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As West unleashes sanctions, Russian military pushes toward Kyiv

President Biden will participate in emergency NATO conference from the White House situation room

Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuguyev near Kharkiv on Feb. 24. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)
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KHARKIV, UKRAINE — Russia’s military pushed deeper into Ukraine on Thursday and early Friday, attacking strategic airfields and advancing toward major cities as President Vladimir Putin defied mounting sanctions and recriminations from the West.

Explosions continued to rock areas around the eastern city of Kharkiv and the capital, Kyiv, sending residents to shelter in subway stations and prompting others to flee the country. U.S. officials said the expanding offensive may be aimed at toppling Ukraine’s elected government and installing a pro-Kremlin regime.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers Thursday that the Biden administration was examining ways to provide Ukraine with more defensive equipment, and ways that it could continue training Ukrainian soldiers outside Ukraine even if the government in Kyiv falls.

“The clarity of the discussion was that even if Kyiv is taken by the Russians, the Ukrainian government would continue to exist and we would continue to support them," said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.).

Russian troops encountered counterattacks from Ukrainian forces as they staged their invasion along multiple fronts, including from Belarus in the north and Crimea to the south. Several airfields around Kyiv were targeted, Ukrainian officials said, while Russian naval ships blocked commercial traffic in the Black Sea. Ukraine’s border guards were stopping all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country on Friday, as President Volodymyr Zelensky authorized the mobilization of all conscripts and reservists, and the defense ministry called on residents of one district of Kyiv to make molotov cocktails.

Zelensky said at least 137 Ukrainians were killed and 316 wounded in the first day of fighting Thursday.

Live updates: Read the latest on the Russian invasion of Ukraine

The spiraling conflict, the biggest to grip Europe since World War II, poses a threat to the order that has underpinned transatlantic security for decades. It signals Putin’s willingness to endure Western censure as he tries to cement control over parts of the former Soviet sphere.

Zelensky, speaking in a video address, said he would remain in Kyiv to confront the Russian assault despite the fact that enemy saboteurs had infiltrated the capital and Moscow had identified him as its “number one target.”

He said Ukraine, which is not a member of the Western NATO alliance, had been left to defend itself alone. “Who will fight along with us now?” he asked. "To be honest, I see no one.”

Leaders in the United States and Europe raced to denounce the invasion, announcing far-reaching new sanctions that included measures to freeze assets from Russia’s largest state-owned banks and starve the country of key high-tech components. Officials said it was most punishing such package ever to hit an economy of Russia’s size.

Speaking at the White House, President Biden accused Putin of a savage, premeditated attack, after months in which Russia described its military buildup around Ukraine as routine maneuvers and complained of NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe.

“This aggression cannot go unanswered,” said Biden, who was joined by many leading Republicans in denouncing the invasion. “If it did, the consequences for America would be much worse."

Facing what French President Emmanuel Macron called a “turning point in the history of Europe," NATO nations vowed to send additional forces to the alliance’s eastern flank. The Pentagon said it would dispatch an additional 7,000 troops to Germany, bringing the total number of U.S. reinforcements to Europe since the crisis began to more than 12,000.

But Western leaders ruled out sending NATO troops to fight in Ukraine, and Biden acknowledged U.S.-European disagreement over the severity of some sanctions, underscoring the challenges the West will face in its attempt to constrain Putin’s fast-moving assault.

What’s next for Ukraine? Our reporters answer your questions about Russia’s invasion.

The invasion, launched with a barrage of missile attacks just before dawn local time on Thursday, came as Putin railed in a televised address against what he said were grave crimes by Ukraine’s pro-Western leaders. The operation — which he has described as a security imperative — has positioned Russia to expand its grip on Ukraine, following the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Since then, Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russian-backed separatists in breakaway regions of the country’s east. Moscow officially recognized those regions as independent earlier this week, a step which allowed the separatists to invite in Russia forces for what Putin called a “special military operation.”

While Ukraine’s military is far outmatched by Russia, which has more advanced weaponry and positioned more than 150,000 troops around Ukraine before Putin’s assault, Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders have vowed that local troops and even ordinary citizens will resist.

In cities across Russia, thousands of people came out to protest on Thursday, expressing their anger at Putin’s intervention. Some 1,600 people were arrested, a rights group said.

U.S. officials said it was too soon to say how far Putin’s ambitions extended but said the operation appeared to be aimed at capturing major Ukrainian cities. A senior defense official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity to discuss a developing situation, said the initial assault included more than 160 missiles, including short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and sea-launched missiles, targeting military facilities, barracks, ammunitions stores and airfields.

“We haven’t seen a conventional move like this, nation-state to nation-state, since World War II," the official said. The fighting concentrated most heavily around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, but Russian troops also appeared to be pushing to Kyiv, the official said.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russia’s Black Sea fleet had moved into Ukrainian waters in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, halting civilian commerce “likely in preparation for a full blockade.”

Ukrainian officials warned of the potential for renewed environmental “disaster” after Russian troops seized the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant north of Kyiv, where a major nuclear accident in 1986 prompted the establishment of a large uninhabited “exclusion zone.”

The attacks triggered fear across the country. At a central train station in Kyiv, residents voiced frustration at potentially being trapped after the military action stymied bus and train travel. In Kharkiv, people packed into the relative safety of a subway station, their baggage and children in tow, preparing to spend a night on the floor or on yoga mats.

Earlier in the day, NATO diplomats gathered in Brussels for security consultations called by the alliance’s eastern countries, which fear a spillover from the conflict in Ukraine. They greenlighted a potential deployment of thousands of NATO troops to bolster their defenses along the alliance’s border with Ukraine and Russia.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned the Russian operation as a “brutal act of war,” adding that “peace in our continent has been shattered.”

Alliance leaders plan to discuss further actions — which could be complemented by unilateral deployments by NATO states including the United States — during a Friday videoconference. Officials said the U.S. military will move two F-35 fighters each to Estonia, Lithuania and Romania.

What is NATO, and what is its role in the Russia-Ukraine crisis?

The United Nations warned the conflict could take a punishing toll on civilians. “Countless lives will be torn apart,” Filippo Grandi, the UN’s high commissioner for refugees, said in a statement.

Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador in Washington, said Russian forces had targeted hospitals and warehouses, and that at least 40 government troops had been killed.

Western officials are hoping that harsh new sanctions, announced separately by the United States and Britain, will deter Putin from additional military action. European Union officials were finalizing their sanctions package late Thursday in Brussels.

Officials said the measures are the fruit of what officials say has been a painstaking diplomatic process aimed at illustrating Western unity. Josep Borrell, the top EU official for foreign affairs, characterized the bloc’s retaliatory measure as “the harshest package of sanctions we have ever implemented,” Reuters reported.

The new measures do not cut Russia off from the SWIFT, a messaging system that connects banks around the globe, as some had advocated.

Asked by a reporter about why that move was not included, Biden acknowledged that European nations had not supported it but said the effects of the agreed-upon measures on Russia would be strong. “The sanctions we’ve imposed exceed SWIFT,” he said. “Let’s have a conversation in another month or so to see if they’re working."

The Biden administration’s economic reprisal also targets officials in Belarus, where Putin staged tens of thousand of forces in recent weeks for what he then described as military exercises, allowing him to more easily attack nearby Kyiv.

President Alexander Lukashenko, now facing mounting pressure from Europe over his support for Moscow, echoed Putin’s assertion on Thursday that Russia would not occupy Ukraine and denied any role in the unfolding operation.

Biden told reporters he had no plans to speak with Putin, and said that U.S.-Russian relations were in “complete rupture right now.”

U.S. targets major Russian banks and tech sector with sweeping sanctions and export controls following Ukraine invasion

There were no signs of any communication between Moscow and Washington in the last 24 hours, other than a letter from the United States saying it had expelled Russia’s second-highest ranking diplomat in Washington. Earlier in the week, after Russia’s recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk breakaway regions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a meeting planned for Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

France’s Macron spoke with Putin on Thursday, ordering him to halt the operation, the Elysee said in a statement.

Officials said the Biden administration would introduce a resolution at the U.N. Security Council on Friday condemning the invasion, setting the stage for a Russian veto and a scramble for votes among the two adversaries as they seek to demonstrate support among like-minded nations.

A senior U.S. administration official acknowledged that Russia was sure to veto the resolution — resulting in no concrete action — but said the move would “underscore its isolation.”

The attack roiled global markets, with many indexes suffering their biggest drop since late last year. U.S. markets declined in the morning but rebounded following Biden’s sanctions announcement. The conflict also weighed on markets in Europe and Asia.

Biden, facing low approval ratings and midterm elections in the fall, said he would work with partner nations to prevent major fuel price surges for Americans. He also warned oil and gas companies against using the crisis to gouge consumers.

Waving signs and yellow-and-blue flags, hundreds of Ukrainians and their supporters gathered in front on the White House on Thursday to show their support for those now under attack. "We couldn’t stay home,” said Maryna Baydyuk, a demonstration organizer. "We just had to do something.”

Ryan reported from Washington, Dixon reported from Moscow, and Stern reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Karoun Demirjian, Michael Birnbaum, Paul Sonne, John Hudson, Dan Lamothe, Ellen Nakashima, Meagan Flynn, Justin Wm. Moyer, Peter Hermann and Clarence Williams in Washington; Rick Noack in Paris; Emily Rauhala in Brussels; Mary Ilyushina in Rossosh, Russia; and Sudarsan Raghavan and Siobhán O’Grady in Kyiv contributed to this report.