Russia invades Ukraine: 57 reported dead, tens of thousands flee homes amid ‘dark hours’ for Europe

Missiles fall on cities as Ukrainian forces battle Russian invaders from three fronts

Russian forces invaded Ukraine early on Thursday, assaulting by land, sea and air in the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since the second World War.

Ukrainian forces battled Russian invaders from three fronts amid the Russian military incursion from the east, north, and south. The day began with missiles raining down on Ukrainian cities and Ukraine reporting columns of troops pouring across its borders from Russia and Belarus, and landing on the coast from the Black and Azov seas.

The invasion led to a warning from US president Joe Biden that the aggression by Russian president Vladimir Putin would cost Russia dearly, and caused tens of thousands to flee their homes.

Heavy exchanges of fire were taking place in the regions of Sumy and Kharkiv in the northeast and Kherson and Odessa, home to Ukraine's most important seaport, in the south.

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

Ukraine’s health minister Oleh Lyashko said 57 people had been killed and 169 wounded on Thursday after Russia launched the invasion.

By nightfall on Thursday, a picture was emerging of fierce fighting across multiple fronts.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant has been captured by Russian forces, an adviser to the Ukrainian presidential office said on Thursday evening. The plant is located just 90km north of Kyiv. Russian troops had also captured Hostomel airport in the Kyiv region, where paratroopers had earlier been landed. A Ukrainian official later said the airfield had been recaptured.

Regional officials said Ukrainian authorities had lost control of some territory in the Kherson region near Russian-occupied Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014.

Russia’s defence ministry said it had destroyed 83 land-based Ukrainian targets and had achieved all its goals, according to Interfax news agency.

Ukrainian forces downed two Russian helicopters and seven other Russian aircraft and destroyed several Russian trucks, and a platoon from Russia’s 74th Motor Rifles Brigade has surrendered, Ukraine’s ambassador to the US Oksana Markarova said. Ms Markarova cited earlier figures that Russian attacks had killed 40 Ukrainian servicemen and dozens of civilians.

The mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, ordered a curfew on Thursday amid the assault, and the Ukrainian government declared martial law.

In an address, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine was listening to the sound of a new iron curtain falling as Russian troops advanced across his country, and he warned that other European countries may be next.

The UN refugee agency said an estimated 100,000 Ukrainians had fled their homes amid the conflict. Thousands were crossing into neighbouring countries, including Romania, Moldova, Poland and Hungary.

MAIN POINTS

  • Putin launches military operation
  • Missiles fired at several Ukrainian cities
  • Russia says it has 'incapacitated' infrastructure of Ukraine's military bases
  • Taoiseach condemns attack
  • Reports of casualties
  • EU agrees 'harshest ever sanctions'
  • Biden says Putin's aggression will cost Russia

Biden speech

In a speech on Thursday evening Irish time in response to the invasion, US president Joe Biden announced new export control measures that could halt half of high-tech imports into Russia. Speaking at the White House, Mr Biden said his administration would limit Russia’s ability to do business in dollars as well as in other currencies, and planned to sanction more Russian banks, including VTB.

Mr Biden also said Mr Putin’s aggression would cost Russia dearly and would leave him an international pariah. He said of Mr Putin: “He has much larger ambitions than Ukraine. He wants to, in fact, re-establish the former Soviet Union. That’s what this is about.”

Mr Biden has ruled out sending US troops to defend Ukraine, but said in the speech that he had authorised troops that had been placed on standby to deploy to Nato ally Germany.

He described the current crisis as a dangerous moment for Europe but said that freedom would prevail. His speech followed an earlier meeting with his G7 counterparts, with the group condemning the invasion and saying they would bring forward co-ordinated economic and financial sanctions against Moscow.

Mr Biden also said earlier he was praying for Ukrainian victims of an “unprovoked and unjustified attack”.

European Union leaders on Thursday night adopted tough new sanctions on Russia, hitting its economy and elites in response to the invasion. The EU will freeze Russian assets in the bloc and halt Russian banks’ access to European financial markets as part of what the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, described as “the harshest package of sanctions we have ever implemented”. The package will also target Russia’s trade, energy and transport, among other sectors, and impose export controls.

In a statement agreed at their emergency summit on the crisis on Thursday, EU leaders said the new round of sanctions “will impose massive and severe consequences on Russia for its action”.

Mr Borrell said earlier in the day: “These are among the darkest hours of Europe since the second World War.”

Late on Thursday, French president Emmanuel Macron called Mr Putin “to demand the immediate halt” to Moscow’s offensive, the Élysée Palace said.

The Russian assault brought a calamitous end to weeks of fruitless diplomatic efforts by western leaders to avert war, with their worst fears about Mr Putin’s ambitions on Ukraine realised, and led to international condemnation.

Russian embassy

On Thursday, the Russian embassy in Ireland said the operation has been conducted in response to a request by the leadership of two separatist regions in east Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, and the action was “aimed at stopping the bloodshed, inflicted by the Ukrainian military upon the people of Donbass”.

It said there was “no objective” to occupy Ukraine, and that civilians and cities were not being targeted by air strikes.

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg warned that the military alliance would defend every inch of its territory should Russia attack a member country.

Speaking after chairing an emergency meeting of Nato envoys, Mr Stoltenberg said the 30-nation security alliance will continue to beef up its defences on its eastern flank near Ukraine and Russia. He said Mr Biden and his Nato counterparts wouldhold an online summit on Friday.

“Russia has attacked Ukraine. This is a brutal act of war. Our thoughts are with the brave people of Ukraine,” Mr Stoltenberg told reporters.

“Peace in our continent has been shattered. We now have war in Europe, on a scale and of a type we thought belonged to history.”

“Russia treacherously attacked our state in the morning, as Nazi Germany did in the WW2 years,” tweeted Mr Zelenskiy.

“Russia has embarked on a path of evil, but Ukraine is defending itself & won’t give up its freedom no matter what Moscow thinks.”

Calling on Ukrainians to defend their country, he said arms would be given to anyone prepared to fight.

In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed that an earlier package of sanctions adopted by the EU following Russia’s recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions had come into effect on Thursday.

The EU on Thursday summoned Russia’s ambassador to the EU to demand an immediate end to Russia’s military actions in Ukraine.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday evening, British prime minister Boris Johnson said Russian banks would be excluded from London’s financial system as part of further sanctions introduced following the invasion.

“Overall we will [also] be imposing asset freezes on more than 100 new entities and individuals,” Mr Johnson added.

Shaking

A resident of Kharkiv, the closest big city to the Russian border, said windows in apartment blocks were shaking from constant blasts.

Local authorities said 26 people were being treated for wounds in hospital after an eastern district of the southern port of Mariupol was shelled and “an attempt by Russian troops to break through” into the city was thwarted. Blasts could be heard in Mariupol.

In Mangush and Berdyansk towns, people queued for cash and gasoline. Civilians from Mariupol meanwhile packed bags.

“We are going into hiding,” one woman said.

Initial unconfirmed reports of casualties included Ukrainian civilians killed by Russian bombardment.

At least six people were killed in Brovary, a town near Kyiv, authorities there said.

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

In an early-morning declaration of war on Thursday, Mr 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 baseless propaganda.

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

Even with a full-blown invasion under way and despite such claims, Mr Putin’s ultimate aim is obscure. The outright annexation of such a vast hostile country could be beyond Russia’s military capabilities. But if the aim is just to replace Mr Zelenskiy’s government, it is hard to see Ukrainians accepting any new leadership Russia might try to install.

Background

A democratic country of 44 million people, Ukraine is Europe’s biggest country by area after Russia itself. It voted overwhelmingly for independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, and aims to join Nato and the EU, aspirations that infuriate Moscow.

Mr Putin, who denied for months he was planning an invasion despite a military build-up on Ukraine’s borders, has called Ukraine an artificial construct carved from Russia by its enemies, a characterisation Ukrainians see as an attempt to erase their more than 1,000-year-old history. While many Ukrainians, particularly in the east, speak Russian as a native language, virtually all identify as a separate nationality.

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

Ukrainian media reported that military command centres in Kyiv and Kharkiv had been struck by missiles, while Russian troops had landed at Odessa and Mariupol.

Russia announced it was shutting all shipping in the Azov Sea. Russia 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.

Traffic

Queues of people waited to withdraw money and buy supplies of food and water in Kyiv. Traffic going out of the city towards the Polish border was jammed. Cars stretched back for dozens of kilometres on the highway to the western city of Lviv, Reuters witnesses said.

“We’re afraid of bombardments,” said Oxana, stuck in her car with her three-year-old daughter in the backseat. “This is so scary.”

Russian police detained at least 1,600 people at anti-war protests in 53 cities in Russia on Thursday, according to the OVD-Info protest monitor.

World leaders expressed near universal outrage at the invasion. Taoiseach Micheál Martin condemned the Russian attack on Ukraine as indefensible. Mr Martin on Thursday said that Russia would pay a “high price for the act of aggression”.

Ukraine closed its airspace to civilian flights, citing a high risk to safety, while Europe’s aviation regulator warned against the hazards to flying in bordering areas of Russia and Belarus. – Agencies