'Darkest hours of Europe' as Russia invades Ukraine

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MOSCOW/KYIV (REUTERS/AFP) - Russian forces invaded Ukraine by land, air and sea on Thursday (Feb 24), confirming the worst fears of the West with the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War II.

Russian missiles rained down on Ukrainian cities. The country reported columns of troops pouring across its borders into the eastern Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Luhansk regions, and landing by sea at the port cities of Odessa and Mariupol in the south.

Explosions could be heard before dawn in the capital Kyiv, a city of 3 million people. Gunfire rattled, sirens blared, and the highway out of the city choked with traffic as residents fled.  

Black smoke rose over the headquarters of Ukraine’s military intelligence after an explosion in Kyiv near midday.  

The assault followed weeks of fruitless diplomatic efforts by Western leaders to avert war and realised their worst fears about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions.

“Russia treacherously attacked our state in the morning, as Nazi Germany did in the WW2 years,” tweeted Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. “As of today, our countries are on different sides of world history. Russia has embarked on a path of evil, but Ukraine is defending itself & won’t give up its freedom no matter what Moscow thinks.”

He called on Ukrainians to defend the country on the streets, and said arms would be given to anyone prepared to fight. He also urged Russians to take to the streets to protest against their government’s actions.

European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said: “These are among the darkest hours of Europe since the Second World War.”

Outside Mariupol, close to the frontline held by Russian-backed separatists, smoke billowed from a fire in a forest hit by Russian bombing.

A Ukrainian armoured column headed along the road, with soldiers seated atop turrets smiling and flashing victory signs to passing cars which honked their horns in support.

In nearby Mangush and Berdyansk towns, people queued for cash and gasoline.

Civilians from Mariupol were seen packing bags. “We are going into hiding,” one woman said.

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Ukraine’s military said it had destroyed four Russian tanks on a road near Kharkiv, killed 50 troops near a town in Luhansk region and downed six Russian warplanes in the east. 

Russia denied reports that its aircraft or armoured vehicles had been destroyed. Russian-backed separatists claimed to have downed two Ukrainian planes. 

Authorities of southern Odessa region said that 18 people were killed in a missile attack. At least six people were killed in the town of Brovary, located near the capital of Kyiv.

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In a televised declaration of war in the early hours, Putin said he had ordered “a special military operation” to protect people, including Russian citizens, subjected to “genocide” in Ukraine, an accusation the West calls absurd propaganda. 

“And for this we will strive for the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine,” Putin said.

“Russia cannot feel safe, develop, and exist with a constant threat emanating from the territory of modern Ukraine...All responsibility for bloodshed will be on the conscience of the ruling regime in Ukraine.”

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US President Joe Biden said his prayers were with the people of Ukraine “as they suffer an unprovoked and unjustified attack”. 

He promised tough sanctions in response, and said he would swiftly consult with other world leaders.

The prospect of war and sanctions disrupting energy and commodities markets posed an immediate threat to a global economy barely emerging from the pandemic.

Stocks and bond yields plunged, while the dollar and gold rocketed higher. Brent oil surged past US$100/barrel for the first time since 2014.

“There are no buyers here for risk, and there are a lot of sellers out there, so this market is getting hit very hard,” said Chris Weston, head of research at broker Pepperstone.

Motorists queueing at a petrol station in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Feb 24, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
People are seen outside the cordoned off area around the remains of a shell in a street in Kyiv on Feb 24, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Ukraine, a democratic country of 44 million people with more than 1,000 years of history, is the biggest country in Europe by area after Russia itself. It voted overwhelmingly for independence from Moscow after the fall of the Soviet Union and says it aims to join Nato and the European Union. 

Mr Putin, who denied for months that he was planning an invasion, has called Ukraine an artificial creation carved from Russia by its enemies, a characterisation Ukrainians call shocking and false. 

Three hours after Putin gave his order, Russia’s defence ministry said it had taken out military infrastructure at Ukrainian air bases and degraded its air defences.

Earlier, Ukrainian media reported that military command centres in Kyiv and Kharkiv in the north-east had been struck by missiles, while Russian troops had landed in the southern port cities of Odessa and Mariupol. A Reuters witness later heard three loud blasts in Mariupol. 

Russia also announced it was shutting all shipping in the Azov Sea. It controls the strait leading into the sea where Ukraine has ports including Mariupol. 

Ukraine appealed to Turkey to bar Russian ships from the straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

People queueing at an ATM in Kyiv on Feb 24, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES
People queue at a bus station to travel to the western parts of Ukraine, in Kyiv on Feb 24, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

Western countries have been preparing for the likelihood of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing an assault. By mid-morning, traffic was at a standstill on the four-lane main road to the western city of Lviv. Cars stretched back for dozens of kilometres, Reuters witnesses said. 

Oxana, stuck in a traffic jam with her three-year-old daughter on the backseat, said she was fleeing “because a war has started. Putin has attacked us.”

“We’re afraid of bombardments,” she said. “Tell them: ‘you can’t do this.’ This is so scary.”  

Biden, who has ruled out putting US troops on the ground in Ukraine, said Putin had chosen a premeditated war that would bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering.

“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,” said Biden, who spoke to Zelenskiy by telephone.

French President Emmanuel Macron condemned Russia’s action and called for a Nato summit “as soon as possible”, matching calls from Britain and Poland.

The US-led military alliance in Europe announced that it will take additional steps to strengthen deterrence and defence and will hold an emergency summit of its 30 member nations on Friday.

A man walks in a street as black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuguyev near Kharkiv on Feb 24, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference: “Russia is using force to try to rewrite history, and deny Ukraine its free and independent path.”

The new measures planned by Nato “will enable us to deploy capabilities and forces, including the Nato Response Force,” he said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Putin had chosen “the path of bloodshed and destruction”.

China, which signed a friendship treaty with Russia three weeks ago, reiterated a call for all parties to exercise restraint and rejected a description of Russia’s action as an invasion. 

Meantime, Ukraine closed its airspace to civilian flights, citing a high risk to safety.

Europe’s aviation regulator warned against the hazards to flying in bordering areas of Russia and Belarus.

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