Russian forces invaded Ukraine Thursday, assaulting by land, sea and air in the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War II.
Missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities. Ukraine reported columns of troops pouring across its borders from Russia and Belarus, and landing on the coast from the Black and Azov seas.
Explosions were heard before dawn and throughout the morning in the capital Kyiv, a city of 3 million people. Gunfire rattled, sirens blared, and the highway out of the city choked with traffic as residents fled.
The assault brought a calamatous end to weeks of fruitless diplomatic efforts by Western leaders to avert war, their worst fears about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions realized.
“Russia treacherously attacked our state in the morning, as Nazi Germany did in the WW2 years,” tweeted Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“Russia has embarked on a path of evil, but Ukraine is defending itself & won’t give up its freedom no matter what Moscow thinks.”
Calling on Ukrainians to defend their country, he said arms would be given to anyone prepared to fight. He also urged Russians to take to the streets to protest against their government’s actions.
U.S. President Joe Biden said he was praying for Ukrainian victims of an “unprovoked and unjustified attack.” EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said: “These are among the darkest hours of Europe since the Second World War.”
A resident of Kharkiv, the closest big city to the Russian border, said windows in apartment blocks were shaking from constant blasts.
Outside the southern port of Mariupol, near a frontline held by Russian-backed separatists, a Ukrainian armored column headed along the road, with soldiers seated atop turrets smiling and flashing victory signs to cars which honked their horns in support.
In Mangush and Berdyansk towns, people queued for cash and gasoline. Civilians from Mariupol packed bags.
“We are going into hiding,” one woman said.
Ukrainian officials said Russian helicopters attacked Gostomel, a military airport near Kyiv, and Ukraine downed three of them. Ukrainian border officials said the Russians were trying to penetrate Kyiv region and the Zhytomyr region on the Belarusian border, and they were using Grad rockets.
Initial unconfirmed reports of casualties included Ukrainian civilians killed by Russian bombardment and border guards defending the frontier. Regional authorities of Ukraine’s southern Odessa region said 18 people were killed in a missile attack. At least six people were killed in Brovary, a town near Kyiv, authorities there said.
Ukraine’s military said it had destroyed four Russian tanks on a road near Kharkiv, killed 50 troops near a town in Luhansk region and downed six Russian warplanes in the east.
Russia denied reports its aircraft or armored vehicles had been destroyed. Russian-backed separatists claimed to have downed two Ukrainian planes.
‘UNPROVOKED AND UNJUSTIFIED’
In an early-morning declaration of war, Putin said he had ordered “a special military operation” to protect people, including Russian citizens, subjected to “genocide” in Ukraine – an accusation the West calls absurd propaganda.
“And for this we will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine,” Putin said. “Russia cannot feel safe, develop, and exist with a constant threat emanating from the territory of modern Ukraine…All responsibility for bloodshed will be on the conscience of the ruling regime in Ukraine.”
Biden has ruled out sending U.S. troops to defend Ukraine but he and other Western leaders promised tough financial sanctions.
“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,” Biden said.
Russia is one of the world’s biggest energy producers, and both it and Ukraine are among the top exporters of grain. The prospect of war and sanctions threatens economies around the world already facing supply disruption as they emerge from the pandemic.
Stocks and bond yields plunged; the dollar and gold soared. Brent oil surged past $100/barrel for the first time since 2014.
A democratic country of 44 million people, Ukraine is Europe’s biggest country by area after Russia itself. It voted overwhelmingly for independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, and aims to join NATO and the European Union, aspirations that infuriate Moscow.
Putin, who denied for months he was planning an invasion, has called Ukraine an artificial construct carved from Russia by its enemies, a characterisation Ukrainians see as an attempt to erase their more than 1,000-year-old history. While many Ukrainians, particularly in the east, speak Russian as a native language, virtually all identify as a separate nationality.
Three hours after Putin gave his order, Russia’s defense ministry said it had taken out military infrastructure at Ukrainian air bases and degraded its air defenses.
Earlier, Ukrainian media reported that military command centers in Kyiv and Kharkiv had been struck by missiles, while Russian troops had landed at Odessa and Mariupol. A Reuters witness later heard three blasts in Mariupol.
Russia announced it was shutting all shipping in the Azov Sea. Russia controls the strait leading into the sea where Ukraine has ports including Mariupol. Ukraine appealed to Turkey to bar Russian ships from the straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
Queues of people waited to withdraw money and buy supplies of food and water in Kyiv. Traffic going out of the city towards the Polish border was jammed. Western countries have prepared for the likelihood of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing an assault.
Cars stretched back for dozens of kilometers (miles) on the highway to the western city of Lviv, Reuters witnesses said.
“We’re afraid of bombardments,” said Oxana, stuck in her car with her three-year-old daughter on the backseat. “This is so scary.”
World leaders expressed near universal outrage at the invasion, with China, which signed a friendship treaty with Russia three weeks ago, a notable exception. Beijing reiterated a call for all parties to exercise restraint and rejected a description of Russia’s action as an invasion.