Russian forces have unleashed an attack of Ukraine on the orders of Vladimir Putin, who announced a “special military operation” at dawn, amid warnings from world leaders that it could spark the biggest war in Europe since 1945.
Within minutes of Putin’s short televised address, at about 5am Ukrainian time, explosions were heard near major Ukrainian cities, including the capital, Kyiv.
The scope of the Russian attack appears to be massive. Ukraine’s interior ministry reported that the country was under attack from cruise and ballistic missiles, with Russia appearing to target infrastructure near major cities such as Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Dnipro.
Explosions from artillery rockets lit up the night sky as shelling began near Mariupol, video showed. A senior adviser to Ukraine’s interior ministry said that it appeared Russian troops may soon move on Kharkiv, which is about 20 miles from the border. Locals in Kyiv sought safety in bomb shelters as explosions were heard outside the city.
Air raid sirens sounded over the capital and residents of Kharkiv sheltered in the city’s metro, scenes that haven’t been seen in those cities since 1941.
“Putin has just launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” said Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba. “Peaceful Ukrainian cities are under strikes. This is a war of aggression. Ukraine will defend itself and will win. The world can and must stop Putin. The time to act is now.”
In a bid to justify the attack, Putin claimed “A hostile anti-Russia is being created on our historic lands.”
Russia-Ukraine crisis: Putin orders military operation in Ukraine – video
“We have taken the decision to conduct a special military operation,” he said, in what amounted to a declaration of war. He claimed it was for the “demilitarisation and denazification” of Ukraine, echoing a theme of Kremlin propaganda, the false claim that the Kyiv government is controlled by the far right.
“We do not intend to occupy Ukraine,” he said, and he had a chilling warning for other nations.
“To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside: if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history. All relevant decisions have been taken. I hope you hear me,” he said.
Russian media reported that the declaration of war may have been pre-recorded. The Russian president was wearing the same tie and seated at the same desk when he announced his recognition of the Russian-controlled territories on Monday.
As Putin’s words were being broadcast and the first detonations were being reported, the UN security council was holding an emergency session, chaired by Russia itself, which holds the rotating presidency. It was begun by the UN secretary general, António Guterres, who made a direct appeal: “President Putin – stop your troops from attacking Ukraine. Give peace a chance. Too many people have already died.”
Joe Biden issued a written statement saying: “The prayers of the entire world are with the people of Ukraine tonight as they suffer an unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces.
“President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering,” Biden said. “Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way. The world will hold Russia accountable.”
Other world leaders also condemned the invasion. “I am appalled by the horrific events in Ukraine and I have spoken to President Zelenskiy to discuss next steps. President Putin has chosen a path of bloodshed and destruction by launching this unprovoked attack on Ukraine. The UK and our allies will respond decisively,” said Boris Johnson.
“We will hold the Kremlin accountable,” wrote Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the EU Commission, which had announced new sanctions against Moscow just hours before the attack.
CCTV shows Russian tanks entering Ukraine from Belarus and Crimea – video
The stage for the offensive was set on Wednesday night, after the leaders of the two Russian-controlled territories in east Ukraine sent an official request to Moscow for military aid to “help repel the aggression of the Ukrainian armed forces in order to avoid civilian casualties and a humanitarian catastrophe in the Donbas”.
In response, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, used a video address to appeal to the Russian public for help after an attempt to speak to Putin was unsuccessful. “Do Russians want wars? I would very much like to answer this question. But the answer is up to you,” he said.
He also vowed to defend the country, saying: “If someone attempts to take away our land, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. By attacking, you will see our faces, not our backs, but our faces.”
Military analysts said they expected Putin to send his forces in order to capture or surround Kyiv. There were reports in Russian state media that airborne troops had captured the airport in Boryspil near Kyiv.
The Russian military claimed that all of Ukraine’s aviation bases were disabled in the barrage of missiles that began the Russian invasion.
Smoke has been seen rising from near major airfields outside of Kharkiv and other cities in the east. But Russia also appears to have hit airfields in Kherson and as far west as Ivano-Frankivsk, which is nearer to the border with Poland.
It has also indicated that its forces have entered Ukraine, claiming that Ukraine’s border forces “are not putting up any resistance to Russian units”.
Some of the first explosions after Putin announced the operation were heard near Kramatorsk, the headquarters of the Ukrainian army’s operations centre near the Russian-controlled territories in south-east Ukraine. Russia appeared to be targeting military infrastructure in its early strikes on Thursday morning. Explosions were also reported at military headquarters, and at military warehouses.
“#Russia’s airborne forces are attempting to take control of the airport in #Kyiv to… fly in forces to occupy” the city, wrote the US senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate’s select committee on intelligence. “An amphibious assault on the key port city of #Mariupol is now underway Ground forces now moving in from Belarus, Crimea & from #Russia.”
The dramatic escalation marks the second time that Moscow has launched a significant military incursion into Ukraine since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2014, Putin ordered undercover Russian soldiers to seize the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow then annexed.
Thursday’s attack was preceded by a massive, continuous cyber-attack that targeted Ukraine’s ministries and banks, a form of hybrid warfare to sow confusion.
Long lines of traffic as people flee Ukraine's capital video
In previous weeks, Putin built up an estimated 190,000 troops close to Ukraine’s borders while European leaders shuttled between Kyiv and Moscow, seeking a diplomatic solution.
The Russian military claimed it was not targeting population centres. “High-precision weapons are disabling the military infrastructure, air defence facilities, military airfields and aviation of the Ukrainian army,” the Russian defence ministry said in a statement carried by Ria Novosti.
But military analysts questioned whether Russia could sustain the bombardment and believed a ground invasion was likely.
“Russia has a very effective aerial, naval and ground fires capability but it lacks large stockpiles of precision-guided munitions, which is why a ground offensive appears to have begun soon after the first strikes. Russia has every incentive to move as fast as possible,” wrote Rob Lee, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program.
The Russian rouble fell to a record-low level since 2016 as Putin announced the military operation. Trading has been halted on the Russian stock market.
The US will likely announce new sanctions against Russia on Monday, using tools to punish Russian banks and its larger financial system that Washington had so far held in reserve. Biden said: “I will meet with my G7 counterparts in the morning and then speak to the American people to announce the further consequences the United States and our allies and partners will impose on Russia for this needless act of aggression against Ukraine and global peace and security.”