The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia unleashes military assault on Ukraine that Biden calls ‘premeditated war’

Part of a Russian army column is seen Feb. 23 in Neklinovka, Russia, close to the border with Ukraine. (For The Washington Post)

Russia on Thursday launched an attack on cities and military installations across Ukraine, forcing thousands of civilians to flee, as Ukraine’s president called for his nation to fight in the streets and NATO leaders said Europe’s security had been fundamentally altered.

President Biden called the Russian action “a premeditated war.”

The assault was startling in its scope, as missiles and rockets rained down across Ukraine’s vast territory and Russian military vehicles rolled across the border from multiple directions. It came shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared on state television that Russia was beginning a military operation for the “demilitarization and denazification” of eastern Ukraine. He said that Russia did not intend to occupy the country.

Flashes could be seen and explosions could be heard in Kyiv, as highways became clogged with people trying to get out of the city of 3 million. Lines formed at a border crossing between Ukraine and Poland.

A senior Ukrainian official said the capital’s main airport was under assault. Explosions could also be heard in Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, which lies close to the border with Russia. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said cities ranging from Ivano-Frankivsk in the west to Odessa and Mariupol in the south were under assault.

“Ukraine is defending itself and will not give up its freedom, no matter what Moscow thinks. For Ukrainians, independence and the right to live on their land according to their will is the highest value,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a national address. He said that his country was being attacked “from the north, east and south.”

Ukraine’s Western backers scrambled to react. European leaders vowed crushing sanctions against Russia and planned to meet later Thursday to discuss them. NATO ambassadors gathered for emergency consultations in Brussels to bolster the alliance’s own defenses against Russia and also to discuss how to further support Kyiv.

“It will be a new Europe after the invasion we saw today,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after a first round of meetings. The alliance planned to hold an emergency summit of its leaders.

Calling Russia’s moves “a brutal act of war,” Stoltenberg said there will be more alliance forces in the east “in the coming days and weeks.”

“Peace on our continent has been shattered,” he told reporters in Brussels. “This is a deliberate, coldblooded and long-planned invasion. Russia is using force to try to rewrite history.”

The explosions marked the beginning of a conflict that Ukraine and its allies had worked for months to avoid.

“The prayers of the entire world are with the people of Ukraine tonight as they suffer an unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces,” Biden said in a statement late Wednesday. “President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering. Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring.”

Biden said he would meet with allied leaders Thursday morning, then would announce further measures against Russia. He vowed to work with NATO “to ensure a strong, united response that deters any aggression against the Alliance,” adding, “Tonight, Jill and I are praying for the brave and proud people of Ukraine.”

Putin’s declaration of operations against Ukraine — broadcast on state television shortly before 6 a.m. in Moscow — was the culmination of months of threats and a military buildup that Ukrainian officials said had brought 200,000 Russian troops to their borders.

“Russia cannot feel safe and develop and exist with the constant threat coming from the modern territory of Ukraine,” Putin said in the speech, by turns cold and angry. “We simply weren’t given any other option to defend Russia and our people other than that which we will use today.”

He said that the “goal is the defense of people who for a period of eight years have suffered the scorn and genocide of the Kyiv regime — and for that we will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine and bring to justice those who have carried out the many bloody crimes against peaceful civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.”

He added that Moscow would not occupy Ukraine and that it had to end eight years of conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv government forces have been fighting pro-Moscow separatist militants.

Sitting alone at his desk, with two Russian flags arranged behind him, Putin spoke directly into the camera and said that he intended to protect Russia from “those who took Ukraine hostage.” And he strongly suggested that he planned to annex parts of the country — as Russia did in 2014 when it seized Crimea from Ukraine.

“Let me remind you that when the U.S.S.R. was created after the Second World War, people who lived in certain territories included in modern Ukraine, no one ever asked them how they themselves wanted to build their life,” he said.

The Russian assault took many Ukrainians by surprise. Despite the months-long military buildup, many people had trouble imagining a real attack from a country with which they share deep historical and linguistic ties. Many Ukrainian and Russian families span the border.

“It’s just terrible, unbelievable,” said Vitalii Koval, 50, who was crossing into Medyka, a small town in Poland, on Thursday. He said he had left his home in Kyiv for the western city of Lviv about 10 days ago with his wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 5. But after the assault overnight, they decided it was time to leave the country.

He turned away to stop the tears. “It’s the 21st century. Why?”

The attack came after Zelensky issued a grim-faced plea for peace earlier Thursday, telling the people of Russia that only they could stop the invasion he said the Kremlin had already ordered.

In an emotional address that sounded as though it were a final request to turn back the Russian forces bristling along Ukraine’s border, Zelensky said he had tried to speak to Putin by phone on Wednesday but had been met with silence.

Speaking in Russian, he said that Ukraine is a sovereign nation seeking to build a peaceful future — a different Ukraine, he added, from the violent one that Russian citizens are watching on warmongering state television broadcasts. “You are being told that this is a plan to free the people of Ukraine,” he said. “But the Ukrainian people are free.”

On Wednesday, Biden announced sanctions against the company and executives that run the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that links Russia and Germany.

A wave of new U.S. and European sanctions now seems certain.

As the Russian military offensive began, members of the U.N. Security Council made a succession of pleas for peace and dialogue in an emergency Wednesday night session that laid bare the limits of the world body’s influence.

The United States and its allies condemned Russia’s actions while other nations such as China, Brazil and India urged de-escalation.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield accused Putin of exhibiting “total disdain” for the United Nations by ordering military action “at the same time we’re gathered in the council seeking peace.” She called the moment a “grave emergency.”

Ukraine’s ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, called out to Russia’s envoy in a testy exchange, urging him to telephone Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and “do everything possible to stop the war.” Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya declined the offer, saying, “Waking up Mr. Lavrov is not something I plan to do.”

In Neklinovka, a small Russian village close to the border with Ukraine’s Donetsk region, there were signs late Wednesday that something was imminent. Russian soldiers appeared to be stocking up food for several days, emptying the shelves of a local grocery store and grabbing instant noodles, water, bread and condensed milk. Wednesday was Defender of the Fatherland Day in Russia, a military holiday, and dozens of soldiers were celebrating as heavy military equipment stood on train tracks, with barrels pointing toward eastern Ukraine.

The equipment included an array of howitzers and armored vehicles.

Across the road from the grocery store, young men in uniforms lined up in front of a liquor store. A canteen next door quickly ran out of food as soldiers gathered for dinner.

“Today, it is like a field kitchen out here,” one man standing in line joked. Music blasted from parked cars and smartphones as soldiers smoked outside.

Locals said that troops camped there began arriving about a month ago but appeared Wednesday to be loading into convoys and preparing to leave.

The White House said Wednesday it was considering a range of severe measures if Russian troops advanced.

Imposing sanctions on Putin himself — a step the United States has never taken — “remains an option on the table,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday. “That would be an escalatory step, as would be sanctioning the largest banks, the very largest banks and additional components of the financial sector, as would taking export control steps.”

Khurshudyan reported from Kharkiv, Ukraine, and Ilyushina from Neklinovka, Russia. Loveday Morris in Medyka, Poland; Shane Harris, Dan Lamothe, Ellen Nakashima, Amy B Wang, Karoun Demirjian, John Wagner and John Hudson in Washington; Robyn Dixon in Moscow; Siobhán O’Grady in Kyiv, Ukraine; David L. Stern in Lviv, Ukraine; Whitney Leaming in Kharkiv; and Emily Rauhala in Brussels contributed to this report.

correction

An earlier version of this article gave two incorrect distances between Kharkiv, Ukraine, and the Russian border. It is about 25 miles, not 12 or 50. This article has been corrected.

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