Europe was plunged into its gravest crisis in decades early Thursday as Russia defied international law and threats of devastating economic sanctions by mounting a deadly full-scale invasion of Ukraine, threatening the safety of millions and sending citizens across the country scrambling for refuge as missiles fell from the sky.
The Russian attack began in the early morning hours and came by land, air, and sea. Shelling and explosions struck all parts of the country, far beyond the front lines in eastern Ukraine, signifying a dramatic escalation of Russia’s 2014 invasion.
“We woke up to a drastically different world,” Emine Dzheppar, Ukraine’s first deputy foreign minister, told BuzzFeed News.
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The Russian military claimed to have destroyed more than 80 Ukrainian military sites, including 11 airfields, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in a briefing from Moscow.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed his country late Thursday, swapping his suit and tie for a military uniform. He said that at least 137 Ukrainians had been killed so far in the Russian invasion, including both civilian and military casualties.
Zelensky ordered a full military mobilization, calling up all conscripts and reservists in order to combat Russia’s actions, which he compared to those of the Soviet Union, describing the invasion as the “sound of the new Iron Curtain that’s falling and closing Russia from the civilized world.”
“Our task is for that curtain not to fall on Ukrainian territory,” Zelensky said.
The NATO North Atlantic Council condemned what it described as a “horrifying attack on Ukraine, which is entirely unjustified.” International organizations and coalitions scrambled to respond to the invasion, with NATO, the United Nations, and G7 leaders all holding emergency meetings.
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In an address from the White House, President Joe Biden said the US and other allies would further escalate economic sanctions by blocking the assets of four large Russian banks, imposing export controls, and sanctioning more oligarchs and their families.
He also directly blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for the deadly military conflict.
“Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war. And now he and his government will pay the consequences,” Biden said.
However, Biden said Russia would not yet be cut off from SWIFT, the global banking messaging system that connects more than 11,000 financial institutions around the world, because some European allies were not yet prepared to take that step.
Additional US troops will also be sent to Germany; Biden stressed they were not going to fight in Ukraine but rather to strengthen NATO members against Russian aggression.
Putin’s goal, Biden said, was to reestablish the former Soviet Union.
“This is a dangerous moment for all of Europe and freedom around the world,” Biden said.
In Kyiv and in cities across Ukraine, air raid sirens blared and people sought safety in bomb shelters and underground train stations. In Hostomel, a short drive away from the capital, videos show Russian Mi-8 helicopters assaulting a military airfield. The Interior Ministry said that Russia had seized control.
In Kramatorsk, a city of 150,000 residents in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, the sky lit orange with multiple explosions just before 5 a.m. The Ukrainian military said that Russian missiles had struck the airport, which is 2,000 feet southeast of the city center.
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About 100 miles north in Kharkiv, a city of 1 million people near the Russian border, three residents told BuzzFeed News in a series of text messages that they were awakened before dawn by a series of blasts.
“We will probably leave the city,” one woman said, asking that her name not be used for security reasons. “Don’t understand how this can happen in the 21st century.”
Zelensky said Russian forces even launched an offensive to seize control of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site. “This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe,” he said.
Hours later, Mykhailo Podoliak, adviser to the head of the Chernobyl plant, said the Ukrainians had lost control of the site.
“The condition of the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant, confinement, and nuclear waste storage facilities is unknown,” Podoliak said.