KYIV, Ukraine — Russia pressed its invasion of Ukraine to the outskirts of the capital Friday after unleashing airstrikes on cities and military bases and sending in troops and tanks from three sides in an attack that could rewrite the global post-Cold War security order.
Explosions sounded before dawn in Kyiv as Western leaders scheduled an emergency meeting and Ukraine’s president pleaded for international help. Although the nature of the explosions wasn’t immediately known, it was evident that they occurred amid warnings that Kyiv and the largest Ukrainian city were increasingly at risk after a day of violence that saw more than 100 Ukrainians die.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the government had information that “subversive groups” were encroaching on the city, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Kyiv “could well be under siege” in what U.S. officials believe is a brazen attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to dismantle the government and replace it with his own regime.
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According to someone familiar with the conversation, Lloyd Austin, U.S. Defence Secretary, told Congress via phone that Russian mechanized troops that had entered Belarus from Belarus were approximately 20 miles away from Kyiv.
This assault was planned for several weeks by U.S. allies. It was carried out by Putin in spite of international condemnation. Russian missiles bombarded military bases and cities. Government leaders appealed for assistance and strong sanctions to stop Russia. People fled in trains and cars, and hotel patrons were led to refuge when explosions occurred in Kyiv.
Already, Ukraine officials said they had lost control of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
“Russia has embarked on a path of evil, but Ukraine is defending itself and won’t give up its freedom,” Zelenskyy tweeted. He was losing control of power and pleaded for more harsh sanctions to be imposed on Russia than those imposed by Western allies. Zelenskyy ordered full military mobilisation lasting 90 days.
Zelenskyy said in a video address that 137 “heroes,” including 10 military officers, had been killed and 316 people wounded. The Russians took over Zmiinyi, an Odesa island border station that was guarded by Border Guards.
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He concluded an emotional speech by saying that “the fate of the country depends fully on our army, security forces, all of our defenders.” He also said the country had heard from Moscow that ”they want to talk about Ukraine’s neutral status.”
Biden was to meet Friday morning with fellow leaders of NATO governments in what the White House described as an “extraordinary virtual summit” to disuss Ukraine.
U.S. President Joe Biden announced new sanctions against Russia, saying Putin “chose this war” and had exhibited a “sinister” view of the world in which nations take what they want by force. Other countries also declared sanctions against Russia or indicated that they will soon.
“It was always about naked aggression, about Putin’s desire for empire by any means necessary — by bullying Russia’s neighbors through coercion and corruption, by changing borders by force, and, ultimately, by choosing a war without a cause,” Biden said.
Blinken said in television interviews that he was convinced that Russia was intent on overthrowing the Ukrainian government, telling CBS that Putin wants to “reconstitute the Soviet empire.”
Fearing a Russian attack on the capital city, thousands of people went deep underground as night fell, jamming Kyiv’s subway stations.
It felt at times almost cheery. Families ate dinner. Children played. The adults chatted. People brought sleeping bags or dogs or crossword puzzles — anything to alleviate the waiting and the long night ahead.
However, exhaustion was evident on all sides. There were also worries.
“Nobody believed that this war would start and that they would take Kyiv directly,” said Anton Mironov, waiting out the night in one of the old Soviet metro stations. “I feel mostly fatigue. None of it feels real.”
Early Thursday saw a number of missile strikes on critical government and military infrastructures. Then came a rapid three-pronged ground offensive. Ukrainian and U.S. officials said Russian forces were attacking from the east toward Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city; from the southern region of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014; and from Belarus to the north.
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Zelenskyy, who had earlier cut diplomatic ties with Moscow and declared martial law, appealed to global leaders, saying that “if you don’t help us now, if you fail to offer a powerful assistance to Ukraine, tomorrow the war will knock on your door.”
Though Biden said he had no plans to speak with Putin, the Russian leader did have what the Kremlin described as a “serious and frank exchange” with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Both sides claimed to have destroyed some of the other’s aircraft and military hardware, though little of that could be confirmed.
Myhailo Podolyak (presidential adviser) said that Russian forces seized control over the Chernobyl nuclear plant and surrounding areas hours after the invasion began.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said it was told by Ukraine of the takeover, adding that there had been “no casualties or destruction at the industrial site.”
The 1986 nuclear disaster was caused by a blast at the reactor 130km (80miles) north of Kyiv. This created a radioactive cloud that travelled across Europe. Later, a protective shell was placed over the reactor to stop leaks.
Alyona Shevtsova, adviser to the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, wrote on Facebook that staff members at the Chernobyl plant had been “taken hostage.” The White House said it was “outraged” by reports of the detentions.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense issued an update saying that though the plant was “likely captured,” the country’s forces had halted Russia’s advance toward Chernihiv and that it was unlikely that Russia had achieved its planned Day One military objectives.
The chief of the NATO alliance, Jens Stoltenberg, said the “brutal act of war” shattered peace in Europe, joining a chorus of world leaders decrying an attack that could cause massive casualties and topple Ukraine’s democratically elected government. Global financial markets were shaken by the conflict: Oil prices rose and stocks plummeted amid fears that food and heating costs would soar.
Condemnation came not only from the U.S. and Europe, but from South Korea, Australia and beyond — and many governments readied new sanctions. Even friendly leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban sought to distance themselves from Putin.
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he aimed to cut off Russia from the U.K.’s financial markets as he announced sanctions, freezing the assets of all large Russian banks and planning to bar Russian companies and the Kremlin from raising money on British markets.
“Now we see him for what he is — a bloodstained aggressor who believes in imperial conquest,” Johnson said of Putin.
Biden explained that sanctions by the U.S. would target Russian banks, oligarchs and high-tech industries, however they weren’t meant to disrupt world energy markets. Russia’s natural gas and oil exports are essential energy resources for Europe.
Zelenskyy asked the U.S., West and other countries to do more and eliminate the Russians in the SWIFT program. This is an important financial network linking thousands of banks all over the globe. Fearing that Russia might cause economic disaster in Europe and other parts of the West, the White House is reluctant to cut Russia off SWIFT immediately.
Some Europeans were worried about the possibility of a new war. However, both the U.S. (and its NATO allies) have not indicated that they will send military personnel into Ukraine. They fear a bigger conflict. As a precaution NATO strengthened its Eastern European members and Biden stated that the U.S. would send additional troops to Germany in order to strengthen NATO.
European authorities declared the country’s airspace an active conflict zone.
After weeks of denying plans to invade, Putin launched the operation on a country the size of Texas that has increasingly tilted toward the democratic West and away from Moscow’s sway. Putin made it clear this week that there is no reason Ukraine should exist. This raises fears about a wider conflict within the huge space once controlled by the Soviet Union. Putin has denied any plans to invade Ukraine but it is unclear what his final goals are.
Ukrainians were encouraged to take refuge in their homes and not panic.
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“Until the very last moment, I didn’t believe it would happen. I just pushed away these thoughts,” said a terrified Anna Dovnya in Kyiv, watching soldiers and police remove shrapnel from an exploded shell. “We have lost all faith.”
Social media amplifying the flood of military claims, and counter-claims made by soldiers on the ground makes it difficult to discern exactly what is happening.
Russia and Ukraine both claimed damage that they caused. Russia’s Defense Ministry said it had destroyed scores of Ukrainian air bases, military facilities and drones. It confirmed the loss of one of its Su-25 attack jets, blaming “pilot error,” and said an An-26 transport plane had crashed because of technical failure, killing the entire crew. The number of people aboard was not stated.
Russia claimed it wasn’t targeting cities but journalists witnessed destruction in civilian areas.
—Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Litvinova also reported. Francesca Ebel, Angela Charlton, Frank Jordans and Geir Moulson in Paris, Nic Dumitrache, Mariupol in Ukraine, Inna Varennytsia, eastern Ukraine; Raf Casert, Lorne Cook, and Matthew Lee in Brussels, and Robert Burns and Darlene Superville, Washington.