Russia attacks Ukraine; missiles strike targets across country
Russia ramps up its invasion of Ukraine, President Biden prepares to confer with other world leaders and Ukrainians brace for war.
While the U.N. Security Council was meeting to avert war, explosions thundered and flashed across Ukraine early Thursday as Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to attack the country after weeks of failed diplomacy and a massive military buildup intended to recast the map of Eastern Europe.
Russia pressed ahead with its assault on neighboring Ukraine on Thursday, with explosions resounding in cities across the country, airstrikes crippling its defenses and reports of troops crossing the border by land and sea.Map: Tracking the invasion of Ukraine | How to help: California organizations supporting Ukraine | What our foreign correspondents are seeing in Ukraine | Photos: Invasion of Ukraine begins
The move was a stunning — if expected — play from a leader who for weeks has massed troops on Ukraine’s borders while brandishing threatening rhetoric and snubbing world leaders. The latest incursion shatters decades of relative peace in Europe and is certain to elicit a forceful response from the U.S. and NATO. Both Washington and its transatlantic allies have promised to impose even harsher sanctions than those enacted just days ago.
But Putin, who vowed to liberate and protect the Russia-backed separatist eastern region of Ukraine, was unbowed and belligerent, warning other countries to stay out of the conflict: “Whoever tries to impede us, let alone create threats for our country and its people, must know that the Russian response will be immediate and lead to the consequences you have never seen in history.”
President Biden swiftly condemned Russia’s attack and said he would meet with other world leaders on Thursday to discuss a response.
“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. “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, and the United States and its allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way. The world will hold Russia accountable.”
The Russian operation was a blatant affront to diplomacy and the United Nations Security Council, which was meeting at the urging of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to stop an invasion that increasingly appeared inevitable, with an estimated 190,000 Russian soldiers nearly encircling the former Soviet republic. Missiles struck military airfields and depots in cities across Ukraine, including the capital, Kyiv, which was still recovering from a series of earlier cyberattacks on government ministries and banks.
“Unfortunately, while we’ve been meeting in the Security Council tonight, it appears that President Putin has ordered that last step,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “At the exact time as we are gathered in the council seeking peace, Putin delivered a message of war, in total disdain for the responsibility of this council.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba vowed his nation would defend itself. “Putin has just launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” he tweeted. “Peaceful Ukrainian cities are under strikes. This is a war of aggression.”
Three organizations with operations in California are helping people in eastern Ukraine, and so is the Red Cross. Here’s how you can contribute.
The attack rattled Europe and stirred memories not only of the Cold War but also of World War II. It symbolized Putin’s long mistrust of NATO and the West and his ambition to stitch back together remnants of the former Soviet Union. And it raised the specter of how the West — let alone Ukraine — would handle a possible humanitarian and refugee crisis while countering a powerful Russian army that possesses an arsenal of conventional hardware and nuclear weapons.
Putin had announced that the attack was intended to disarm Ukraine, not take it over. But what was unfolding through the early morning hours was a much larger operation. Traffic in Kyiv was clogged as many tried to flee; commercial airspace over Ukraine was shut down.
Zelensky, who hours earlier had pleaded with the Russian leader in a bid to prevent war, said in a video posted online that “President Putin announced a special military operation in Donbas. Russia performed strikes on our military infrastructure and our border guard units. In many cities of Ukraine people heard the blasts.... Today we need each of you to stay calm. If you can, stay at home. We are working. The army is working. The whole security and defense sector of Ukraine is working.”
The White House released a statement on a call between Biden and the Ukrainian leader: “President Zelensky reached out to me tonight and we just finished speaking. I condemned this unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces.” The statement added that Biden will meet Thursday with “the leaders of the G-7, and the United States and our allies and partners will be imposing severe sanctions on Russia. We will continue to provide support and assistance to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.”
Earlier Wednesday the Biden administration stiffened economic sanctions targeting Moscow, and the Ukrainian president made a televised appeal for peace in a dramatic last-minute effort to avert war in Eastern Europe.
“The people of Ukraine and the government of Ukraine want peace,” Zelensky said — in Russian — during an emotional overnight address. “But if we come under attack, if we face an attempt to take away our country, our freedom, our lives and lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. When you attack us, you will see our faces, not our backs.”
A full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine appears imminent, but the two countries have for years been locked in cyber combat.
Ukraine — taunted for weeks by threats of an incursion — shifted to a war footing, summoning its reservists and declaring a state of national emergency amid reports throughout the day that Russian forces were tightening their grip on the borders.
The government called on its citizens to return from Russia, even as Russian diplomats lowered the flag on their embassy in Kyiv and abandoned their consulate in the coastal city of Odessa. Zelensky said he had tried to reach Putin to no avail.
In Shchastia, a Ukrainian town in Luhansk, one of the breakaway Russia-backed republics, the remaining 7,000 residents were forced to contend with power outages as artillery shells sliced through electrical lines and towers. A growing sense of fear set in as diplomacy appeared to vanish and social media videos flashed with Russian military equipment being shuttled on trains across the winter landscape. With no electricity to run pumps, pensioners and the young in Shchastia lined up to fill water canisters from a communal well with a hand pump.
Lines formed at the town’s sole working ATM as well as a nearby pharmacy. In the background, the thump-thump of artillery and machine guns echoed across the countryside.
In Washington, Biden announced he would allow previously blocked sanctions to take effect against the company behind the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The U.S. “will not hesitate to take further steps if Russia continues to escalate,” he said in a statement.
The new sanctions, following the initial package announced Tuesday, came as Putin was escalating his invasion of Ukraine. The Russian leader on Monday formally recognized the independence of two separatist territories in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, Donetsk and Luhansk, and the upper house of Russia’s parliament on Tuesday approved the deployment of troops. U.S. officials warned Wednesday that a “full-scale” invasion was “imminent.”
A woman reacts as she stands in front of a house burning after being shelled in the city of Irpin.
Although U.S. officials were still confirming Russian troop movements, those forces were said to be “as ready as they can be” to launch a full invasion, a senior Pentagon official said Wednesday. “They are dang near 100%,” said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details.
Leaders in the region were equally blunt. Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krisjanis Karins, during an interview with CNN, cited information that “Putin is moving additional forces and tanks into the occupied Donbas territories.”
In an earlier development, the Kremlin claimed Wednesday that separatists in the areas it recognized on Monday were calling for Russian help to defend against Ukrainian attack. Most journalists on the scene say the majority of attacks were coming from the Russian-occupied region against Ukraine, and there were suggestions this was the kind of “false-flag” scenario that U.S. officials have been predicting Moscow would launch as a pretext to invade.
The Biden administration’s addition to its sanctions package came a day after Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, which controls the Nord Stream 2 pipeline built to transport natural gas from Russia directly to the country, announced he was halting certification of the project.
“Through his actions, President Putin has provided the world with an overwhelming incentive to move away from Russian gas and to other forms of energy,” Biden said in the statement, which also thanked Scholz “for his close partnership and continued dedication to holding Russia accountable for its actions.”
It was more evidence of the coordination among allies as they shift from an assiduous effort to deter Putin to one aimed at containing his ongoing attack on Ukraine. And it follows the Biden administration’s vow to impose additional measures against Moscow as the invasion proceeds.
Russian mobilization in Ukraine raises concerns about a new Cold War-style era in Europe
Many people in Europe are on edge as Russia mobilizes against Ukraine. Some fear a return to East-West divisions.
The pipeline project has been especially problematic. Germany and other parts of Europe badly need the gas, but U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that becoming overly reliant on Russian fuel would allow Moscow to “weaponize” energy supplies.
Germany’s decision on Tuesday to suspend the project showed self-sacrifice that U.S. officials appear eager to endorse, and mirrors Washington’s own willingness to absorb any effects on consumers from rising gas prices and the political price the administration could pay.
Until now, Biden had been resigned to the project — which was nearing completion when he took office. The White House, in fact, had issued a waiver to block the congressionally mandated sanctions it is now preparing to impose.
Republicans, many of whom have criticized Biden’s first tranche of sanctions against Russia as too measured, have called for months for the administration to lift its waiver on the Nord Stream 2 sanctions, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) blocking votes on the White House’s diplomatic nominees in protest.
Cruz was among the first to give rare praise to the administration Wednesday; he said he was lifting the holds on nominees and urged steps to “lock in” the sanctions as a permanent deterrent. “President Biden made the right decision today,” Cruz said in a statement. “...Our Ukrainian allies are on the front lines this very moment bravely facing down Russian forces.”
Trump continues to praise Putin, forcing GOP to fall in line or splinter from former president
Most Republicans simply criticized President Biden’s handling of Russia’s aggression toward and invasion of Ukraine. Not Trump.
Congress first approved in 2019 the sanctions against the project’s parent company, also named Nord Stream 2, a Swiss firm whose parent is the Russian gas conglomerate Gazprom, and its chief executive, Matthias Warnig; a broader sanctions package followed in 2020. But the Biden administration blocked them, citing national security issues related to both Russia and Germany, a key ally.
The expanded reach of U.S. sanctions comes amid a wide global reproach of Russia’s actions. Nearly every major country — with the exception of China — condemned Putin’s claims on Ukraine and in many cases exacted their own sanctions.
Britain went after several Russian billionaires close to Putin, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government would expand financial sanctions to punish “thugs and bullies.”
Even Turkey, which, despite belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has lately had good relations with Russia, said Putin’s new moves were “unacceptable.”
By contrast, China, one of Moscow’s staunchest allies, blamed the U.S. for stoking the “threat of war” and categorized sanctions as unlawful measures that punish ordinary Russians.
The presence of Russia and China as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council means any sort of action or resolution from the world body is next to impossible.
Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador, warned at the Security Council meeting late Wednesday that the world is in a “perilous moment.... Russia has brought its people, the Ukrainian people and the world to the brink of a conflict that will produce an untold amount of human suffering.”
Russia has been under some form of international sanctions since another invasion of Ukraine, its 2014 occupation and annexation of Crimea. Elite business and banking officials in the country have found numerous ways to inoculate themselves from the sting.
But sanctions imposed now, and new ones in the coming days, are “qualitatively” harsher than earlier measures, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
On Wednesday, Russian officials, who branded the U.S. actions as “blackmail,” again made it clear they would maneuver to soften the blow of sanctions — and retaliate. What form that retaliation would take was not specified, but it could include cyberattacks on U.S. infrastructure and tinkering with energy markets. Already the fear of rising oil prices was roiling international markets.
Stokols and Wilkinson reported from Washington and Bulos from Shchastia. Times staff writers Anumita Kaur, Erin B. Logan and Nolan D. McCaskill in Washington and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.