Russian forces launched attacks by land, sea and air across Ukraine after President Vladimir Putin vowed to “demilitarise” the country and replace its leaders, the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War II and prompting the West to threaten further punishing sanctions in response.
The assault began around 5am local time when the first of rockets hit close to the Capital Kyiv. Shortly after daybreak, Ukraine reported columns of troops streaming across its borders from Russia and Belarus, and landing on the coast from Black and Azov seas. In several locations, Russian paratroopers reportedly reached deeper into the country and by the end of the day, Moscow’s forces had captured the stricken Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which potentially gave them access to the shortest route to Kyiv.
“Russia treacherously attacked our state in the morning, as Nazi Germany did in the WW2 years,” tweeted Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “Russia has embarked on a path of evil, but Ukraine is defending itself & won’t give up its freedom no matter what Moscow thinks.”
His comments came after Putin, in a pre-dawn address, said: “I have decided to proceed with a special military operation”.
Angry reactions poured in from the West. The group of seven (G7) economies met on Thursday to hammer out stringent new sanctions. Ahead of a meeting that lasted for over an hour, they released a statement saying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a crisis that “is a serious threat to the rules-based international order, with ramifications well beyond Europe.”. “This has fundamentally changed the Euro-Atlantic security situation.”
The first of the sanctions were announced by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the parliament that there will be an asset freeze on all major Russian banks, including VTB, the country’s second-largest bank, with assets of £154bn.
The Russian national carrier Aeroflot will be banned from flying into the country, he said, and added that “hundreds” of more people linked to Putin will have their assets in UK frozen and the amount of money Russians can deposit in UK will be limited. This steps, he said, were similar to those being contemplated by the US, where president Joe Biden was due to make an announcement, but hadn’t done so till the time of going to print,
A first round of Western sanctions was unleashed on Tuesday, after Putin announced he would send troops as “peacekeepers” to two small areas already controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
As the day progressed, explosions were heard throughout Kyiv, a city of 3 million people, with a second wave of rockets landing, gunfire rattled, sirens blared, and the highway out of the city choked with traffic as residents fled.
The assault brought a calamitous end to weeks of fruitless diplomatic efforts by Western leaders to avert war, their worst fears about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions realised.
US President Joe Biden, in a statement released after the first attacks, called the Russian action an “unprovoked and unjustified attack”. European Union (EU) Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc would impose a new round of sanctions that would hit Russia’s economy severely. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson referred to Putin as the “dictator in Russia”.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said: “These are among the darkest hours of Europe since the Second World War.”
Biden promised to impose “severe sanctions” against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and he will spell out the economic penalties in a public address on Thursday afternoon.
The question remained through the day how far the West allies will to go to punish Putin. The kind of measures could include cutting Russia’s top banks from the financial system and imposing sanctions on Putin himself. Kicking Russia out of the messaging system used for financial transactions called Swift would be the most extreme step, although — given Johnson’s statement — this may not be announced just yet.
On Thursday, commodities markets surged, with Brent oil extending gains above $105 a barrel for the first time since 2014 – when Russia annexed Crimea – while gold jumped as investors scrambled for havens. Russia’s benchmark MOEX index tumbled the most on record, before trading was halted indefinitely.
A resident of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest city and close to the Russian border, told Reuters windows in apartment blocks were shaking from constant blasts.
Blasts could be heard in the southern port of Mariupol, near a frontline held by Russian-backed separatists. On a highway leading out, a Ukrainian armoured column thundered along the road, with soldiers atop turrets smiling and flashing victory signs to cars which honked their horns in support.
Civilians in Mariupol packed bags: “We are going into hiding,” a woman told Reuters.
Ukrainian officials said Russian helicopters attacked Gostomel, a military airport near Kyiv, and Ukraine downed three of them.
Initial unconfirmed reports of casualties included Ukrainian civilians killed by Russian bombardment and border guards defending the frontier. Ukrainian authorities estimated the civilian toll at 10 with another 40 soldiers killed.
Even with a full-blown invasion under way, Putin’s ultimate aim is obscure. He said he did not plan a military occupation, only to disarm Ukraine and purge it of nationalists.
The outright annexation of such a vast hostile country could be beyond Russia’s military capabilities. But if the aim is just to replace Zelenskiy’s government, it is hard to see Ukrainians accepting any new leadership Russia might try to install.
“I think we must fight all those who invade our country so strongly,” said one man stuck in traffic trying to leave Kyiv. “I would hang every single one of them from bridges.”
Biden has ruled out sending US troops to defend Ukraine, but Washington has reinforced NATO allies in the region with extra troops and planes. The West has pledged to impose severe sanctions.
Russia’s defense minister said the strikes were targeting Ukrainian military infrastructure and didn’t pose a threat to the population, state-run TASS reported.
A democratic country of 44 million people, Ukraine is Europe’s biggest country by area after Russia itself. It voted overwhelmingly for independence at 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.