Russian ground forces roll in as Ukraine severs ties with Moscow

Ukraine claims downing five Russian warplanes, helicopter: Moscow says forces destroyed Ukraine airbases, defences: Putin vows retaliation against those who interfere with operation: Biden says 'world will hold Russia accountable'

By: AFP
Published: 07:27 AM, 24 Feb, 2022
Russian ground forces roll in as Ukraine severs ties with Moscow
Caption: Russian missiles target Ukrainian military warehouse.
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Russia's ground forces invaded Ukraine from several directions on Thursday, encircling the country within hours of President Vladimir Putin announcing his decision to launch an assault. The situation is volatile and fast moving, but this is what we know at 0900 GMT. 

Heavy Russian tanks and other equipment crossed the frontier in a string of northern regions as well as from the Kremlin-annexed peninsula of Crimea in the south.

They were also advancing into the Western-backed government's territory along the eastern front, where a separatist insurgency has claimed more than 14,000 lives since 2014.

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Ukraine's confirmed military death toll reached five a few hours after Putin launched the invasion.

But there were reports of major clashes across large parts of the vast eastern European country and the death toll seemed likely to climb throughout the day.

Ukraine claimed to have killed around 50 "Russian occupiers" while taking back control of the eastern frontline town of Shchastya.

AFP could not independently confirm the claim.

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Although Ukraine has been riven by conflict in the east, which has forced some 1.5 million from their homes, it had reported no fatalities along its southern border with Crimea for some years.

But the border guard service reported some of the heaviest fighting near Crimea, where the servicemen died in Russian missile and helicopter attacks.

Russia has heavily fortified its positions on the peninsula, where it has had military bases since its takeover in 2014.

After holding a series of emergency calls with world leaders, including US President Joe Biden, Ukraine's leader Voldymyr Zelensky convened a meeting of the top military brass.

Zelensky "gave orders to inflict maximum losses against the aggressor," Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Major General Valeriy Zaluzhny, said.

Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podoliak said Ukraine's forces were "waging heavy combat" and repelling Russian advances in some parts.

- Kyiv airport bombed -

Ukrainian officials said Russia was primarily targeting military infrastructure and silos, hitting a string of air fields.

These included Boryspil airport in Kyiv, the armed forces said.

Ukraine closed its airspace to civilian traffic. Tracking websites showed no civilian airliners within the country's airspace on Thursday.

The invasion was also staged from several positions in Belarus, where Russian armed forces have been holding massive military drills this months involving an estimated 30,000 troops.

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But Belarus strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko said his forces were "not taking part in this operation".

Ukraine also claimed it had downed six Russian planes, a helicopter, and destroyed four tanks.

Moscow did not confirm suffering any casualties or other military losses.

In Ukraine's east, where AFP reporters heard violent explosions in several towns along the front, Russian-backed forces took control of several villages that had been under the government's control.

But Ukraine's armed forces claimed it had won back some areas in a counteroffensive.

Putin this week authorised sending "peacekeepers" into the rebel provinces, after recognising their independence on Monday.

Ukraine breaks diplomatic ties with Russia

Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday broke off Kyiv's diplomatic relations with Moscow in response to Russia's invasion of its Western-backed neighbour.

"We broke off diplomatic relations with Russia," Zelensky said in a video message. It marked the first rupture in ties since Russia and Ukraine became independent countries after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.

Earlier, the Ukrainian military claimed to have downed five Russian planes and a helicopter in the east of the country near a rebel-held enclave.

"According to the Joint Forces Command, today, February 24, in the area of the Joint Forces operation, five planes and a helicopter of the aggressors were shot down," the army general staff said.

Ukrainian leader Zelensky quickly imposed martial law and urged citizens to stay calm, as his government vowed to do "everything in its power" to defend Ukraine.

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Meanwhile, Russia's defence ministry said Thursday it had neutralised Ukrainian military airbases and its air defence systems, hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a military offensive against his country's neighbour.

"Military infrastructure at Ukrainian army air bases has been rendered out of action," the defence ministry said in a statement carried by news agencies, which added that Kyiv's air defence systems were "eliminated".

Earlier, explosions were heard before dawn Thursday in Ukraine's capital Kyiv and the eastern port city of Mariupol, shortly after Russia's President Vladimir Putin announced an operation to "demilitarise" the country.

AFP correspondents in both cities heard powerful blasts and in Mariupol, close to the frontline and the Russian border, residents reported hearing artillery in the city's eastern suburbs.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military operation in Ukraine on Thursday with explosions heard soon after in the capital and other parts of the country, prompting outrage from Joe Biden who warned of a "catastrophic loss of life".

Weeks of intense diplomacy and the imposition of Western sanctions failed to deter Putin, who had massed between 150,000 and 200,000 troops along the borders of Ukraine.

"I have made the decision of a military operation," Putin said in a surprise television announcement shortly before 6:00am (0300 GMT) in Moscow.

He also called on Ukrainian soldiers to lay down their arms, claiming he wanted a "demilitarisation" of the former Soviet state but not its occupation. 

An AFP reporter in Kyiv heard explosions within about 30 minutes of Putin's announcement. Explosions were also heard in the eastern city of Mariupol, according to AFP.

US President Biden announced he would address the nation Thursday on "consequences" for Russia and said the world would "hold Russia accountable" for its actions.

He said a Russian attack would cause "catastrophic loss of life and human suffering".

Putin's announcement statement came after the Kremlin said rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine had asked Moscow for military help against Kyiv. 

In response, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky made an emotional late-night appeal to Russians not to support a "major war in Europe".

Speaking Russian, Zelensky said that the people of Russia are being lied to about Ukraine and that the possibility of war also "depends on you".

"Who can stop (the war)? People. These people are among you, I am sure," he said. 

Zelensky said he had tried to call Putin but there was "no answer, only silence", adding that Moscow now had around 200,000 soldiers near Ukraine's borders.

Earlier on Wednesday the separatist leaders of Donetsk and Lugansk sent separate letters to Putin, asking him to "help them repel Ukraine's aggression", Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. 

The two letters were published by Russian state media and were both dated February 22. 

Their appeals came after Putin recognised their independence and signed friendship treaties with them that include defence deals.

- 'Moment of peril' -

Putin has defied a barrage of international criticism over the crisis, with some Western leaders saying he was no longer rational. 

His announcement of the military operation came ahead of a last-ditch summit involving European Union leaders in Brussels planned for Thursday.  

The 27-nation bloc had also imposed sanctions on Russia's defence minister Sergei Shoigu and high-ranking figures including the commanders of Russia's army, navy and air force, another part of the wave of Western punishment after Putin sought to rewrite Ukraine's borders.

The United Nations Security Council met late Wednesday for its second emergency session in three days over the crisis, with a personal plea there by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to Putin going unheeded.

"President Putin, stop your troops from attacking Ukraine, give peace a chance, too many people have already died," Guterres said.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, warned that an all-out Russian invasion could displace five million people, triggering a new European refugee crisis. 

Before Putin's announcement, Ukraine had urged its approximately three million citizens living in Russia to leave.

"We are united in believing that the future of European security is being decided right now, here in our home, in Ukraine," President Zelensky said during a joint media appearance with the visiting leaders of Poland and Lithuania.

Western capitals said Russia had amassed 150,000 troops in combat formations on Ukraine's borders with Russia, Belarus and Russian-occupied Crimea and on warships in the Black Sea.

Ukraine has around 200,000 military personnel and Wednesday's call up could see up to 250,000 reservists aged between 18 and 60 receive their mobilisation papers. 

Moscow's total forces are much larger -- around a million active-duty personnel -- and have been modernised and re-armed in recent years.

- High cost of war -

But Ukraine has received advanced anti-tank weapons and some drones from NATO members. More have been promised as the allies try to deter a Russian attack or at least make it costly.

Shelling had intensified in recent days between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists -- a Ukrainian soldier was killed on Wednesday, the sixth in four days -- and civilians living near the front were fearful.

Dmitry Maksimenko, a 27-year-old coal miner from government-held Krasnogorivka, told AFP that he was shocked when his wife came to tell him that Putin had recognised the two Russian-backed separatist enclaves.

"She said: 'Have you heard the news?'. How could I have known? There's no electricity, never mind internet. I don't know what is going to happen next, but to be honest, I'm afraid," he said.

In a Russian village around 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the border, AFP reporters saw military equipment including rocket launchers, howitzers and fuel tanks mounted on trains stretching for hundreds of metres.

Russia has long demanded that Ukraine be forbidden from ever joining the NATO alliance and that US troops pull out from Eastern Europe. 

Speaking to journalists, Putin on Tuesday set out a number of stringent conditions if the West wanted to de-escalate the crisis, saying Ukraine should drop its NATO ambition and become neutral.

Washington Wednesday announced sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which Germany had earlier effectively suspended by halting certification.

Australia, Britain, Japan and the European Union have all also announced sanctions.

Biden says 'world will hold Russia accountable' over Ukraine attack

US President Joe Biden on Wednesday said the "world will hold Russia accountable" over its attack against Ukraine that he warned will cause "catastrophic loss of life."

In a statement issued shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of military operations in Ukraine, Biden said he would address the US public Thursday to outline the "consequences" for Russia, calling the attack "unprovoked and unjustified."

The US president was due to join a virtual, closed-doors meeting of G7 leaders -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States -- at 9:00 am (1400 GMT) Thursday. The White House said his remarks to the public would come in early afternoon in Washington.

On Tuesday, the US government joined European allies in imposing sanctions on two Russian banks, Moscow's sovereign debt, several oligarchs and other measures.

On Wednesday, Biden announced he was imposing sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany -- one of energy-rich Moscow's highest-profile energy and geopolitical projects. Germany had earlier announced it would block the project from proceeding.

US officials said that any escalation by Russia in Ukraine -- which has now occurred -- would be met with ever tougher sanctions that could target bigger banks, more oligarchs and a halt to exports of high-tech equipment. 

"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. President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering," Biden said.

"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."

EU slaps sanctions

The EU on Wednesday imposed sanctions on Russia's defence minister Sergei Shoigu and military chiefs as part of a package of measures over the Kremlin's recognition of two separatist Ukrainian regions as independent. 

The 27-nation bloc slapped asset freezes and visa bans on high-ranking figures including the commanders of Russia's army, navy and air force, the Kremlin's chief of staff, the head of state-run television channel RT and the foreign ministry's spokeswoman, according to the EU's official journal.

The move was part of a wave of Western punishment after Russian President Vladimir Putin again sought to rewrite Ukraine's borders by recognising the two Moscow-backed regions.

The EU blacklisted 23 individuals it said were involved in military aggression against Ukraine, taking key political decisions, or waging a "disinformation war". 

It also imposed sanctions on over 300 lawmakers in Russia's state Duma who voted for Putin to recognise the territories. 

The notorious Internet Research Agency, accused of spearheading an online disinformation campaign, was hit, along with three prominent banks VEB, Rossiya and Promsvyazbank.

Among those added to the blacklist was businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Putin's and alleged founder of the mercenary group Wagner that is accused of sending fighters to Ukraine and other hotspots. 

Prigozhin, purported to be behind the Internet Research agency, was already sanctioned by the EU over Wagner's involvement in Libya. His wife and mother were put under sanctions.

Those targeted for spreading government "propaganda" included RT's Margarita Simonyan, foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova and pro-Kremlin broadcasters Vladimir Solovyev and Pyotr Tolstoy. 

The heads of the state-owned VEB and VTB banks were also on the list.   

The EU in addition took a broader swipe at Russia's economy by moving to limit the access for Moscow's sovereign debt to European financial markets. 

It also imposed an import ban on goods coming to the bloc from the separatist Donetsk and Lugansk territories. 

The EU has said the sanctions are just the first part of a package of "unprecedented" measures it has prepared against Russia and that it is holding the rest back in case the Kremlin launches a full-scale attack on Ukraine.

The United States on Tuesday also targeted Russia's sovereign debt and hit banks VEB and Promsvyazbank in its first round of sanctions

Nord Stream 2 pipeline 'dead'

The United States declared the Kremlin's prize geopolitical energy project, Nord Stream 2, "dead" on Wednesday after the latest sanctions imposed in retaliation for what the West says is Russia's start to an invasion of Ukraine.

The escalation in US and European blows against the Russian economy came as Washington declared Russia to be on the cusp of sending troops into Ukraine, where President Vladimir Putin has already ordered his troops to conduct "peacekeeping" in two separatist enclaves.

President Joe Biden's targeting of Nord Stream 2 -- one of energy-rich Russia's highest-profile initiatives -- adds to Western sanctions announced Tuesday against two Russian banks, Moscow's sovereign debt, several oligarchs and other measures.

Western capitals hope the threats of economic damage are so great they will hold Putin back from sending a huge military force camped next to Ukraine to invade beyond the borders of the two enclaves, which are already outside the Ukrainian government's control.

AFP

Agence France-Presse is an international news agency.