Ukrainian troops fought Russian forces along practically the entire border, and fierce fighting was taking place in the regions of Sumy, Kharkiv, Kherson, Odessa and at a military airport near Kyiv, an adviser to the presidential office said.
Explosions were heard before dawn and throughout the morning in the capital Kyiv, a city of 3 million people. 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.
“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.”
Calling on Ukrainians to defend their country, he said arms would be given to anyone prepared to fight. He also urged Russians to take to the streets to protest against their government’s actions.
U.S. President Joe Biden called the Russian action an “unprovoked and unjustified attack”. EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc would impose a new round of sanctions that would hit Russia’s economy severely.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said: “These are among the darkest hours of Europe since the Second World War.”
A resident of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest city and close to the Russian border, said 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 said.
Ukrainian officials said Russian helicopters attacked Gostomel, a military airport near Kyiv, and Ukraine downed three of them. Ukrainian border officials said the Russians were trying to penetrate Kyiv region and the Zhytomyr region on the Belarusian border, and they were using Grad rockets.
Initial unconfirmed reports of casualties included Ukrainian civilians killed by Russian bombardment and border guards defending the frontier. Regional authorities of Ukraine’s southern Odessa region said 18 people were killed in a missile attack. At least six people were killed in Brovary, a town near Kyiv, authorities there said. Ukraine reported five people killed when one plane was shot down.
Ukraine’s military said it had destroyed four Russian tanks on a road near Kharkiv, killed 50 troops near a town in Luhansk region and downed six Russian warplanes in the east.
Russia denied reports its aircraft or armoured vehicles had been destroyed. Russian-backed separatists claimed to have downed two Ukrainian planes.
‘RUSSIA ALONE IS RESPONSIBLE’
In an early-morning declaration of war, Putin said he had ordered “a special military operation” to protect people, including Russian citizens, subjected to “genocide” in Ukraine – an accusation the West calls absurd propaganda.
“And for this we will strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine,” Putin said. “Russia cannot feel safe, develop, and exist with a constant threat emanating from the territory of modern Ukraine…All responsibility for bloodshed will be on the conscience of the ruling regime in Ukraine.”
Biden has ruled out sending U.S. troops to defend Ukraine but he and other Western leaders promised tough financial sanctions.
“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.
Russia is one of the world’s biggest energy producers, and both it and Ukraine are among the top exporters of grain. The prospect of war and sanctions threatens economies around the world already facing supply disruption as they emerge from the pandemic.
Stocks and bond yields plunged; the dollar and gold soared. Brent oil surged past $100/barrel for the first time since 2014.
At least three major buyers of Russian oil said they had been denied letters of credit from Western banks, needed for shipments to go ahead.
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.
Queues of people waited to withdraw money and buy supplies of food and water in Kyiv. Cars stretched for dozens of kilometres (miles) on the highway leading from the capital west towards Poland, where Western countries have prepared for the likelihood of hundreds of thousands of refugees.
“We’re afraid of bombardments,” said Oxana, trying to flee and stuck in her car with her three-year-old daughter on the backseat. “This is so scary.”
Three hours after Putin gave his order, Russia’s defence ministry said it had taken out military infrastructure at Ukrainian air bases and degraded its air defences.
Earlier, Ukrainian media reported that military command centres in Kyiv and Kharkiv had been struck by missiles, while Russian troops had landed at Odessa and Mariupol.
Russia announced it was shutting all shipping in the Azov Sea. Russia controls the strait leading into the sea where Ukraine has ports including Mariupol. Ukraine appealed to Turkey to bar Russian ships from the straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
In Russia, where state media have for weeks been airing footage of purported Ukrainian attacks that Western countries call crudely staged fakes, the broadcast regulator said all news outlets must cite only official Russian sources on Ukraine. An activist who called for anti-war demonstrations was detained.