Months of uncertainty over whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would send his forces into Ukraine were laid to rest Thursday as the Russian military launched a wide-ranging attack, casting aside international condemnation and sanctions while warning other countries that attempts to interfere would lead to “consequences you have never seen.”
A fog of war remained over the country as the American East Coast awoke Thursday morning, and conflicting reports sprouted on social media regarding fighting at various locations. Ukraine’s leadership said at least 40 people have been killed so far in what it called a “full-scale war” targeting the country from the east, north and south.
But as morning broke in Ukraine, big explosions were heard in the capital Kyiv, as well as Kharkiv and Odesa as world leaders decried the start of an invasion that could lead to massive deaths, a toppling of Ukraine’s democratically elected government and a threat to Europe’s post-Cold War balance.
A Ukrainian presidential adviser said that Russian forces have launched an attack on Ukraine from the north, east and south. The adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, said “the Ukrainian military is fighting hard.”
Podolyak said Thursday that “our army is fighting back inflicting significant losses to the enemy.” He said that there have been civilian casualties, but didn’t give details.
He said that “Ukraine now needs a greater and very specific support from the world — military-technical, financial as well as tough sanctions against Russia,” he said.
Ukraine’s leadership said at least 40 people have been killed so far in what it called a “full-scale war” targeting the country from the east, north and south.
Ukrainian border guards released footage of what they said were Russian military vehicles moving in, and big explosions were heard in the capital Kyiv, Kharkiv in the east and Odesa in the west. As the Russian military claimed to have wiped out Ukraine’s entire air defenses in a matter of hours, Ukrainians fled some cities and European authorities declared Ukrainian air space an active conflict zone.
‘All-out defense mode’
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s defense minster, Oleksiy Reznikov, called on citizens looking to fight the Russians to enroll with the country’s territorial defense units, The New York Times reported.
“The enemy is attacking, but our army is indestructible,” he said. “Ukraine is moving into all-out defense mode.”
Ukrainians have started fleeing some cities and the Russian military claimed it had taken out all of the country’s air defenses and air bases within hours of the invasion’s commencement.
Security camera footage showed a line of Russian military vehicles crossing into Ukraine from Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared martial law and said Russia was targeting the country’s military infrastructure.
Zelenskyy cut diplomatic ties with Moscow and declared martial law, saying Russia has targeted Ukraine’s military infrastructure. Ukrainians who had long braced for the prospect of an assault were urged to stay home and not to panic even as Ukrainian authorities reported artillery barrages and airstrikes on targets around the country.
An adviser to Ukraine’s president, Oleksii Arestovich, said about 40 people have been killed so far in the Russian attack and several dozen wounded. He didn’t specify whether the casualties included civilians.
“The Ukrainian military is waging hard battles, repelling attacks in Donbas and other regions in the east, north and south,” Zelenskyy said at a briefing. He said the Ukrainian authorities will hand weapons to all those willing to defend the country.
Citizens were urged to stay home and not panic, even as the country’s border guard agency reported an artillery barrage by Russian troops from neighboring Belarus.
The world reacts
President Joe Biden has pledged tough sanctions to punish Russia, even as Putin asserted in a televised address before the invasion that the attack was meant to protect civilians in eastern Ukraine — a false claim the U.S. had predicted he would make to justify the military actions.
Japan, Italy, Spain, Australia and France all condemned the attack Thursday, and Latvia called for an invocation of NATO’s Article 4, which allows for any member to call a group consultation when they think “the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened.”
If Russia takes the entirety of Ukraine, it would immediately abut several NATO member states.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has convened a meeting of NATO ambassadors to assess the invasion of Ukraine.
The meeting Thursday morning will “address the situation in Ukraine and the consequences of Russia’s unprovoked attack.”
Earlier, Stoltenberg had already condemned Russia’s invasion. “Despite our repeated warnings and tireless efforts to engage in diplomacy, Russia has chosen the path of aggression,” Stoltenberg said.
He also warned Moscow that the alliance will “do all it takes to protect and defend” NATO members.
He called the invasion a “grave breach of international law, and a serious threat to Euro-Atlantic security. I call on Russia to cease its military action immediately.”
The European Union is planning the “strongest, the harshest package” of sanctions it has ever considered at an emergency summit Thursday.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that “the target is the stability in Europe and the whole of the international peace order, and we will hold President (Vladimir) Putin accountable for that.”
“We will present a package of massive and targeted sanctions to European leaders for approval,” she said.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called it the “strongest, the harshest package” ever considered.
“A major nuclear power has attacked a neighbor country and is threatening reprisals of any other states that may come to the rescue,” Borrell said. “This is not only the greatest violation of international law, it’s a violation of the basic principles of human co-existence. It’s costing many lives with unknown consequences ahead of us. The European Union will respond in the strongest possible terms.”
Putin accuses the United States and its allies of ignoring Russia’s demands to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and other security guarantees.
He also claimed that Russia does not intend to occupy Ukraine but will move to “demilitarize” it and bring those who committed crimes to justice.
But as the attack commenced, some analysts questioned Putin’s claim that the Russian military would hold back.
Appearing on CNN, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark urged Ukrainian’s outmatched forces to consolidate in cities before the Russians arrived.
“They’re certainly going to need support, and the West needs to give them that support,” said Clark, who served as NATO Supreme Allied Commander from 1997 to 2000.
In a written statement Wednesday night in the United States, Biden condemned the “unprovoked and unjustified attack” and promised that the United States and its allies would “hold Russia accountable.”
Biden is slated to speak to Americans Thursday following a meeting of the Group of Seven leaders and more sanctions against Russia are expected to be announced Thursday as well.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba described the assault as a “full-scale invasion” and said Ukraine will “defend itself and will win. The world can and must stop Putin. The time to act is now.”
In the capital, Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko advised residents to stay home unless they are involved in critical work and urged them to prepare go-bags with necessities and documents if they need to evacuate.
‘What could be worse?’
An Associated Press photographer in Mariupol reported hearing explosions and seeing dozens of people with suitcases heading for their cars to leave the city.
“We are facing a war and horror. What could be worse?” 64-year-old Liudmila Gireyeva said in Kyiv. She planned to head to the western city of Lviv and then to try to move to Poland to join her daughter.
Putin “will be damned by history, and Ukrainians are damning him,” she said.
Russian claims about knocking out Ukrainian air defenses and Ukrainian claims to have shot down several Russian aircraft could not immediately be verified.
The Ukrainian air defense system and air force date back to the Soviet era and are dwarfed by Russia’s massive air power and its inventory of precision weapons.
The Russian Defense Ministry said it was not targeting cities, but using precision weapons and claimed that “there is no threat to civilian population.”
Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on Facebook that the Russian military had launched missile strikes on Ukrainian military command facilities, air bases and military depots in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Dnipro.
After the initial explosions in Kyiv, people could be heard shouting in the streets. Then a sense of normality returned, with cars circulating and people walking in the streets as a pre-dawn commute appeared to start in relative calm.
Later in the day, photos emerged of lines forming outside Kyiv grocery stores.
The consequences of the conflict and resulting sanctions on Russia could reverberate throughout the world, upending geopolitical dynamics in Europe as well as affecting energy supplies in Europe and jolting global financial markets.
Asian stock markets plunged and oil prices surged as the attack began. Earlier, Wall Street’s benchmark S&P 500 index fell 1.8% to an eight-month low after the Kremlin said rebels in eastern Ukraine asked for military assistance.
Anticipating international condemnation and countermeasures, Putin issued a stark warning to other countries not to meddle.
“Whoever tries to impede us, let alone create threats for our country and its people, must know that the Russian response will be immediate and lead to the consequences you have never seen in history,” he said.
Putin urged Ukrainian servicemen to “immediately put down arms and go home.”
In a stark reminder of Russia’s nuclear power, Putin warned that “no one should have any doubts that a direct attack on our country will lead to the destruction and horrible consequences for any potential aggressor.” He emphasized that Russia is “one of the most potent nuclear powers and also has a certain edge in a range of state-of-the-art weapons.”
Though the U.S. on Tuesday announced the repositioning of forces around the Baltics, Biden has said he will not send in troops to fight Russia.
Putin announced the military operation after the Kremlin said rebels in eastern Ukraine asked Russia for military assistance to help fend off Ukrainian “aggression,” an announcement that the White House said was a “false flag” operation by Moscow to offer up a pretext for an invasion.
Putin’s announcement came just hours after the Ukrainian president rejected Moscow’s claims that his country poses a threat to Russia and made a passionate, last-minute plea for peace.
“The people of Ukraine and the government of Ukraine want peace,” Zelenskyy said in an emotional overnight address, speaking in Russian in a direct appeal to Russian citizens. “But if we come under attack, if we face an attempt to take away our country, our freedom, our lives and lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. When you attack us, you will see our faces, not our backs.”
Zelenskyy said he asked to arrange a call with Putin late Wednesday, but the Kremlin did not respond.
In an apparent reference to Putin’s move to authorize the deployment of the Russian military to “maintain peace” in eastern Ukraine, Zelenskyy warned that “this step could mark the start of a big war on the European continent.”
“Any provocation, any spark could trigger a blaze that will destroy everything,” he said.
He challenged the Russian propaganda claims, saying that “you are told that this blaze will bring freedom to the people of Ukraine, but the Ukrainian people are free.”
At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council called by Ukraine because of the imminent threat of a Russian invasion, members still unaware of Putin’s announcement appealed to him to stop an attack.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the meeting, just before the announcement, telling Putin: “Stop your troops from attacking Ukraine. Give peace a chance. Too many people have already died.”
Even before Putin’s announcement, dozens of nations imposed sanctions on Russia, further squeezing Russian oligarchs and banks out of international markets.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has shrugged off the sanctions, saying that “Russia has proven that, with all the costs of the sanctions, it is able to minimize the damage.”
The threat of war has already shredded Ukraine’s economy and raised the specter of massive casualties, energy shortages across Europe and global economic chaos.
Karmanau and Heintz reported from Kyiv. Angela Charlton in Paris; Frank Jordans in Berlin; Lorne Cook in Brussels, Frank Bajak in Boston, Robert Burns, Matthew Lee, Aamer Madhani, Eric Tucker, Ellen Knickmeyer, Zeke Miller, Chris Megerian and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.