Russian forces unleash airstrikes on Ukraine, send in ground troops

Yuras Karmanau, Jim Heintz, Vladimir Isachenkov and Dasha Litvinova
The Associated Press

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, unleashing airstrikes on cities and military bases and sending in troops and tanks from three sides in an attack that could rewrite the post-Cold War security order. Ukraine’s government pleaded for help as civilians piled into trains and cars to flee.

President Vladimir Putin ignored global condemnation and cascading new sanctions as he unleashed the largest ground war in Europe since World War II, and chillingly referred to his country’s nuclear arsenal. He threatened any country trying to interfere with “consequences you have never seen.”

Ukrainian officials said their forces were battling Russians on a multiple fronts, but had suffered dozens of deaths and also had lost control of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

“Russia has embarked on a path of evil, but Ukraine is defending itself and won’t give up its freedom,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted.

U.S. President Joe Biden announced new sanctions against Russia, saying Putin “chose this war” and that his country would bear the consequences of his action. Other nations also announced sanctions, or said they would shortly.

The invasion began early Thursday with a series of missile attacks, many on key government and military instillations, quickly followed by a three-pronged ground assault. Ukrainian and U.S. officials said Russian forces were attacking from the east toward Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city; from the southern region of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014; and from Belarus to the north.

War will ‘knock on your door’: Zelenskyy, who had earlier cut diplomatic ties with Moscow and declared martial law, appealed to global leaders, saying that “if you don’t help us now, if you fail to offer a powerful assistance to Ukraine, tomorrow the war will knock on your door.”

Both sides claimed to have destroyed some of the other’s aircraft and military hardware, though little of that could be confirmed.

Hours after the invasion began, Russian forces seized control of the now-unused Chernobyl plant and its surrounding exclusion zone after a fierce battle, Zelenskyy adviser Myhailo Podolyak told The Associated Press.

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said it was told by Ukraine of the takeover, adding that there had been “no casualties or destruction at the industrial site.”

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi called for “maximum restraint” to avoid actions that could put Ukraine’s nuclear facilities at risk.

The 1986 disaster occurred when a nuclear reactor at the plant 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Kyiv exploded, sending a radioactive cloud across Europe. The damaged reactor was later covered by a protective shell to prevent leaks.

The chief of the NATO alliance said the “brutal act of war” shattered peace in Europe, joining a chorus of world leaders who decried the attack, which could cause massive casualties, topple Ukraine’s democratically elected government. The conflict shook global financial markets: Stocks plunged and oil prices soared amid concerns that heating bills and food prices would skyrocket.

World leaders condemn invasion: Condemnation rained down not only from the U.S. and Europe, but from South Korea, Australia and beyond — and many governments readied new sanctions. Even friendly leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban sought to distance themselves from Putin.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he aimed to cut off Russia from the U.K.’s financial markets as he announced sanctions, freezing the assets of all large Russian banks and planning to bar Russian companies and the Kremlin from raising money on British markets.

“Now we see him for what he is — a bloodstained aggressor who believes in imperial conquest,” Johnson said of Putin.

A senior U.S. official said the U.N. Security Council was expected to vote Friday on a resolution condemning Russia’s attack and demanding an immediate withdrawal. The vote will proceed even though the legally binding measure will almost certainly be vetoed by Russia, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Ukraine’s health minister said 57 Ukrainians were killed in the invasion and 169 more were wounded. It was not clear how many were civilians, although earlier in the day it had said 40 soldiers had died.

Poland’s military increased its readiness level, and Lithuania and Moldova moved toward doing the same.