(Kiev) Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, with air strikes and entry of ground forces including in the direction of the capital Kiev, killing dozens of people in the early hours, according to the Ukrainian authorities.
The attack triggered an outcry in the international community, particularly on the Western side, with emergency meetings planned in several countries: the 27 members of the European Union met Thursday afternoon at a summit in Brussels, while the NATO was convening a videoconference summit for Friday.
The Russian president gave the signal for hostilities on Thursday at dawn, after recognizing the independence of Ukrainian separatist territories in Donbass on Monday, then having a military intervention validated by the Russian Parliament on Tuesday.
“I have made the decision for a special military operation,” the Kremlin master announced in a statement on television before 6 a.m. (10 p.m. EST). “We will strive to achieve demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine,” he added, sitting at a dark wooden desk.
“We do not have in our plans an occupation of Ukrainian territories, we do not intend to impose anything by force on anyone”, he assured, calling on the Ukrainian soldiers to “lay down their arms”.
He justified himself by repeating his unfounded accusations of a “genocide” orchestrated by Kiev in the pro-Russian separatist territories, and by arguing a call for help from the separatists and the aggressive policy of the NATO, which would instrumentalise Ukraine against Russia.
The Russian president received Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday in Moscow.
“Eliminate the Nazis”
His spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, clarified at midday that “the duration (of the operation) would be determined by its results and its relevance”.
The attack is aimed at eliminating the “Nazis” who, according to Moscow, are at work in Ukraine. Mr Peskov declined to answer when asked if Moscow considers Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “Nazi”.
The specter of World War II was also raised by Volodymyr Zelensky, who compared the Russian invasion to the 1941 Nazi offensive against Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union.
From dawn, just after Mr. Putin’s speech, a series of explosions were heard in Kiev, in Kramatorsk, a city in the east which serves as the headquarters of the Ukrainian army, in Kharkiv (east), second largest city in the country, in Odessa (south), on the Black Sea, and in Mariupol, the main port in the east of the country.
President Zelensky proclaimed martial law in the country, called on his fellow citizens to “not panic”, before announcing the breaking off of diplomatic relations with Moscow.
At around 5 a.m. EST, a member of his team reported that “more than 40 Ukrainian servicemen had been killed, dozens injured” and “nearly 10 civilians killed”.
The authorities of the Odessa region also indicated that 18 people had been killed in a village by strikes, without it being known whether these victims had been counted in the overall toll.
At around 7:00 a.m. EST, the offensive appeared to be aimed directly at Kiev: Ukrainian authorities reported that Russian ground forces entered the vicinity of the capital, and that a Ukrainian military plane crashed in the area with 14 people on board .
Ukraine, then neighboring Moldova, closed their airspace for civil aviation. Flights were canceled from airports in major cities in southern Russia, close to Ukraine.
Moscow has closed the Sea of Azov, which borders Ukraine and Russia, to navigation.
“I told him to leave”
In Kiev, at dawn, residents taken aback rushed into the metro to take shelter or try to leave the city.
“I was woken up by the sound of bombs, I packed bags and I fled,” Maria Kachkoska, 29, told AFP in shock at one of the stations.
Cars full of families were fleeing the capital, as far as possible from the Russian border, located 400 km away.
In Chuhouiv, near Kharkiv, a woman and her son mourned a man killed by a missile, one of the first victims of this attack.
“I told him to leave,” repeated the son, not far from the crater dug by the projectile between two five-story buildings.
“I didn’t think such a thing could happen, that it would happen in my lifetime,” said Elena Kourilo, a 52-year-old educator.
On the main roads of eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian army was everywhere. A civil defense spokesman said civilian evacuation operations were hampered by heavy artillery fire and poor communications.
The Russian army claimed to have destroyed air bases and Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense, while ensuring that it only targeted strategic sites.
Both sides were making unverifiable statements: the Ukrainian army said it had killed “about 50 Russian occupiers”, and the spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that its troops were gaining ground in the east of the country.
In the streets of Moscow, some residents expressed their concern, others their support for Vladimir Putin.
“It does not please me, I am completely worried,” said Nikita Grouschine, a 34-year-old executive, saying that she did not know “who is right or wrong”.
“I’m not going to discuss an order from the Supreme Commander, if he thinks it’s necessary, it must be done,” said Ivan, a 32-year-old engineer.
The Russian attack, after months of tension and diplomatic efforts to avoid a war, drew a torrent of international condemnation, especially in the West.
“President Putin, in the name of humanity, bring your troops back to Russia! “Launched the Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, visibly tested, during an emergency meeting of the Security Council in the night.
US President Joe Biden has denounced an “unjustified attack” which will cause “suffering and loss of human life”. “The world will hold Russia to account,” he promised. He spoke early Thursday with the Ukrainian president, pledging his support.
French leader Emmanuel Macron, President-in-Office of the Council of the European Union, called on Europeans for “unity”.
“Russian leaders will have to face unprecedented isolation”, and the “severest (set of sanctions) ever implemented” assured Josep Borrell, head of EU diplomacy.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned a “reckless and unprovoked attack” by Russia.
He indicated that the Atlantic Alliance had activated “its defense plans” to deploy additional forces in allied countries in Eastern Europe, but underlined that NATO had no troops in Ukraine and “no plan” to deploy it.
China, which has close relations with Moscow, said it was following the situation “closely” and called for “restraint by all parties”.
Panic in the markets
The attack comes eight years after Moscow annexed Crimea and sponsored the takeover of parts of the Donbass by pro-Russian separatists, sparking a regional conflict that has claimed more than 14,000 lives.
Many fear that it will lead to the most serious conflict in Europe since 1945. The attack “endangers the lives of countless innocent people” and “calls into question the peace” in Europe, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Thursday.
Mr Putin warned those “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”.
The invasion caused panic in world markets, causing stock markets to plunge and commodities to ignite, led by oil and gas.
Oil rose above $100 a barrel for the first time in more than seven years.
The Moscow Stock Exchange plunged by more than 30% and the ruble hit a historic low against the dollar, before the intervention of the country’s central bank.
The United States was to table a draft resolution on the table of the UN Security Council on Thursday condemning Russia for this “war”.