On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a military action in Ukraine, followed by explosions heard across the country, sparking fury from Joe Biden, who warned of “catastrophic loss of life.”
Weeks of intense diplomacy and the introduction of Western sanctions on Russia failed to deter Putin, who had gathered between 150,000 and 200,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders.
“I have made the decision of a military operation,” Putin said in a surprise television announcement shortly before 6:00 am (0300 GMT) in Moscow.
He also urged Ukrainian soldiers to lay down their weapons and justified the invasion by claiming “genocide” in the east of the country.
The Kremlin had previously stated that rebel commanders in eastern Ukraine have requested military assistance from Moscow in their fight against Kyiv.
Within 30 minutes of Putin’s statement, an AFP reporter in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, heard explosions. According to AFP correspondents, explosions were also reported in the eastern city of Mariupol and the Black Sea port of Odessa.
President Biden of the United States quickly threatened Russia with “consequences” and stated that the world would “hold Russia accountable” for its conduct.
He said Russia’s move would cause “catastrophic loss of life and human suffering”, while NATO’s chief condemned Russia’s “reckless and unprovoked attack’ on Ukraine.
Ukraine urged the United Nations to “do all possible” to put an end to the conflict.
Late Wednesday night, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky issued an anguished plea to Russians not to embrace a “big conflict in Europe.”
In Russian, Zelensky claimed that the Russian people were being misled on Ukraine. Zelensky said he had tried to call Putin but there was “no answer, only silence”, adding that Moscow now had around 200,000 soldiers near Ukraine’s borders.
Separatist leaders in Donetsk and Lugansk wrote separate letters to Putin on Wednesday, pleading with him to “assist them in repelling Ukraine’s aggression,” according to Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.
The two letters, both dated February 22, were published by Russian official media.
Their appeals followed Putin’s recognition of their independence and the signing of friendship treaties with them, which included defence deals.
Putin had fought a storm of international criticism over the situation for weeks, with some Western leaders accusing him of losing his cool.
His declaration of the military operation came only days before a last-ditch European Union summit in Brussels scheduled for Thursday.
Another aspect of the wave of Western punishment following Putin’s attempt to rewrite Ukraine’s borders was the imposition of sanctions on Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and high-ranking personnel including the commanders of Russia’s army, navy, and air force.
The UN Security Council gathered late Wednesday for its second emergency session in three days to discuss the crisis, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ personal appeal to Putin remaining unanswered.
“President Putin, stop assaulting Ukraine with your troops,” Guterres said. “Too many people have already died.”
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, warned that a full-scale Russian invasion might displace five million people, causing a new European refugee catastrophe.
Ukraine has asked its nearly three million residents living in Russia to evacuate before Putin’s decision.
“We are united in our belief that the future of European security is being decided right now, right here in our own backyard, in Ukraine,” President Zelensky stated during a joint press conference with visiting Polish and Lithuanian leaders.
Russia had accumulated 150,000 troops in combat formations on Ukraine’s borders with Russia, Belarus, and Russian-occupied Crimea, as well as on warships in the Black Sea, according to Western capitals.
Ukraine has around 200,000 military personnel, and could call up to 250,000 reservists.
Moscow’s total forces are much larger — around a million active-duty personnel — and have been modernised and re-armed in recent years.
Ukraine, on the other hand, has received modern anti-tank weapons as well as some drones from NATO allies. More has been offered as the allies try to discourage or at least make a Russian attack costly.
Shelling between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists had increased in recent days, with a Ukrainian soldier killed on Wednesday, the sixth in four days, and residents living near the frontline scared.
Dmitry Maksimenko, a 27-year-old coal miner from government-controlled Krasnogorivka, told AFP that when his wife informed him that Putin had recognised the two Russian-backed separatist enclaves, he was taken aback.
“She said: ‘Have you heard the news?’. How could I have known? There’s no electricity, never mind internet. I don’t know what is going to happen next, but to be honest, I’m afraid,” he said.
AFP reporters spotted military equipment such as rocket launchers, howitzers, and fuel tanks mounted on trains reaching for hundreds of metres in a Russian settlement some 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the border.
Russia has long demanded that Ukraine be barred from joining NATO and that American soldiers be withdrawn from Eastern Europe.
Putin told media on Tuesday that if the West wanted to de-escalate the issue, it would have to accept a number of strict requirements, including Ukraine abandoning its NATO ambitions and becoming neutral.
On Wednesday, Washington slapped penalties against the Nord Stream 2 gas project, which Germany had effectively halted by delaying certification.