KHARKIV, Ukraine — 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.
An adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister said on Facebook that Russian missiles had struck Ukrainian military command centers, air bases and depots in the capital, Kyiv, and in the major cities of Kharkiv and Dnipro. The government acknowledged that Russian forces had taken control of Chernobyl, the city north of Kyiv that was the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, raising fears of a possible escape of radioactive material.
Ukraine’s interior ministry also confirmed that Russian troops had taken a strategic international airport barely 10 miles outside Kyiv.
Huge traffic snarls formed as residents tried to flee the capital. Video showed Russian armored vehicles advancing into mainland Ukraine from Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow illegally seized eight years ago. Ukrainian air-traffic controllers sealed off the country’s airspace “due to the high risk of aviation safety for civil aviation.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared martial law in his embattled nation and encouraged his compatriots to take up arms. Meanwhile, the U.S. and the West announced new sanctions on Russia for an invasion that they had warned for weeks was coming but that Moscow had denied was planned.
Russian President Vladimir Putin portrayed the incursion — which followed months of Russian military buildup along Ukraine’s borders to the north, east and south — as a move to liberate and protect eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed secessionists hold sway over a large swath of the region. He warned other countries not to intervene, saying that it would lead to “consequences you have never seen in history.”
In Washington, President Joe Biden described the invasion as a “premeditated attack” that came “without provocation, without justification, without necessity.” He laid responsibility for it firmly at the Russian leader’s door, calling it “Putin’s war.”
Biden conferred with other world leaders Thursday to try to coordinate a response to an act of aggression that has drawn outcry across the globe and that raised the specter of catastrophic bloodshed in Europe.
The attack rattled Europe and stirred memories not only of the Cold War but also of World War II. It reflected 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 trying to counter a powerful Russian military that possesses both conventional and nuclear weapons.
“We now have war in Europe on a scale and of a type we thought belonged to history,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday, describing the incursion as “a deliberate, cold-blooded and long-planned invasion” and a “blatant violation of international law.”
“This is a grave moment for the security of Europe,” said Stoltenberg, who will convene an emergency virtual summit of NATO leaders Friday. “Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked attack on Ukraine is putting countless innocent lives at risk with air and missile attacks, ground forces and special forces from multiple directions, targeting military infrastructure and major urban centers.”
An adviser to Zelenskyy said Russian forces had seized Chernobyl, where a reactor exploded in April 1986, scattering radioactive materials across Europe. The stricken nuclear plant has since been decommissioned and the damaged reactor encased in a giant concrete and steel shelter, but Ukrainian authorities warned that fighting could damage the covering.
“After the absolutely senseless attack of the Russians in this direction, it is impossible to say that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is safe,” Zelenskyy aide Myhailo Podolyak told The Associated Press.
Washington and its European allies announced new sanctions aimed at further isolating Russian banks, oligarchs and companies from world markets, measures going beyond similar steps taken earlier this week.
Biden also directed Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III to deploy about 7,000 more U.S. service personnel to Europe; they will be based in Germany to help reassure NATO allies and to deter further Russian aggression. But Biden has insisted that U.S. and NATO troops will not fight in Ukraine itself, which is not a member of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
NATO ambassadors said in a statement after emergency talks Thursday that the alliance would beef up land, sea and air forces on its eastern flank. “We have increased the readiness of our forces to respond to all contingencies,” the envoys said.
Putin announced his “special military operation” in east Ukraine in a nationally televised address early Thursday in Moscow.
Even as he spoke, bombing runs began across the former Soviet republic, with some two dozen strikes reported on major cities and other areas. An adviser to Zelenskyy said that more than 40 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and dozens more wounded in fighting.
Russia’s defense ministry said in a statement, quoted by the Russian Interfax news agency, that Ukrainian air defenses were “suppressed.” Ukraine’s defense ministry said its forces shot down five Russian warplanes and a helicopter, an assertion denied by Moscow.
Russian military vehicles were reported to have entered Ukraine from Belarus to the north, where Russian troops had been holding joint military drills that Western capitals warned were a prelude to an incursion. Kyiv lies barely 50 miles south of the Belarusian border.
On Wednesday, Western powers said Russian soldiers had already entered Ukraine from the east, in the industrial heartland known as the Donbas, where Moscow’s proxy militias have engaged in skirmishes with Ukrainian forces for eight years. Putin on Monday recognized two Donbas enclaves under the control of pro-Russia separatists, Donetsk and Luhansk, as independent republics, setting the stage for him to send in troops to the region under the pretext of “peacekeeping.”
Here in Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, the country’s second-largest city, Ukrainian soldiers stood in a field with two Howitzers aimed north, where the Russian border lay. A convoy of large Ukrainian military trucks lumbered down the road.
Almost all shops were closed. In the lobby of the high-end Kharkiv Palace Hotel, guests sipped coffee, wondering if they should join the westward exodus.
“The Russians will be here in two hours,” said a man who gave his name as Anton, who had come to Kharkiv on a work trip and was trying to find a way to return to Kyiv. The road heading southwest to the city of Dnipro was not an option, he said, since he expected it to be bombed by the Russian military.
Some residents flocked to subway stations looking for escape or for shelter, lugging backpacks, small suitcases and pet carriers. Inside one station, people wedged themselves against the wall, using their bags to claim what little space they could as the crowds kept piling in. Those who could cram themselves into subway carriages did so, sitting on the seats, the floor or anywhere else they could find, waiting in darkness for the line to start up.