly likely” saying that Kiev’s desire to retake Crimea is a “direct threat” to them.
Putin has also ordered US officials to leave Russia – further stoking tensions.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Putin could quickly order an invasion of Ukraine if he had a pretext for doing so.
He said America was “deeply concerned by evidence that Russia has made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine”.
“We don’t know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade. We do know he’s putting in place the capacity to do so in short order,” he said.
Russia has also “intensified disinformation to paint Ukraine as the aggressor” and increased anti-Ukrainian propaganda by more than tenfold to levels not seen since its 2014 invasion of the country.
“The idea that Ukraine represents a threat to Russia would be a bad joke if things weren’t so serious,” he said.
He said Putin may “claim provocation for something that they were planning to do all along.”
What is happening between Russia and Ukraine?
RUSSIA and the Ukraine have remained technically at war since 2014.
Ukraine was aligned with Russia as part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991, following which it became an independent state.
Both nations remained closely tied – but Ukraine gradually began to distance itself, seeking deeper ties with the West.
The open conflict was triggered by the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014 – when an uprising overthrew the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych.
Vladimir Putin’s forces reacted by annexing the region of Crimea from Ukraine – a move which was widely condemned by the West.
The conflict then spiralled when pro-Russian groups in Eastern Ukraine then took up arms against the state.
Russia gave their backing the separatist forces which formed breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Putin’s forces then launched a military incursion into these regions as they gave their support to the rebels.
Russia continues to hold Crimea – and claims the region joined them willingly after they a referendum.
Seven years have now passed and the War in Donbass remains at a stalemate.
It is estimated some 14,000 have been killed in the conflict, including more than 3,0o0 civilians.
Ukraine and the rebels signed a new ceasefire in July 2020 – but clashes have been steadily increasing again throughout 2021.
Russian troops have also been detected moving around the borders of Ukraine – stoking fears that 2022 could be the year of an invasion.