Russia's invasion of Ukraine launches after Putin announces military operation

Dasha Litvinova, Yuras Karmanau and Jim Heintz
Associated Press

Kyiv, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday announced a military operation in Ukraine, months after positioning thousands of troops on the border with the country, as the sounds of explosions marked the invasion.

Explosions could be heard in major Ukrainian cities and journalists on the ground reported what appeared to be an attack. Sounds of an invasion were heard in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and Kharkiv, in the country’s northeast, the Washington Post reported. A senior Ukrainian official said that there were explosions at Kyiv’s Boryspil airport. 

At 6:48 a.m. local time, CNN said it witnessed, through a livestream video, troops atop a column of military vehicles entering Ukraine from a border crossing with Belarus. CNN's website showed a map indicating where explosions were reported, including as far north as Kyiv, and Kharkiv and Dnipro in eastern Ukraine and the port city of Odessa.

The New York Times said it had verified some of the first images of troops entering Ukraine. Footage captured by security cameras at a border crossing on Thursday morning shows Russian military vehicles entering from Crimea. President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus said his country’s forces were not involved in the Russian operation, the Times reported.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, near the Kremlin Wall during the national celebrations of the 'Defender of the Fatherland Day' in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.

An adviser for the Interior Minister of Ukraine, Anton Gerashchenko, announced that Russia’s “invasion has begun,” with “missile strikes on Kyiv,” CNN said. Air raid sirens could be heard in Kyiv, it said, apparently intended to alert sleeping residents.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law, a Ukrainian government official said Thursday, according to the Post. 

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Putin claimed the move is intended to protect civilians and instructed Ukrainians to give up their weapons and return home.

Putin said the operation would aim for the “demilitarization and denazification" of Ukraine.

In a televised address, he said the action comes in response to threats coming from Ukraine. He added that Russia doesn’t have a goal to occupy Ukraine. Putin said the responsibility for bloodshed lies with the Ukrainian “regime.”

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called for the world to "act immediately," saying the "Future of Europe & the world at stake," on Twitter.

U.S. President Joe Biden condemned Russia for an “unprovoked and unjustified attack” on Ukraine. He promised that the U.S. and its allies “will hold Russia accountable.”

Biden said Zelensky asked him “to call on the leaders of the world to speak out clearly against President Putin’s flagrant aggression, and to stand with the people of Ukraine," Biden said in a statement.

In this screengrab from the New York Times' video, is shown the launch of the invasion as large explosions erupted near Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Biden said he plans to speak to the American people Thursday after a meeting of the Group of Seven leaders. "Tomorrow, I will be meeting with the Leaders of the G7, and the United States and our Allies and partners will be imposing severe sanctions on Russia." 

Biden added: “President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering. 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. The world will hold Russia accountable.”

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany condemned the “reckless act of President Putin," calling the attack a “blatant breach of international law,” the Times said. 

Putin warned other countries that any attempt to interfere with the Russian action would lead to “consequences they have never seen.” He accused the U.S. and its allies of ignoring Russia’s demand to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and offer Moscow security guarantees.

Putin said that all Ukrainian servicemen who lay down arms will be able to safely leave the zone of combat.

A Ukrainian serviceman stands at his position at the line of separation between Ukraine-held territory and rebel-held territory near Svitlodarsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.

The Kremlin said rebels in eastern Ukraine asked Russia for military assistance Wednesday to help fend off Ukrainian “aggression,” an announcement that 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.

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

Zelenskyy said he asked to arrange a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin late Wednesday, but the Kremlin did not respond.

In an apparent reference to Putin’s move to authorize the deployment of the Russian military to “maintain peace” in eastern Ukraine, Zelensky warned that “this step could mark the start of a big war on the European continent.”

A Ukrainian marine looks on at a fighting position on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Jan. 7, 2022.  A new poll finds little support among Americans for a major U.S. role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

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“Any provocation, any spark could trigger a blaze that will destroy everything,” he said.He challenged the Russian propaganda claims, saying that “you are told that this blaze will bring freedom to the people of Ukraine, but the Ukrainian people are free.”

The United Nations Security Council quickly scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday night at Ukraine's request. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called the separatists’ request for Russian help “a further escalation of the security situation.”

The ambassador from Ukraine pointed out the futility of the Security Council meeting, where the NATO allies condemned Russia's aggressive, the New York Times reported. "My speech is already useless as of 10 p.m., New York time," said  the ambassador, UN Sergiy Kyslytsya. "I would like to ask the ambassador of Russian federation to say on the record that at this moment your troops do not bomb and shell Ukrainian cities and your troops don’t enter Ukrainian territories."

The Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Alekseevich Nebenzya, defended Russia's decision to take military action in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine during the emergency meeting, CNN said.

"The root of today's crisis around Ukraine is the actions of Ukraine itself, who for many years were sabotaging its obligations under the (Minsk agreement)," said Nebenzya.

Anxiety in the region 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.

A military truck drives down a street outside Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine, late Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. Europe braced for further confrontation Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, after tensions over Ukraine escalated dramatically.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the separatists' request was an example of the sort of “false-flag” operation that the U.S. and its allies have expected Moscow to use as a pretense for war.

"So we’ll continue to call out what we see as false-flag operations or efforts to spread misinformation about what the actual status is on the ground,” she said.

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.

“For a long time, we refrained from declaring a state of emergency ... but today the situation has become more complicated,“ Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council head Oleksiy Danilov told parliament, emphasizing that Moscow's efforts to destabilize Ukraine represented the main threat.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the Russian force of more than 150,000 troops arrayed along Ukraine’s borders is in an advanced state of readiness. “They are ready to go right now,” Kirby said.

The latest images released by the Maxar satellite image company showed Russian troops and military equipment deployed within 10 miles of the Ukrainian border and less than 50 miles from Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

Early Thursday, airspace over all of Ukraine was shut down 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 U.S. RQ-4B Global Hawk unmanned surveillance plane, which began flying westward early Thursday after Russia put in place flight restrictions over Ukrainian territory.

Another wave of distributed-denial-of-service attacks hit Ukraine’s parliament and other government and banking websites on Wednesday, and cybersecurity researchers said unidentified attackers had also infected hundreds of computers with destructive malware.

Officials have long said they expect cyberattacks to precede and accompany any Russian military incursion, and analysts said the incidents hew to a nearly two-decade-old Russian playbook of wedding cyber operations with real-world aggression.

In other developments, Russia evacuated its embassy in Kyiv; Ukraine recalled its ambassador to Russia and considered breaking all diplomatic ties with Moscow and dozens of nations further squeezed Russian oligarchs and banks out of international markets.

The Azovstal metallurgical plant is seen on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.

Biden allowed sanctions to move forward against the company that built the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and against the company’s CEO.

“As I have made clear, we will not hesitate to take further steps if Russia continues to escalate,” Biden said in a statement.

Germany said Tuesday that it was indefinitely suspending the project, after Biden charged that Putin had launched “the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine” by sending troops into the separatist regions. The pipeline is complete but has not yet begun operating.

Putin said Tuesday that he had not yet sent any Russian troops into the rebel regions, contrary to Western claims, and Donetsk rebel leader Denis Pushilin insisted Wednesday there were no Russian troops in the region, even though a local council member claimed the previous day they had moved in.

For weeks, the threat of war has shredded Ukraine's economy and raised the specter of massive casualties, energy shortages across Europe and global economic chaos.

European Union sanctions against Russia took effect, targeting several companies along with 351 Russian lawmakers who voted for a motion urging Putin to recognize the rebel regions and 27 senior government officials, business executives and top military officers.

Women show posters in support of the Ukraine as they attend a demonstration along the street near the Russian embassy to protest against the escalation of the tension between Russia and Ukraine in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has shrugged off the sanctions, saying that “Russia has proven that, with all the costs of the sanctions, it is able to minimize the damage.”

In Ukraine's east, one Ukrainian soldier was killed and six more wounded after rebel shelling, the Ukrainian military said Wednesday. Separatist officials reported several explosions on their territory overnight and three civilian deaths.

Facing a barrage of criticism at the 193-member United Nations General Assembly, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, warned Ukraine that Russia will monitor a cease-fire in the east and emphasized that “no one intends to go softly, softly with any violators.”

“A new military adventure” by Kyiv “might cost the whole of Ukraine very dearly,” he warned ominously.

After weeks of rising tensions, Putin's steps this week dramatically raised the stakes. He recognized the independence of the separatist regions, a move he said extends even to the large parts of the territories now held by Ukrainian forces, and had parliament grant him authority to use military force outside the country.

Putin laid out three conditions that he said could end the standoff, urging Kyiv to renounce its bid to join NATO, to partially demilitarize and to recognize Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine long has rejected such demands.

Litvinova reported from Moscow. Angela Charlton in Paris; Frank Jordans in Berlin; Lorne Cook in Brussels, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Frank Bajak in Boston, Robert Burns, Matthew Lee, Aamer Madhani, Eric Tucker, Ellen Knickmeyer, Zeke Miller, Chris Megerian and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed.