Russian forces launched an attack on multiple cities across Ukraine on Thursday morning. The attacks defied diplomatic attempts by the U.S. along with its allies for months to prevent the invasion. They also created the most severe military crisis in Europe since the Cold War. U.S. President Joe Biden denounced the attacks as “unprovoked and unjustified” and said, “The world will hold Russia accountable.”
As the sirens of air raid sirens began to ring out, blasts were heard in Kyiv and other cities, beginning at the early hours. Cruise missiles hit airfields, military depots and the headquarters of the Ukrainian armed forces in the east of the country, according to the country’s Interior Ministry. U.S. officials believe the air attacks were the first facet of a phased operation that would be followed up by a ground invasion involving more than 150,000 Russian forces that have been amassing on Ukraine’s borders since late last year.
The large-scale military operation began immediately after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of a “special military operation” with the goal of executing a “demilitarization” of Ukraine, suggesting that Moscow did not intend to stop until the country’s armed forces had capitulated. That would mark the end of Ukraine’s post-Soviet independence and its three decades as a fledgling democracy, one in which Putin’s longtime allies still hold seats in parliament.
In his statement announcing the invasion Thursday, Putin warned against any efforts to deter Moscow’s forces. “Anyone who tries to interfere with us, or even more so, to create threats for our country and our people, must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history,” Putin said. “We are ready for any turn of events.”
There are growing concerns about what the Russian military operation has in Ukraine means for Europe and the rest of the world. The U.S., along with its European allies, have been moving troops, ships, and planes to eastward across the continent in recent weeks. This was done to stop Putin from continuing aggression. Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but it borders four nations that are—Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Biden and other NATO allies have pledged to protect their eastern and central European members under the NATO treaty’s mutual defense commitments.
The standoff between the U.S. and Russia, two nations that command the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, has no modern precedent. Even during the Cold War, the nations’ military forces were never so closely positioned amid an active conflict. This volatile and unpredictable situation is precisely why U.S. leaders and European leaders spent months trying not to go to war.
Uncertain how far Russian forces will go to protect Ukraine remains a mystery. During a rambling, bitter speech Monday, Putin declared Ukraine to be an “inalienable part of [Russia’s] history, culture and spiritual space.” He said he has no plans to occupy the country, but U.S. and NATO officials say they need to be prepared, regardless of what the Russian president says. “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 in a statement.
Hours before the invasion started, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a speech that he had tried to initiate a phone call Putin on Wednesday but had been ignored. “We are ready to have talks with anybody, including you, in any format, on any platform,” Zelensky said in a speech addressed to the Russian people. “I know that they won’t show my address on Russian TV, but Russian people have to see it. They need to know the truth, and the truth is that it is time to stop now, before it is too late.”
Biden spoke to Zelensky over the phone as Russian missiles were descending on Ukraine. He informed him of U.S. support for his country, and that he would be providing assistance. Zelensky, who declared martial law in Ukraine at 7:15 a.m. Kyiv time, urged people to remain in their homes and maintain calm. “Don’t panic. We’re strong. We are ready for anything,” he said in a statement.
Officials from the Biden Administration have stated that over 50,000 Ukrainians may die as a result of an invading force that reaches the capital. U.S. paratroopers in Poland have been told that tens of thousands of refugees could come over the country’s border with Ukraine. “The question everyone has to ask—if this is going to be a large-scale war, if there is Ukrainian resistance and the conflict is prolonged over weeks and months—is whether the fighting can be contained to Ukraine or whether it will spill over into the rest of Europe,” said Tom Graham, a former top Russia aide to President George W. Bush and now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Russia made a string of demands in the months leading up to the invasion. These included demanding that the U.S. withdraw its military forces from Eastern Europe, and promising to never accept Ukraine into NATO. These demands were even made public by the Russian Foreign Ministry in two draft treaties. They were urged to be signed by U.S. diplomats during negotiations in January and December. In effect, the treaties would redraw the map of Europe, recognizing Russia’s claims to a sphere of influence over many of the countries it dominated before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. These demands were rejected by NATO and the U.S., even though they maintained talks with Russia regarding European troop and weapon system placements.
Since forces began massing along Ukraine’s borders in October, though, Putin insisted he had no plans to launch an invasion. The Ukrainian government didn’t seem to believe the invasion was going to happen even as the Russians added additional troops and combat aircraft, and even stored blood supplies at military field hospitals near its borders. On Monday, Putin recognized Donetsk’s independence and Luhansk’s autonomy, the two separatist regions of eastern Ukraine that were held by Moscow-backed separatists. He then directed Russian troops to occupy the territory for “peacekeeping functions.”
This decision invalidated the Minsk ceasefire, which was signed in 2014 after Putin annexed Crimea to southern Ukraine. Since 2014, he supported pro-Russian militias in many eastern Ukrainian towns. Russia used proxy forces in eastern Ukraine to create disorder and try to take control of Kyiv.
In the initial stages of the crisis, Biden’s Administration tried diplomacy to resolve it. The lack of progress and continued buildup of Russian troops prompted the U.S. government to develop more aggressive strategies in order to disarm Putin. Biden increased the American presence in Poland by more than 9,000 troops, while the total number in Romania has increased to almost 2,000. More than 90,000. Americans now have troops in the continent. Most of them are located outside Eastern Europe.
Moscow has been subject to economic penalties by the White House, which enacted broad sanctions that targeted Russian bankers and oligarchs. Germany announced that it has stopped certification for the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. This is a lucrative project to move natural gas 750 m from Russia to Germany. After meeting with G7 leaders, Biden said that more severe sanctions would be enacted on Thursday.
The U.S. president spent weeks warning about these sanctions in an attempt to deter Putin from choosing what the administration calls a Russian “war of choice” with Ukraine. This is a dangerous, uncertain new phase for the world. “This is a European great power attacking the capital of another sovereign European country,” Timothy Naftali, a historian at New York University and author of “Khrushchev’s Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary.” “This is an event more reminiscent of World War II than of the Cold War.”
—With reporting by Simon Shuster, Brian Bennett and Massimo Calabresi