Russia attacks as Putin warns world; Biden vows to hold him accountable

Early Thursday, just as President Vladimir V Putin of Russia announced on television that he had decided “to carry out a special military operation” in Ukraine, explosions were reported across the country.

Michael Schwirtz, Anton Troianovski, Marc Santora, Shashank Benglai and Neil MacFarquharThe New York Times
Published : 24 Feb 2022, 09:44 AM
Updated : 24 Feb 2022, 09:48 AM

Blasts were heard in Kyiv, the capital; in Kharkiv, the second largest city; and in Kramatorsk in the region of Donetsk, one of two eastern Ukrainian territories claimed by Russia-backed separatists since 2014.

Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said that Russian troops had landed in the southern port city of Odessa and were crossing from Russia into Kharkiv. Footage captured by security cameras showed Russian military vehicles crossing into Ukraine from Crimea, the peninsula that Russia seized in 2014.

Rocket attacks targeted Ukrainian fighter jets parked at an airport outside Kyiv, and Ukraine closed its airspace to commercial flights, citing the “potential hazard to military aviation.”

As air raid sirens blared in Kyiv, the western city of Lviv and other urban areas, residents rushed to take shelter in bus and subway stations. In Kyiv, people packed up their cars and waited in long lines to fill up with gas on their way out of the city. In eastern Ukraine, early signs of panic appeared on the streets as lines formed at ATMs and gas stations.

With attacks across the country, it quickly became clear that Russia’s campaign, whatever Putin meant by a “special military operation,” was aimed at far more than the rebel territories in the east. Within an hour, Ukraine’s state emergency service said that attacks had been launched in 10 regions of Ukraine, primarily in the east and south, and that reports of new shelling were “coming in constantly.”

Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, called it “a full-scale invasion of Ukraine” and said his country would defend itself, while calling on the world to “stop Putin.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry said that it was using “high-precision weapons” to disable military infrastructure, air defence facilities, military airfields and Ukrainian army planes, Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported. But the ministry said it was not attacking cities, and promised that “the civilian population is not at risk.”

The Ukrainian authorities said that invading naval forces were coming ashore at multiple points, including in Kharkiv and the southern city of Kherson. Three emergency workers were injured when a command post was struck by shelling in Nizhyn, in the north, and six people were trapped under rubble when the city’s airport came under attack, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry reported.

Military depots, warehouses and national guard sites were hit with artillery blasts, the ministry said.

As dawn broke in Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said that he had declared martial law. The country’s defence minister told citizens that the army was “fending off enemy forces” and “doing everything it can to protect you.”

But the army was under siege. In the east, Russia-backed separatists — their ranks bolstered by the arrival of hundreds of Russian mercenaries in recent days, according to European officials — said they were hammering Ukrainian troops along the entire 250-mile front line that has divided the rebels and Ukrainian forces since 2014.

Seeking to capture the entire territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, which Putin recognised as independent on Monday, the rebels were “using all weapons at their disposal,” the Russian news media reported. Ukrainian officials said the attacks included artillery strikes.

Ukraine’s state border service reported that Russian troops stationed in Belarus, north of Ukraine, had launched an attack with support from the Belarusian military. Russia had deployed as many as 30,000 troops to Belarus for exercises this month that the United States warned could provide cover for an attack against Kyiv, which lies a fast 140-mile drive away from a main border crossing.

By mid-morning in Kyiv, Russia’s Defence Ministry said it had disabled all of Ukraine’s air defences and air bases. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said that Russian forces had captured two villages in the Luhansk region.

Addressing his nation in a televised speech broadcast just before 6 am Thursday, Putin said his goal was to “demilitarise” but not occupy the country.

Evoking the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Putin cast his action as a long overdue strike against an US-led world order that he described as an “empire of lies.”

Even as he spoke, the United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting imploring him not to invade.

Putin said he was acting after receiving a plea for assistance from the leaders of the Russian-backed separatist territories formed in eastern Ukraine in 2014 — a move that Western officials had predicted as a possible pretext for an invasion.

Putin also described the operation as a response to a “question of life or death” that he said Russia was facing as a result of the eastward expansion of the NATO alliance — which Ukraine has aspired to join.

“This is that red line that I talked about multiple times,” Putin said. “They have crossed it.”

The operation’s goal, Putin said, was “to defend people who for eight years are suffering persecution and genocide by the Kyiv regime,” citing the false accusation that Ukrainian forces had been carrying out ethnic cleansing in separatist regions of eastern Ukraine.

In bellicose language, Putin also issued what appeared to be a warning to other countries.

“Anyone who tries to interfere with us, or even more so, to create threats for our country and our people, must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history,” Putin said. “We are ready for any turn of events.”

In a statement, President Joe Biden placed responsibility for the conflict squarely on Putin’s shoulders.

“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.”

He added that he would address the American people on Thursday about “further consequences” the United States and its allies would impose on Russia.

On Wednesday, Ukraine had mobilised its reservists and declared a 30-day state of emergency as cyberattacks knocked out government institutions including parliament, the Foreign Ministry and the Cabinet of ministers.

In Kyiv, Zelenskyy made an impassioned bid earlier in the day to spare his nation from war, appealing directly to the Russian people to remember their ties to Ukraine.

“Listen to the voice of reason,” Zelenskyy said in a nationally televised address early Thursday, adding that Kremlin propaganda painting Ukrainians as aggressors was a lie. “The people of Ukraine want peace, the authorities in Ukraine want peace.”

The West unveiled new sanctions targeting Putin’s inner circle, with threats of tighter measures if Russia escalated hostilities, but a senior Russian diplomat denigrated the idea that pressure would alter Russia’s course, suggesting that the sanctions would only create economic pain for the West.

Sen Mark Warner, D-Va, who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had brought decades of general peace in Europe to an end.

“While there is still an opportunity for Russia to reverse course, we can no longer hold out hope that this standoff will be resolved peacefully,” Warner said. “Therefore, we must all, on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Atlantic, work together to demonstrate to Putin that this aggression will not be allowed to go unpunished.”

In Zelenskyy’s Wednesday speech, delivered in Russian, he conceded that his appeal would probably not be heard in Russia, where the media is largely state-controlled, and said that an attempt to call Putin directly was met with silence.

He tried to address the main accusations levelled against Ukrainians by the Kremlin. Ukrainians were not Nazis, he said, and his own grandfather had served in the Soviet army throughout the war. They did not hate Russian culture, he said.

“We are different,” he said, “but that is not a reason to be enemies. We want to determine, build our future ourselves, peacefully, calmly and honestly.”

Speaking of the contested areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, Zelenskyy said he suspected that the region was foreign to most Russians.

“This is our land, our history,” he said. “What are you going to be fighting for and with whom?”

Zelenskyy changed tack toward the end, warning that Ukrainians would fight to repel any attack.

“We won’t attack, but we will defend ourselves,” he said. “By attacking, you will see our faces — not our backs, but our faces.”

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Editor-in-Chief and Publisher