Explosions and gunfire were reported in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special” operation to “demilitarize” the country, a move that could result in the biggest fighting in Europe since the end of World War II.
Live video from CNN showed explosions in several areas in and around the capital, Kyiv, a city of some 2.6 million people.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared martial law as explosions were reported in Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, Dnipro, Mariupol, Odesa, and Zaporizhia, although he urged citizens not to panic.
Gunfire was heard near the main airport of Boryspil in Kyiv soon after Russia announced the operation, Interfax said, citing local media.
The Russian military said it has targeted Ukrainian air bases and other military assets but that it has not targeted populated areas.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency on February 24 quoted the Russian Defense Ministry as saying Ukraine’s military infrastructure, air defense and air forces had been targeted with high-precision weapons.
It quoted the Russian military as saying cities had not been struck.
The Ukrainian General Staff said in a statement that Russia had “started intensive shelling of our units in the east and also launched rocket-bomb strikes” at six airports.
Mr. Zelenskyy also said he had spoken to U.S. President Joe Biden following Mr. Putin’s announcement.
“Russia has carried out strikes on our military infrastructure and on our border guards and border detachments,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in an address. “We are imposing martial law throughout our country.”
He urged citizens to “please stay at home” amid the military actions and go on “without panic.”
He said that the “entire security and defense sector” of Ukraine is working, adding, “We are ready for anything.”
Ukraine also announced that it has closed its airspace to civilian flights because of a “high risk” to safety.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths.
Ukraine Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter that “[Mr.] Putin has just launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Peaceful Ukrainian cities are under strikes. This is a war of aggression.”
Mr. Biden immediately condemned the operation, calling it an “unprovoked and unjustified” attack on Ukraine and said the world would “hold Russia accountable.”
He said Russia would be responsible for the “catastrophic loss of life and human suffering” to come.
“The prayers of the entire world are with the people of Ukraine tonight as they suffer an unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces,” Mr. Biden said in a statement.
“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,” he added.
The White House said later that Mr. Biden had spoken by phone with Mr. Zelenskyy and had offered his support and briefed the Ukrainian leader on the planned next steps against Russia by Washington and its allies.
Mr. Biden said he would address the nation on February 24.
“The U.K. and our allies will respond decisively,” he wrote on Twitter, adding that he – like Mr. Biden – had spoken by phone with Mr. Zelenskyy.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned what he called Russia’s “reckless” attack on Ukraine.
He said NATO allies will meet to address “Russia’s renewed aggression.” Ukraine is not a member of NATO but is aligned with the West.
“I strongly condemn Russia’s reckless attack on Ukraine, which puts at risk countless civilian lives. This is a grave breach of international law and a serious threat to Euro-Atlantic security,” Mr. Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter.
In a nationally televised speech early on February 24, Mr. Putin sought to justify the offensive operation by claiming that he has to stop Ukraine from acquiring nuclear weapons. Ukraine has not indicated it is seeking nuclear weapons.
“Circumstances require us to take decisive and immediate action,” Mr. Putin told the nation, saying that Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region had asked for assistance.
Mr. Putin also said the action was intended to protect civilians and that it comes in response to threats coming from Ukraine – claims Kyiv and the West have long dismissed.
Mr. Putin called on the Ukrainian military to lay down its arms. He claimed that Russia did not intend to occupy Ukrainian territory.
Russia had massed more than 150,000 combat-ready armed forces with heavy equipment on Ukraine’s border, something NATO has described as the largest military buildup on the European continent since the end of the Cold War.
Tensions rose even higher when Mr. Putin this week said he was recognizing the independence bids by two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and sending troops to the territories – moves condemned by most Western nations and the UN chief.
Mr. Putin had for weeks denied any plans to invade Ukraine.
The Russian leader is seeking to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO – something he has called an existential threat – and bring the Western alliance’s eastward expansion to a halt.
Ukraine has been aiming to join NATO ever since Russia seized its Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and instigated a rebellion in its eastern provinces.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reminded Western leaders over the weekend that his country agreed to give up its nuclear weapons in 1994 in exchange for guarantees of its security and territorial integrity.
He said that Russia – a signatory to that agreement along with the United States and Britain – had violated it and questioned whether it still held.
Mr. Putin has seized on that remark to peddle a conspiracy theory that Ukraine is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons to attack Russia.
Mr. Zelenskyy made a last-ditch effort to avoid a war by trying to call Mr. Putin late on February 23. Mr. Putin did not take the call, Mr. Zelenskyy said.
(With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, CNN and the BBC)
Copyright 2022, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036; www.rferl.org (see https://www.rferl.org/a/putin-ukraine-military-operation/31719680.html).