Russia launches major assault on Ukraine; missiles said to hit Kyiv, other cities

Ukraine says Russian ground forces enter from several directions; Putin says assault aimed at ‘demilitarization’ and ‘denazification,’ warns foreign countries against interfering

Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuguyev near Kharkiv, Ukraine on February 24, 2022 (Aris Messinis / AFP)
Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuguyev near Kharkiv, Ukraine on February 24, 2022 (Aris Messinis / AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a military operation in Ukraine on Thursday with explosions heard across the country, and Ukraine’s foreign minister warned a “full-scale invasion” was underway.

Weeks of intense diplomacy and the imposition of Western sanctions on Russia failed to deter Putin, who had massed between 150,000 and 200,000 troops along the borders of Ukraine.

Videos showed heavy artillery fire and what appeared to be missile strikes. The Ukrainian government said a Russian invasion had begun and military sites nationwide were being attacked.

Ukraine’s border guard service said Russian ground forces crossed into the country from several directions. Russian tanks and other heavy equipment crossed the frontier in several northern regions, as well as from the Kremlin-annexed peninsula of Crimea in the south, the agency said.

There were unconfirmed reports of Russian ground troops moving into Odessa and Kharkiv. A CNN report said Russian troops were entering the country through Belarus, a Moscow ally.

Putin warned other countries that any attempt to interfere with the Russian action would lead to “consequences they have never seen.” Shortly after he spoke, large explosions were heard in Kyiv, Kharkiv and other areas of Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers ride in a military vehicle in Mariupol, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022 (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

After several hours of attacks, Russia’s defense ministry claimed it had neutralized Ukrainian military airbases and its air defense systems.

A Ukrainian Interior Ministry official told CNN there had been “hundreds” of casualties, without providing details. The figure could not be immediately confirmed.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Putin had “launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”

“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,” he tweeted.

Putin said the attack was needed to protect civilians in eastern Ukraine – a claim the US had predicted he would falsely make to justify an invasion.

In a televised address, Putin accused the US and its allies of ignoring Russia’s demand to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and offer Moscow security guarantees. He said Russia’s goal was not to occupy Ukraine.

US President Joe Biden denounced the “unprovoked and unjustified” attack on Ukraine and said the world will “hold Russia accountable.”

A full-blown Russian invasion could cause massive casualties and topple Ukraine’s democratically elected government. And the consequences of the conflict and resulting sanctions levied on Russia could reverberate throughout the world, affecting energy supplies in Europe, jolting global financial markets and threatening the post-Cold War balance on the continent.

People are seen outside the cordoned off area around the remains of a shell in a street in Kyiv on February 24, 2022 (Sergei Supinsky / AFP)

Putin said the Russian military operation aimed to ensure a “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine. Putin urged Ukrainian servicemen to “immediately put down arms and go home.”

Putin announced the military operation after the Kremlin said rebels in eastern Ukraine asked Russia for military assistance to help fend off Ukrainian “aggression.” The announcement immediately fueled fears that Moscow was offering up a pretext for war, just as the West had warned.

A short time later, the Ukrainian president rejected Moscow’s claims that his country poses a threat to Russia and said a Russian invasion would cost tens of thousands of lives.

“The people of Ukraine and the government of Ukraine want peace,” President Volodymyr Zelensky 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.”

Zelensky said he asked to arrange a call with Putin late Wednesday, but the Kremlin did not respond.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (front) and his counterparts from Lithuania Gitanas Nauseda (C) and Poland Andrzej Duda arrive for a joint press conference following their talks in Kyiv on February 23, 2022. (SERGEI SUPINSKY / AFP)

The attack began just as the UN Security Council was holding a quickly scheduled emergency meeting Wednesday night at Ukraine’s request. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called the separatists’ request “a further escalation of the security situation.”

About an hour earlier, Ukraine shut its airspace to civilian air traffic, according to a notice to airmen. A commercial flight tracking website showed that an Israeli El Al Boeing 787 flying from Tel Aviv to Toronto turned abruptly out of Ukrainian airspace before detouring over Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland.

The only other aircraft tracked over Ukraine was a US RQ-4B Global Hawk unmanned surveillance plane, which began flying westward early Thursday after Russia put in place flight restrictions over Ukrainian territory.

Anxiety about an imminent Russian offensive against its neighbor soared after Putin recognized the separatist regions’ independence on Monday, endorsed the deployment of troops to the rebel territories and received parliamentary approval to use military force outside the country. The West responded with sanctions.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the rebel chiefs wrote to Putin on Wednesday, pleading with him to intervene after Ukrainian shelling caused civilian deaths and crippled vital infrastructure.

Military trucks move down a street outside Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine, Feb. 22, 2022 (AP Photo)

Earlier in the day, Ukrainian lawmakers approved a decree that imposes a nationwide state of emergency for 30 days starting Thursday. The measure allows authorities to declare curfews and other restrictions on movement, block rallies and ban political parties and organizations “in the interests of national security and public order.”

The action reflected increasing concern among Ukrainian authorities after weeks of trying to project calm. The Foreign Ministry advised against travel to Russia and recommended that any Ukrainians who are there leave immediately.

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