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Reports from the front lines: Thursday, Feb. 24

On-the-ground reporting from Washington Post journalists in Ukraine, Russia and Eastern Europe

Smoke is seen from the Russian airstrikes in Kharkiv, Ukraine on Thursday, Feb. 24. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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On Thursday, Russia launched an attack on major cities and military installations across Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing the country; some are walking miles to the Polish border to escape Russia’s assault.

The Russian assault has hit Ukrainian towns and cities across the country. Ukrainian officials say Russian troops are closing in on Kyiv. Washington Post journalists are reporting on the ground in Ukraine. Here are their dispatches from Thursday, Feb. 24.

Video: Chaos at Kyiv train station as Ukrainians attempt to flee

By Whitney Shefte and Alexa Juliana Ard | 1:28 p.m. ET

Residents of Ukraine were stuck at Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi Central Railway Station on Feb. 24, as Russia began its attack. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post, Photo: Heidi Levine for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Ukrainians walk for miles to Polish border in search of safety

By Loveday Morris | 12:26 a.m. ET

MEDYKA-SHEHYNI CROSSING, Ukraine — Carrying children on their shoulders, dragging suitcases and the little they could carry, Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s assault on their country walked for miles to border crossings with Poland on Thursday, seeking safety outside their homeland.

Lines of barely moving cars stretched at least five miles into Ukraine from the Medyka-Shehyni border point, prompting some frustrated passengers to abandon their vehicles and continue on foot. Some said they woke up to the sound of rockets and decided it was finally time to flee.

“We didn’t expect it to happen so fast,” said Khrystyna Spilnyk, 22, who was walking to the border with her mother after leaving their car at the side of the road. “We are stressed, confused.”

Traffic was jammed in both directions at points. One farmer, apparently irked at people fleeing the country instead of staying put, drove a tractor and trailer across the road to block cars from exiting. Some people said they would just be in Poland long enough to assess the situation. Others, especially foreign residents, questioned whether they would ever be back.

They said they were heading to countries across Europe, from Germany to France and Finland — wherever they had a network to rely on. But many said they would stay in Poland, already home to as many as 2 million Ukrainians. Officials in Warsaw have said authorities were preparing for the arrival of as many as a million Ukrainians.

Vitalii Koval, 50, who was crossing into Poland with his wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 5, said he left his home in Kyiv for the western city of Lviv around 10 days ago. But after Thursday’s early-morning attack, they decided it was time to leave Ukraine.

“It’s just terrible, unbelievable,” he said, turning away to stop the tears. “It’s the 21st century. Why?”

Ivan Yurochko, 24, an engineer, was leaving on foot with nothing but a small backpack. “I didn’t have time to pack,” he said. He said he planned to stay with colleagues in a town on the border, but his mother and other family members had chosen to remain in the country.

Many people don’t have the financial means to leave, he said. “Sometimes I just have this emotional breakdown, just crying,” Yurochko said. “I don’t know if I’ll come back to Ukraine.”

Photos show Ukrainians fleeing as Russia attacks

By Chloe Coleman | 11:12 a.m. ET

As the sun rose over Ukraine Thursday, Russian forces had launched a massive assault on the European country, bombarding cities and leaving residents scrambling. They got in their cars to drive west, they fled to train stations, they looked on as smoke from Russian bombardments rose into the sky.

From Kyiv to Kharkiv, Washington Post photographers captured the scenes as Ukrainians faced the new realities of Russia’s attacks across the country.

Heavy Russian military traffic across the border from Ukraine

By Mary Ilyushina | 9:40 a.m. ET

ROSSOSH, Russia — Russian military hardware is still on the move near the border with Ukraine on Thursday. A Washington Post journalist saw cargo trucks, armored vehicles and fuel transporters on highways close to separatist-controlled areas of Ukraine’s Donbas region, where heavy fighting was reported earlier.

Transportation in southern Russia has been disrupted as authorities closed the airspace over 12 airports, all along the border with Ukraine, until March 2. Moscow airports also canceled several international flights.

Emergency services said they would organize ground and rail transportation for people who need to travel outside Rostov, Voronezh, Volgograd and several other regions where air traffic was cut.

Highways connecting these areas are being patrolled by traffic and border police. The Post’s team on the ground was stopped twice for document checks.

Armored Russian vehicles were seen near the Senkovka checkpoint of Ukraine's Chernigov region on Feb. 24. (Video: The Washington Post)

Ukraine says Russian forces suffering casualties

By David L. Stern | 9:09 a.m. ET

LVIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Thursday that Russian forces have suffered significant losses in their attack on Ukraine.

“Tens, if not hundreds, of bodies are returning to Russia,” he said in a video message from Kyiv without disclosing evidence for the claim. He asserted that the Ukrainian army has destroyed six planes, two helicopters and five tanks.

Reznikov also urged all Ukrainians who are “ready to take up arms” to enlist in the armed forces. Authorities have simplified procedures for enlisting, he noted. “Take only your passport,” he said.

According to Ukraine’s border guard force, Russia is attacking in multiple regions. It said the border guards, along with the armed forces of Ukraine and other security and defense forces, continue to defend Ukraine.

The Border Guard Service said Russian forces invaded from many directions and fired on the border units and checkpoints with artillery and aircraft. “In particular, Russian aggression took place within the Luhansk, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Zhytomyr, Kherson, Odessa regions, Zminy Island and in the JFO zone,” it said, referring to the Joint Forces Operation area in eastern Ukraine where government forces have been battling Moscow-backed separatists.

A spokesman for the Border Guards later said Russian troops have entered the Chernobyl zone.

In Moscow, Russia’s Defense Ministry said its forces have destroyed 74 “objects of aboveground military infrastructure” in Ukraine, including 11 airfields, three command centers and a naval base, state media reported.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, also said that “18 radio-locating stations for S-300 and Buk-M1 antiaircraft missile systems” were hit, and that a Ukrainian “combat helicopter and four Bayraktar TB2 attack drones were shot down.”

Kremlin says Russia will not stop attacks until Ukraine is ‘cleansed of Nazis’

By Robyn Dixon | 7:42 a.m. ET

MOSCOW — Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that Russian attacks on Ukraine were “a special operation,” not a war, carried out in the interests of Russia.

“Ukraine should ideally be freed, cleansed of Nazis,” Peskov said. He acknowledged that President Vladimir Putin’s move against Ukraine was “quite worrisome” for Russians.

“But as the president explained in the address to Russians, this is all truly dictated by our national interests and dictated by care for the future of our country,” he said during a daily press call with journalists.

Peskov said Russia would stop only after achieving its goals — the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine — adding that such a decision would be made by Putin.

He said Russia was not happy about Western calls for punitive sanctions but added, “Let us analyze events and consider our next moves as these problems arise.”

Several protests against the war broke out in Moscow and eight other cities. At least 26 people were arrested, including 13 in Moscow, according to rights monitor OVD-Info, which was declared a foreign agent by Russian authorities last year.

After police cordons went up around Red Square, Peskov said that there was a need for “higher vigilance and caution.”

Lines at border crossings as Ukrainians flee to Poland

By Loveday Morris | 7:07 a.m. ET

MEDYKA, Poland — Lines formed at border crossings from Ukraine to Poland on Thursday as Ukrainians sought safety across the border.

Carrying backpacks and dragging suitcases, a steady stream of people came out on foot and by car at the Medyka-Shehyni border point. Vitalii Koval, 50, 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.

“It’s just terrible, unbelievable,” he said, turning away to stop the tears. “It’s the 21st century. Why?”

He said that others who had left later were stuck on the roads. “I’m shocked,” said his wife, Oleksandra, adding that it had not sunk in yet. They planned to leave to stay with friends in Cyprus.

Officials in Warsaw have said that authorities are preparing for as many as 1 million Ukrainians fleeing into Poland. Ukrainians can cross the border without a visa, and there are already as many as 2 million living in Poland.

Ivan Yurochko, 24, was leaving on foot with nothing but a small backpack. He had left the city of Lviv at around 3 a.m. “I didn’t have time to pack,” he said. “It feels super unsafe and uncomfortable and right now just completely unknown.”

He planned to stay with colleagues in a town on the border; his mother and other family members chose to remain in Ukraine. Many people don’t have the financial means to leave, he said. “I do have an option,” he said. “Thank God.”

“Sometimes I just have this emotional breakdown, just crying,” he added. “I don’t know if I’ll come back to Ukraine.”

The Washington Post's Loveday Morris is at the Ukrainian-Polish border Feb. 24, where a steady stream of people head toward Poland as Russia attacks Ukraine. (Video: Loveday Morris/The Washington Post)

Police will issue weapons to veterans ‘who are ready to protect Ukraine’

By Sudarsan Raghavan | 6:38 a.m. ET

KYIV, Ukraine — Weapons are to be issued to veterans of the police and other internal security services willing to fight Russian forces and maintain order, the country’s national police announced hours into the attack on Ukraine orchestrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The weapons, according to a statement posted on the national police’s Facebook page, will be given to those veterans “who are ready to protect Ukraine,” and the process of acquiring the weapons “will be simplified to the maximum due to the aggression” of Russia.

The issuance of weapons also “aims to strengthen the activity of Ukrainian law enforcement agencies,” the statement continued.

The weapons are expected to be handed out Thursday in Kyiv and in Kharkiv, where numerous explosions have taken place and concern is growing over Russian ground troops entering the city in the coming hours. The weapons distributions will probably also take place in other areas under pressure from Russian forces.

Police are urging citizens to report any suspicious people and objects in their areas and have set up a dedicated phone line for such reports.

Traffic stretches for miles as many flee Kyiv, others take shelter

By Siobhán O’Grady and Jennifer Hassan | 6:20 a.m. ET

KYIV — Main roads out of the Ukrainian capital were blocked with heavy traffic Thursday as people attempted to flee the capital, with ride-sharing app Uber telling its users that the service would “be available where possible” despite the threat of more explosions.

Footage shared to social media showed lines stretching for miles into the distance as the crisis unfolded and sirens rang out.

“Remember that you can cancel a trip anytime if you feel conditions are unsafe to ride,” Uber said Thursday in an email to users that advised them to follow official guidance in case of emergency.

At a subway station, some people packed together underground, holding their children and belongings close as sirens and explosions were heard in key cities.

Others tried to obtain bus and rail tickets at the city’s main train station — some to destinations they were not even familiar with — as they desperately sought safety.

Governments including those of the United States and Ireland urged their citizens in Ukraine to “shelter in place,” with the Irish Foreign Ministry instructing those there not to “move around the country in the coming hours.”

Russia’s military claims videos of civilian casualties in Ukrainian cities ‘staged’

By Robyn Dixon | 5:48 a.m. ET

MOSCOW — Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed Thursday that videos of civilian casualties in Ukraine during Russian attacks were “staged.”

“Their goal is to accuse Russia of supposedly indiscriminate and disproportionate strikes to intimidate the civilian population and broadcast on Western television channels,” Konashenkov said.

Russia’s military has a history of indiscriminate military strikes on civilian areas, notably in the 1994-96 war against Chechnya, when the military bombed the region’s capital, Grozny, and many towns and villages, causing massive casualties.

In the Syrian civil war, rights group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, reported that Russian airstrikes caused thousands of civilian casualties after Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened in 2015 answering at the request of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia’s military claimed Thursday that it was targeting military infrastructure, not civilians.

‘You need to get up, the war has started’ — voices from Kharkiv

By Isabelle Khurshudyan | 5:00 a.m. ET

KHARKIV, Ukraine — After the early-morning sounds of explosions on the city’s outskirts, Kharkiv residents, until now skeptical of Western claims that a Russian attack would come to their homes, turned to the tasks they had been putting off.

Lines at gas stations were more than 10 cars back. People walked through the city with suitcases and grocery bags, stocking up on essential goods. Though the local government urged people to stay home and closed schools and offices, many went straight for an ATM.

In the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, morning light on Feb. 24 brought residents to gas stations to fill up after Russian forces launched military actions. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

One young woman who was waiting in line for gas downtown said her apartment window was blown out by the blast.

“My boyfriend had called me right before that and said, ‘You need to get up, the war has started,’ ” said 18-year-old Kristina Nimenko. “Now we’ve come to get gas just to be ready for everything.”

“We just want peace,” she added.

For Agniia and Emile Nkoyok and their 5-month-old daughter, the booming outside their window prompted them to head into town and look to take cover in the subway system. But they saw no one else hiding there, so they walked their bulldog and tried to gauge how others were reacting.

“I’m upset that the government is saying nothing,” Emile said. Agniia and her daughter, Emily Grace, planned to fly on Friday morning but are unsure of what they’ll do now that airspace is closed.

Nimenko said she plans to meet family Thursday to discuss plans, but, “in any case, we will stay in Ukraine.”

“We will stay at home because we are from Ukraine,” she said.

Video: Fear and confusion in eastern Ukraine after Russian attacks

By Whitney Leaming and Erin Patrick O’Connor | 4:25 a.m. ET

Following a night of explosions in Kharkiv, a family with a 5-month-old baby wondered what they should do next, and where they could go to find safety. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Russian military says airstrikes hit Ukrainian military targets only

By Robyn Dixon | 4:06 a.m. ET

MOSCOW — As Moscow launched massive airstrikes on Ukraine early Thursday, Russia’s military said its armed forces were targeting military infrastructure.

The military said the civilian population and members of the military who surrendered were not being targeted, claims for which it offered no evidence.

The military made its first statement after President Vladimir Putin’s early-morning address announcing the assault, claiming that Ukraine was a threat to Russia.

“High-precision weapons disable only military infrastructure, air defense facilities, military airfields, aviation of the armed forces of Ukraine,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Russia made similar claims during its 1994-96 military operation in Chechnya when it bombed cities and villages to quash a separatist uprising.

Also on Thursday, a Russian-backed militia leader in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic claimed to have taken control of two Ukrainian villages, Viktorivka and Bohdanivka, south of Donetsk.

Ukraine reports Russian attacks across the country, including in the west

By Sudarsan Raghavan | 2:45 a.m. ET

KYIV, Ukraine — By 9 a.m. Thursday, roughly four hours after launching their attack on Ukraine, Russian forces had targeted Ukrainian military sites across the Texas-size country, according to Ukraine’s defense forces.

Intensive shelling hit Ukrainian military units in the east, and rockets and bombs fell on several airfields, including Boryspil, the main international airport outside the capital, Kyiv. Other military facilities were also targeted in what appeared to be an effort to significantly weaken Ukraine’s military infrastructure.

“At the same time, the aggressor began shelling the territory and settlements of Ukraine along the state border,” a statement from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine read. “The country’s defense forces are in full combat readiness. They have occupied and are holding defensive positions.”

In a second statement, the military said its air force repelled a Russian attack, shooting down five Russian aircraft and a helicopter in the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine, one of the primary theaters of the spreading conflict.

The report could not be independently verified. The military also said that media reports of Russian troops landing in the southern city of Odessa were not true.

Ukraine’s State Emergency Service reported several Russian attacks far from the disputed eastern regions, including the shelling of an airfield in the northwestern city of Lutsk, fire engulfing military warehouses in a central part of the country, and the shelling of a military unit in the village of Kamenka Buzhskaya, in the western Lviv region.

Distant booms heard in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city

By Isabelle Khurshudyan | 2:01 a.m. ET

KHARKIV, Ukraine — Just after Russian President Vladimir Putin finished his speech announcing military action against Ukraine, distant booms could be heard in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which is 50 miles from the Russian border.

It’s unclear what caused the explosion or what targets were hit.

Russian troops, tanks and missile launchers had been massing in Belgorod, a Russian city 90 minutes from downtown Kharkiv. This is a majority Russian-speaking city that was long considered a target in a full-scale invasion by Moscow.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has declared martial law, according to a Ukrainian government official.

As the sun rose, some people in the city reacted with confusion. At one hotel, a staff member asked a guest what was happening. Told this was likely a Russian invasion, she cursed.

“I don’t watch the news,” she said.

Outside of the hotel, a mother and child packed their car to leave Kharkiv. There were commuters with suitcases on the subway and people were in line at a water-filing station near the city center.