Russian forces have unleashed an attack of Ukraine on the orders of Vladimir Putin , who announced a “special military operation” at dawn, amid warnings from world leaders that it could spark the biggest war in Europe since 1945.
Within minutes of Putin’s short televised address, at about 5am Ukrainian time, explosions were heard near major Ukrainian cities, including the capital Kyiv.
In a bid to justify the attack, Putin claimed “A hostile anti-Russia is being created on our historic lands.”
“We have taken the decision to conduct a special military operation,” he said, claiming it was for the “demilitarisation and denazification” of Ukraine , echoing a theme of Kremlin propaganda, the false claim that the Kyiv government is controlled by the far right.
“We do not intend to occupy Ukraine,” he said, and he had a chilling warning for other nations.
“To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside: if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history. All relevant decisions have been taken. I hope you hear me,” he said.
As Putin was speaking and the first detonations were being reported, the UN security council was holding an emergency session, chaired by Russia itself, which holds the rotating presidency. It was begun by the UN secretary general, António Guterres, who made a direct appeal: “President Putin – stop your troops from attacking Ukraine. Give peace a chance. Too many people have already died.”
Joe Biden issued a written statement saying: “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.
“President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering,” Biden said. “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.”
The stage for the offensive was set on Thursday night, after the leaders of the two Russian-controlled territories in east Ukraine sent an official request to Moscow for military aid to “help repel the aggression of the Ukrainian armed forces in order to avoid civilian casualties and a humanitarian catastrophe in the Donbas”.
In response, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, used a video address to appeal to the Russian public for help after an attempt to speak to Putin was unsuccessful. “Do “Russians want wars? I would very much like to answer this question. But the answer is up to you,” he said.
He also vowed to defend the country, saying: “If someone attempts to take away our land, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. By attacking, you will see our faces, not our backs, but our faces.”
The dramatic escalation marks the second time that Moscow has launched a significant military incursion into Ukraine since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2014, Putin ordered undercover Russian soldiers to seize the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow then annexed.
Thursday’s attack was preceded by a massive, continuous cyber-attack that targeted Ukraine’s ministries and banks, a form of hybrid warfare to sow confusion.
In previous weeks, Putin built up an estimated 190,000 troops close to Ukraine’s borders while European leaders shuttled between Kyiv and Moscow, seeking a diplomatic solution.
During the buildup Boris Johnson warned of a “bloody and protracted conflict” rooted in Putin’s anxiety about the encroachment of Nato since the end of the cold war as the old Soviet Union dissipated. “I think people need to understand the sheer cost in human life that that could entail – not just for Ukrainians, but also for Russians and for young Russians,” the prime minister said on 20 February.
The Ukrainian leadership, initially sceptical of the alarm sounded by western leaders, this week declared a state of emergency, mobilised 36,000 reservists and passed a new law allowing Ukrainians to carry personal firearms.
The state of emergency, starting on Thursday, allows authorities to impose curfews and restrictions on movement, block rallies and ban political parties and organisations “in the interests of national security and public order”.
Ukraine also told nearly 3 million of its citizens to leave Russia. Ukrainians make up the largest diaspora community in Russia, where many have family members and travel to work.
The events unfolded as EU countries approved tough new sanctions on Russian officials and “propagandists”, imposing asset freezes and travel bans on Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, and 351 Duma deputies who voted to recognise the Russian-controlled territories in east Ukraine.
In Washington, Biden said he was allowing sanctions to move forward against the company that built the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a day after Germany indefinitely suspended the project.
As recently as Wednesday, Putin maintained he was “open for direct and honest dialogue, for the search for diplomatic solutions to the most complex problems”. In the video address delivered in connection with the Defender of the Fatherland Day, he also praised the battle-readiness of the military, adding: “The interests of Russia, the security of our citizens, are non-negotiable for us.”
But his intentions were foreshadowed during a meeting with his security council on 21 February in Moscow, in which he recognised the so-called breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent. In a long and menacing speech he also asserted that Ukraine was not a state, but a historical mistake made by Lenin.
Putin has also complained repeatedly of what he regards as western military encroachment in Ukraine. Last year he published an essay arguing Ukraine and Russia were “one people”, artificially divided by history.
In 2014 the Ukrainian army collapsed under superior Russian firepower, sustaining serious losses in a battle for the strategic Donetsk region city of Debaltseve. However, Ukrainian commanders have said their soldiers were better equipped and more professional than eight years ago, and highly motivated. They predicted a bitter and bloody guerrilla war.