Russian forces launched an invasion of Ukraine early Thursday, with President Vladimir Putin warning other countries not to intervene and Ukraine’s Western allies pledging their support and new rounds of strong sanctions as they condemned the Russian assault.
Putin used a televised address to announce what he called a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in response to what he termed Ukrainian threats. He said those who opposed the action will face “consequences they have never seen.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces carried out strikes on Ukraine’s military infrastructure and border guards. He said the government was introducing martial law throughout the country, while urging people to stay calm and stay home.
“No panic. We are strong. We are ready for everything. We will win over everybody because we are Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said.
He later announced Ukraine cut diplomatic ties with Russia and that the government would arm “anyone who wants to defend the country.”
Ukraine’s military said Russia began shelling Ukrainian forces in the country’s east Thursday morning and carried out rocket strikes at airports in multiple cities across Ukraine.
A Zelenskyy aide told reporters at least 40 people have been killed.
In the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, the downtown area became largely deserted while in residential districts lines formed at banks and outside food stores. Main roads leading out of the city were clogged with traffic headed to the west.
Lines were also long at ATMs, supermarkets and fuel stations in the eastern city of Slovyansk as people stocked up in case of renewed bombing.
Between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. the crash of shells hitting the area could be heard from towns and cities as far as 50 kilometers from the border with Russia and Russian-backed separatists, as well cities far beyond, including Kyiv.
U.S. President Joe Biden said the people of Ukraine were suffering “an unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces.”
“President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering,” Biden said in a statement. “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.”
Biden said he discussed the situation in a phone call with Zelenskyy, who 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.”
After speaking with G-7 leaders Thursday morning, Biden said the United States and other allies will impose severe sanctions on Russia. European Union leaders were also due to discuss a new round of sanctions being finalized Thursday.
European Union leaders were also preparing what EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said would be the “the harshest package of sanctions we have ever implemented.” He said of the situation, “These are among the darkest hours for Europe since the end of World War II.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that he also spoke with Zelenskyy about the impending actions, and said Putin had opted for “a path of bloodshed and destruction.”
For months, Russia denied it planned to attack Ukraine as it massed 150,000 troops and military equipment along the Ukraine-Russia and Ukraine-Belarus borders. The Kremlin accused Western governments of engaging in “hysteria” as they called for Russia to de-escalate the situation.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted Thursday that the Russian leader had launched “a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”
He said the international community needs to respond with “devastating sanctions on Russia,” as well as sending weapons, military equipment, financial assistance and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Peter Maurer, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, urged all parties in the conflict to protect civilians.
“ICRC teams are responding to urgent humanitarian needs and they must be able to continue their life-saving work,” he said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called Russia’s attack a “grave breach of international law.”
“Once again, despite our repeated warnings and tireless efforts to engage in diplomacy, Russia has chosen the path of aggression against a sovereign and independent country,” Stoltenberg said in a statement. “NATO Allies will meet to address the consequences of Russia’s aggressive actions. We stand with the people of Ukraine at this terrible time. NATO will do all it takes to protect and defend all allies.”
NATO leaders are due to meet Friday, and the alliance has activated its defense plans for member states in the region.
Lithuania, a NATO member, declared a state of emergency Thursday and ordered its army to deploy along its border with Belarus.
Putin’s remarks came a short time after U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pleaded during an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council for Putin to avoid the conflict.
Tonight, I have only one thing to say, from the bottom of my heart: President Putin, stop your troops from attacking Ukraine. Give peace a chance. Too many people have already died,” Guterres said.
As word came during the meeting that Putin had deployed his forces against Ukraine, the secretary-general told reporters that he was changing his plea.
“I say: President Putin in the name of humanity, bring your troops back to Russia. In the name of humanity do not allow to start in Europe what could be the worst war since the beginning of the century.”
Russia’s U.N. ambassador, who also happens to be the president of the Security Council this month, presided over a meeting where his president’s actions were denounced by nearly every member.
“We don’t know all the details today, but briefly I’d like to inform you that from his statement it says the occupation of Ukraine is not in our plans,” Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said. “The aim of the special operation is to protect the people who for eight-plus years have been suffering genocide from the Kyiv regime, and from this we will de-militarize and de-genocide Ukraine, and also hold accountable those who carried out so many crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.”
Ukraine’s envoy told the council it was too late to speak about de-escalation, as the Russian war had begun.
“There is no purgatory for war criminals, they go straight to hell, ambassador,” Sergiy Kyslytsya told Nebenzia.
The Russian responded that Moscow is not attacking the Ukrainian people but “the junta that is in power in Kyiv.”
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the council needs to act and they would put a draft resolution on the table Thursday.
A European diplomat said security council members are discussing a resolution that will make clear that Russia is not complying with the U.N. Charter, international law, or council resolution 2202 – which endorsed the Minsk agreements — and it will urge Russia to immediately return to compliance.
Russia would be expected to veto such a measure, but a strong number of members voting for it would increase Moscow’s isolation in the council. Diplomats would then likely move quickly to the General Assembly where it could be adopted without a threat of veto, but with no legal backing.
Multiple U.S. lawmakers condemned Russia’s attack, including Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said Putin’s decision was driven by “fear of allowing a neighboring independent, sovereign nation to pursue democracy and freedom.”
Senator Marco Rubio, another Foreign Relations Committee member, said: “Ukraine is outgunned and outmanned. But they are brave and tough fighters and as the world will soon learn they have already inflicted damage on Russian invaders.”
Earlier this week Putin decreed the eastern Ukraine regions of Luhansk and Donetsk were independent states. Putin also said he was sending what he characterized as “peacekeeping forces” across the Ukrainian border, stoking fears of a broader conflict with the one-time Soviet republic, which has been independent since 1991.
White House correspondent Anita Powell, VOA U.N. correspondent Margaret Besheer, Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb, State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching, and Jamie Dettmer in Kyiv contributed to this report.