(Kiev) Deadly battles between Russians and Ukrainians were taking place on Thursday at the gates of Kiev and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was taken, following the launch by the army of Vladimir Putin of a massive air and ground attack against Ukraine to which the United States and the European Union have responded with new sanctions.
To avoid an extension of this conflict to “other European countries”, against which German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned, the military forces of the NATO states have been placed on alert and certain units will movement to reinforce the defenses on the eastern flank. The Atlantic Alliance has called a videoconference summit for Friday.
The United States will defend “every inch of NATO territory,” President Joe Biden said in a speech. But they will not send troops to Ukraine, he immediately clarified.
The Pentagon will, however, send some 7,000 more soldiers to Germany.
US and EU sanctions
The first day of the offensive, described as a “success” by the Russian Ministry of Defense, caused dozens of deaths in a few hours, causing an outcry in the international community, especially on the Western side.
Joe Biden, for whom the master of the Kremlin will become “a pariah on the international scene”, thus mentioned in his speech restrictions on the export of technological products to Russia.
The number two of the Russian Embassy in Washington was also expelled and 24 Belarusian individuals and entities were punished for their involvement in the invasion of Ukraine.
The leaders of the 27 EU countries have simultaneously taken “massive” sanctions against Russia in the energy, finance and transport sectors.
Moscow, for its part, promised a “severe” response to these measures.
“Total air superiority”
The attack began at dawn, after Vladimir Putin on Monday recognized the independence of Ukrainian separatist territories in Donbass.
“I took the decision for a special military operation” with the aim of “a demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine”, he insisted on television: “We do not have in our plans an occupation Ukrainian territories”.
In an attempt to justify this intervention, the Russian president notably reiterated his unfounded accusations of a “genocide” orchestrated by Kiev in the pro-Russian rebel “republics”, cited a call for help from the separatists and denounced the “aggressive” policy of NATO.
Russia had “no other way” to defend itself, he told the press in the evening.
Very early Thursday, just after Mr. Putin’s speech, explosions sounded in Kiev, the capital, in Kramatorsk, a city in the east which serves as the headquarters of the Ukrainian army, in Kharkiv (northeast) , the second city of Ukraine, in Odessa, on the Black Sea, and in Mariupol, the main port in the east of this country.
The Chernobyl power plant, scene of the worst nuclear accident in history in 1986, later fell into the hands of Russian soldiers.
Russia has “complete air superiority” in this conflict, a Western intelligence official has pointed out, saying Russia wants to amass “overwhelming force” around Kiev, where a curfew has been imposed.
Heavy human toll
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has for his part declared martial law and ordered the severance of diplomatic relations with Moscow.
In the morning, a member of his team informed that “more than 40 Ukrainian soldiers” and “nearly 10 civilians” had perished. In the Odessa region alone, the official death toll was 18 inhabitants of a village killed in strikes.
In the early evening, the authorities of the Kherson region (south) also reported 13 civilians and nine soldiers killed.
And a Ukrainian military plane crashed with 14 people on board not far from the capital.
On the Russian side, a military transport aircraft suffered a similar fate in western Russia, near the border with Ukraine.
Both sides were making unverifiable claims, but the Russian army was gaining ground.
In the Kherson region, it was present in several areas and in particular now had control of Genichesky, a town 300 km west of the Russian border.
100,000 people fled
From the early hours of the day, Kiev residents taken aback rushed to the metro to take shelter or try to leave the city, while cars filled with families fleeing the capital created vast traffic jams.
Some were determined to stay despite everything, like Olena Chevchenko, an employee of an NGO. “We hope for international support,” she told AFP.
“I didn’t think this would happen in my lifetime,” said Olena Kourilo, 52, an educator in Chuguyv, near Kharkiv, her face stripped with bandages due to wounds from a strike that left at least one dead. , noted AFP.
On the main roads of eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian army was everywhere.
A civil defense official said civilian evacuation operations were hampered by heavy artillery fire and poor communications.
Around 100,000 people have fled their homes in Ukraine and thousands have left their country, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
The EU said it was “fully prepared” to welcome them.
Nearly 1,400 demonstrators arrested, according to an NGO
In Moscow, Russians expressed their concern, others their support for Vladimir Putin.
“I’m not happy, I’m completely worried,” said Nikita, a 34-year-old manager, saying he didn’t know “who is right or who is wrong”.
Anti-war rallies took place in the center of the capital, on Pushkin Square and the main Tverskaya Street, as well as in Saint Petersburg. Dozens of people were arrested, nearly 1,400 across Russia, according to an NGO.
The authorities had warned that they would repress any unauthorized demonstration.
” I am shocked. My relatives live in Ukraine. What to tell them on the phone? “Hold on tight” ? “Launched a Moscow protester, Anastassia Nestoulia.
Panic in the markets
Vladimir Putin warned Westerners “who would try to interfere”: “They must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead to consequences that you have never experienced before”.
China, which has close relations with Moscow, said it was following the situation “closely” and called for restraint from all parties.
And Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who spoke on the phone with the Russian president on Thursday, called for an “immediate cessation of violence”.
The Russian offensive comes eight years after Moscow annexed Crimea and sponsored the takeover of parts of Donbass by pro-Russian separatists, sparking a regional conflict that has claimed more than 14,000 lives.
It wreaked havoc on world markets, with falling stock markets and soaring commodity prices.
Oil notably crossed 100 dollars a barrel, a first since 2014.
The Moscow Stock Exchange plunged by more than 35% and the ruble hit a historic low against the dollar, before the intervention of the Russian central bank.
IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva warned that the conflict poses “a significant economic risk for the region and the world” as the global economy tries to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.