KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainian authorities will hand weapons to all those willing to defend the country as Russia launched a ground invasion of the country Thursday following an air bombardment.
“The future of the Ukrainian people depends on every Ukrainian,” Zelensky said, urging all those who can defend the country to come to the Interior Ministry’s assembly facilities.
“Russia has attacked Ukraine in a cowardly and suicidal way, like Nazi Germany did during World War II,” the Ukrainian president said in an online briefing, during which he called on Ukrainians to “go out” and “protest against this war.”
Zelensky called on global leaders to provide defense assistance to Ukraine and help protect its airspace from the “aggressor.” He also formally cut diplomatic ties with Russia.
Russia’s ground forces invaded Ukraine from several directions, encircling the country within hours of President Vladimir Putin announcing his decision to launch an assault.
The situation was volatile and fast-moving.
Heavy Russian tanks and other equipment crossed the frontier in a string of northern regions as well as from the Kremlin-annexed peninsula of Crimea in the south.
They were also advancing into the Western-backed government’s territory along the eastern front, where a separatist insurgency has claimed more than 14,000 lives since 2014.
An adviser to Ukraine’s president said about 40 people have been killed by midday Thursday in the Russian attack on the country.
Oleksii Arestovich said that several dozen people had been wounded. He didn’t specify whether the casualties included civilians.
Arestovich said that Russian troops had moved up to 5 kilometers (3 miles) into the Ukrainian territory in the Kharkiv and Chernihiv regions, and, possibly in other areas.
But there were reports of major clashes across large parts of the vast eastern European country and the death toll seemed likely to climb throughout the day.
After holding a series of emergency calls with world leaders, including US President Joe Biden, Zelensky convened a meeting of the top military brass.
Zelensky “gave orders to inflict maximum losses against the aggressor,” Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Major General Valeriy Zaluzhny said.
Ukraine claimed to have killed around 50 “Russian occupiers” while taking back control of the eastern frontline town of Shchastya.
Although Ukraine has been riven by conflict in the east, which has forced some 1.5 million from their homes, it had reported no fatalities along its southern border with Crimea for some years.
But the border guard service reported some of the heaviest fighting near Crimea, where servicemen died in Russian missile and helicopter attacks.
Russia has heavily fortified its positions on the peninsula, where it has had military bases since its takeover in 2014.
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. An Associated Press photographer in Mariupol reported hearing explosions and seeing dozens of people with suitcases heading for their cars to leave the city.
The attacks came first from the air, but later Ukrainian border guards released security camera footage showing a line of Russian military vehicles crossing into Ukraine’s government-held territory from Russian-annexed Crimea.
A presidential adviser said that Russian forces had launched an attack on Ukraine from the north, east and south. The adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, said “the Ukrainian military is fighting hard.”
Podolyak said that “our army is fighting back inflicting significant losses to the enemy.” He said that there had 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.”
Arestovich said Russia had targeted air bases and other military infrastructure.
He said the Russian strikes hadn’t achieved the goal to rout the country’s military. Arestovich conceded that “we suffered casualties, but they aren’t significant,” adding that the Russian strikes “haven’t eroded the combat capability of the Ukrainian military.”
The Russian Defense Ministry said it was not targeting cities but using precision weapons, and claimed that “there is no threat to civilian population.”
The 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.
Kyiv airport bombed
Ukrainian officials said Russia was primarily targeting military infrastructure and silos, hitting a string of air fields.
These included Boryspil airport in Kyiv, the armed forces said.
Ukraine closed its airspace to civilian traffic. Tracking websites showed no civilian airliners within the country’s airspace on Thursday.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency told air operators of a high risk to civilian aircraft over Ukraine, reminding air operators that “this is now an active conflict zone.”
The invasion was also staged from several positions in Belarus, where Russian armed forces have been holding massive military drills this month involving an estimated 30,000 troops.
But Belarus strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko said his forces were “not taking part in this operation.”
Ukraine also claimed it had downed six Russian planes, a helicopter, and destroyed four tanks. Moscow did not confirm suffering any casualties or other military losses.
Putin this week authorized sending “peacekeepers” into the rebel provinces, after recognizing their independence on Monday.
West planning harsh sanctions
US President Joe Biden has pledged new sanctions to punish Russia for the aggression that the international community had expected for weeks but could not prevent through diplomacy. European Union officials were set to meet later Thursday to consider approving hitting Russia with what they described as the harshest ever sanctions measures.
Putin justified it all in a televised address, asserting that the attack was needed to protect civilians in eastern Ukraine — a false claim the US had predicted he would make as a pretext for an invasion. He accused the US and its allies of ignoring Russia’s demands to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and for 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.
Biden in a written statement condemned the “unprovoked and unjustified attack,” and he promised that the US and its allies would “hold Russia accountable.” The president said he planned to speak to Americans on Thursday after a meeting of the Group of Seven leaders. More sanctions against Russia were expected to be announced Thursday.
However, China’s customs agency on Thursday approved imports of wheat from all regions of Russia, a move that could help to reduce the impact of possible Western sanctions.
The two governments announced an agreement February 8 for China to import Russian wheat and barley after Putin became the highest-profile foreign guest to attend the Beijing Winter Olympics.
China’s populous market is a growth area for other farm goods suppliers, but Beijing had barred imports until now from Russia’s main wheat-growing areas due to concern about possible fungus and other contamination.
Russia is one of the biggest wheat producers but its exports would be vulnerable if its foreign markets block shipments in response to its attack on Ukraine.
Thursday’s announcement said Russia would “take all measures” to prevent contamination by wheat smut fungus and would suspend exports to China if it was found.