Feb. 23 (UPI) — Russia launched an anticipated attack against Ukraine on Thursday, as President Vladimir Putin announced the start of a “special military operation.”
Ukraine’s border guard service confirmed in a statement that Russian troops supported by Belarus’ military began attacking northern border units with artillery, heavy equipment and small arms at about 5 a.m., local time, from Belarus where they were stationed.
Attacks were also occurring in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Sumy, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Zhytomyr as well as in the southern Crimea Peninsula and in several western Ukrainian regions.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces and that National Guard were returning fire at the northern border, officials said, adding the number of casualties was being “clarified.”
At least seven people have been killed: three border guards in the southern city of Skadovsk near Crimea, one person in the southeastern region of Berdyansk and three civilians who died in the shelling of the Donetsk region, the Ministry of Internal Affairs said, while several people have been wounded, including four service members in the shelling of an Myrhorod airfield.
The ministry said in a statement that Russia had destroyed the airport in Ivano-Frankivsk with missiles and had struck another in Lutsk, resulting in at least one person injured.
Military installations throughout the country had been hit and the villages of Horodyshche and Milove in Luhansk had been captured, it said.
Columns of Russian tanks moved into the captured areas but fighting continues, according to the ministry.
Meanwhile, sirens blared throughout the western city of Lviv where people were being evacuated to shelters.
The office of President Volodymyr Zelensky said strikes were being conduct on “important defense facilities” and that the situation in Donbas “has degraded.”
In response, he imposed martial law and told civilians to stay in their homes.
“Our diplomats are informing the world about what is happening,” he said in a statement. “Ukrainians will never give up their freedom and independence to anyone.”
“Take care of those who need help,” he said. “All thoughts and prayers are with our soldiers.”
Putin announced the operation in an early Thursday televised speech, while the United Nations Security Council was in an emergency session in New York attempting a last-minute ditch effort to prevent war.
The Russian president said the aim of the operation was the “demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine,” using a World Word II term for the ridding of Germany and Austria of Nazi ideology.
He said the action was about protecting Russia from those “who took Ukraine hostage.”
“It’s goal is to protect people who have been bullied for eight years, genocide by the Kyiv regimen,” he said. “And for this purpose, we will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine, as well as bring to justice those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation.”
The announcement came hours after the Kremlin said Russia-backed rebels in the breakaway eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbas territories, asked it for military assistance.
Putin said Russia does not intend to occupy Ukraine and all its soldiers who lay down their arms will be allowed to leave the “combat zone” with the consequences of bloodshed will be that of Ukraine’s leaders.
He warned the United States, NATO and other world leaders that attempts to intervene will be met by an immediate Russian response that “will lead you to such consequences that you have never faced in your history.”
The military operation was launched after Putin on Monday recognized the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk as well as deployed troops to them in a so-called peacekeeping mission.
In justification of the Monday move, Putin falsely said Ukraine was historically Russian land and that modern Ukraine was “entirely created” by Moscow when former leaders awarded Kyiv too much autonomy following the 1917 revolution.
Putin has also justified the months-long military buildup of more than 150,000 troops encircling Ukraine as a response to the unfounded allegation that Kyiv is being run by Nazis as well as its potential membership to the NATO defensive military alliance, which Russia views as a threat.
Ukraine has refuted the accusations, with President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, stating in an address to the people of Russia late Wednesday that 8 million of them died in the fight against Nazism.
The announcement came as the United States and allies have been warning a Russian invasion was imminent and the Kremlin would use a false pretext to conduct it.
Moments after Putin’s televised speech, U.S. President Joe Biden issued a statement saying Russia is alone in bearing the responsibility for the death and destruction this “premeditated war” will produce.
“The United States and its allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way,” he said. “The world will hold Russia accountable.”
“The prayers of the entire world are with the people of Ukraine tonight,” he said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said member nations will have an emergency meeting to address “the consequences” of Russia’s “reckless and unprovoked attack” while calling on Putin to cease.
“NATO will do all it takes to protect and defend all allies,” he said in a statement.
In Europe, commission president Ursula von der Leyen said they will present a “massive and targeted” sanctions package that will block Russia’s access to key technologies and markets as well as freeze Russian assets and ban access of Russian banks to European financial markets.
“We will not allow President Putin to replace the rule of law by the rule of force and ruthlessness,” she told reporters during a press conference. “He should not underestimate the resolve and strength of our democracies.”
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, described the attack as “a full-scale war,” and that Ukraine will defend itself.
“The world can and must stop Putin,” he said on Twitter. “The time to act is now.”
He called on world leaders to impose “devastating sanctions” on Russia, isolate Moscow by all means and arm Ukraine with weapons and equipment as well as give it financial and humanitarian assistance.
“Future of Europe & the world is at stake,” he said.
Putin made the announcement as the U.N. Security Council was holding an emergency meeting diplomats framed as a last chance at diplomacy.
“If, in deed, an operation is being prepared, I have only one thing to say: From the bottom of my heart, President Putin, stop your troops from attacking Ukraine,” said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in the meeting’s opening remarks prior to Putin’s address. “Give peace a chance. Too many people have already died.”
A dejected Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s permanent representative to the U.N., told the council that most of his remarks were useless from about 10 p.m. EST, roughly when Putin announced the operation, and he called on his Russian counterpart, Vassily Nebenzia, to go on the record and say that Moscow won’t bomb or shell Ukrainian cities.
If Nebenzia cannot, Kyslytsya demanded he relinquish the presidency of the security council to a “legitimate member” that is respectful of its charter.
He also called on the council to convene an emergency meeting centered on stopping the war “because it is too late, my dear colleagues, to talk about de-escalation. Too late.”
Nebenzia retorted that “this isn’t called a war.”
“This is called a special military operation in Donbas,” he said.
Prior to the meeting, Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland’s permanent representative to the United Nations, told reporters that the pathway toward diplomacy with Russia was “parlously narrow” but that it wasn’t too late to prevent war.
She conceded during the meeting that that path was now closed.
“We stand with the people of Ukraine tonight, with every man, woman and child who is seeing this news as we did as we sat here in the chamber and whose lives are at risk,” she said.
As the meeting closed, Kyslytsya again called on Nebenzia to step down.
“There is no purgatory for war criminals,” he said. “They go straight to hell, ambassador.”
U.S. Permanent Representative Linda Thomas-Greenfield issued a statement after the meeting, stating a resolution will be tabled at the security council on Thursday.
“This is a grave emergency,” she said.