MOSCOW/KYIV, Feb 24 (Reuters) – Russian forces fired missiles at several cities in Ukraine and landed troops on its coast on Thursday, officials and media said, after President Vladimir Putin authorised what he called a special military operation in the east.
Shortly after Putin spoke in a televised address on Russian state TV, explosions could be heard in the pre-dawn quiet of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
Gunfire rattled near the capital’s main airport, the Interfax news agency said, and sirens were heard over the city.
“Putin has just launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Peaceful Ukrainian cities are under strikes,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter.
“This is a war of aggression. Ukraine will defend itself and will win. The world can and must stop Putin. The time to act is now.”
U.S. President Joe Biden, reacting to an invasion the United States had been predicting for weeks, said his prayers were with the people of Ukraine “as they suffer an unprovoked and unjustified attack”, while promising tough sanctions in response.
“I will be meeting with the leaders of the G7, and the United States and our allies and partners will be imposing severe sanctions on Russia,” Biden said in a statement.
Russia has demanded an end to NATO’s eastward expansion and Putin repeated his position that Ukrainian membership of the U.S.-led Atlantic military alliance was unacceptable.
He said he had authorised military action after Russia had been left with no choice but to defend itself against what he said were threats from modern Ukraine, a democratic state of 44 million people.
“Russia cannot feel safe, develop, and exist with a constant threat emanating from the territory of modern Ukraine,” Putin said. “All responsibility for bloodshed will be on the conscience of the ruling regime in Ukraine.”
The full scope of the Russian military operation was not immediately clear but Putin said: “Our plans do not include the occupation of Ukrainian territories. We are not going to impose anything by force.”
Speaking as the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting in New York, Putin said he had ordered Russian forces to protect the people and appealed to the Ukrainian military to lay down their arms.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia had carried out missile strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure and border guards, and that explosions had been heard in many cities. An official also reported non-stop cyber attacks.
Zelenskiy said that martial law had been declared and he had appealed to world leaders to impose all possible sanctions on Russia, including on Putin, who he said wanted to destroy the Ukrainian state.
Three hours after Putin gave his order, Russia’s defence ministry said it had taken out military infrastructure at Ukrainian air bases and degraded its air defences, Russian media reported.
Earlier, Ukrainian media reported that military command centres in Kyiv and the city of Kharkiv in the northeast had been struck by missiles, while Russian troops had landed in the southern port cities of Odessa and Mariupol.
A Reuters witness later heard three loud blasts in Mariupol. Russian-backed separatists in the east later said they had captured two towns, the RIA news agency reported. There was no immediate comment by authorities in Ukraine.
Hours before the invasion began, the separatists issued a plea to Moscow for help to stop alleged Ukrainian aggression – claims the United States dismissed as Russian propaganda.
Global stocks and U.S. bond yields dived, while the dollar and gold rocketed higher after Putin’s address. Brent oil surged past $100/barrel for the first time since 2014.
Queues of people waited to withdraw money and buy supplies of food and water in Kyiv, while traffic was jammed going west out of the city towards the Polish border.
Biden, who has ruled out putting U.S. troops on the ground in Ukraine, said Putin had chosen a premeditated war that would bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering.
“Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its Allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way,” said Biden, who spoke to Zelenskiy by telephone.
French President Emmanuel Macron condemned Russia’s action while NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO allies would meet to tackle the consequences of Russia’s “reckless and unprovoked attack”.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, speaking after the Security Council meeting, made a last-minute plea to Putin to stop the war “in the name of humanity’.
China reiterated a call for all parties to exercise restraint and rejected a foreign journalist’s description of Russia’s action as an invasion.
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.
Shelling had intensified since Monday when Putin recognised eastern separatist regions as independent and ordered the deployment of what he called peacekeepers, a move the West called the start of the invasion. In response to Putin’s Monday announcement, Western countries and Japan imposed sanctions on Russian banks and individuals but held off their toughest measures until an invasion began.