Putin Announces Military Operation in Ukraine

Explosions reported in several cities as Russia targets Ukrainian military installations.

By , , and
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a press conference at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 18. Sergei Guneyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia’s armed forces began pummeling Ukrainian military installations and airfields with cruise and ballistic missiles in a coordinated attack on Thursday after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a military operation in eastern Ukraine. The assault appeared tailored to take out Ukraine’s air defenses. 

Early reports indicate that Russia’s invasion already extends well beyond Ukraine’s eastern region, with explosions reported in the capital, Kyiv; the southern port city of Odessa; Dnipro; and Kharkiv. 

Border forces in northern Ukraine reported coming under attack by both Russian and Belarusian forces. A CNN livestream of CCTV footage from Senkivka, where the borders of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus meet, showed a column of tanks passing into Ukraine. Senkivka is some 150 miles to the north of Kyiv. Ukraine’s border service added that attacks were taking place at several locations along the eastern and northern borders of Ukraine and from Crimea. 

Russia’s armed forces began pummeling Ukrainian military installations and airfields with cruise and ballistic missiles in a coordinated attack on Thursday after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a military operation in eastern Ukraine. The assault appeared tailored to take out Ukraine’s air defenses. 

Early reports indicate that Russia’s invasion already extends well beyond Ukraine’s eastern region, with explosions reported in the capital, Kyiv; the southern port city of Odessa; Dnipro; and Kharkiv. 

Border forces in northern Ukraine reported coming under attack by both Russian and Belarusian forces. A CNN livestream of CCTV footage from Senkivka, where the borders of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus meet, showed a column of tanks passing into Ukraine. Senkivka is some 150 miles to the north of Kyiv. Ukraine’s border service added that attacks were taking place at several locations along the eastern and northern borders of Ukraine and from Crimea. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the imposition of martial law, confirming that Russia has struck several military targets in the country. 

On Twitter, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that the future of Europe and the world was at stake, calling for financial and humanitarian assistance, further military aid, the international isolation of Russia, and for “[d]evastating sanctions” to be imposed. 

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke to Zelensky as the Russian assault got underway, according to the White House. Biden is set to speak with his counterparts in the G-7 on Thursday before addressing the public on America’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

On Tuesday, the Biden administration and allies in Europe announced a first wave of sanctions in response to Putin’s announcement earlier this week that he would recognize Ukraine’s breakaway territories in Donetsk and Luhansk. U.S. officials have warned that “no Russian financial institution is safe” in the event of an escalation. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine, describing it as a “grave breach of international law, and a serious threat to Euro-Atlantic security.” 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with Stoltenberg on Thursday evening. “The Secretary and the Secretary General also discussed further steps to ensure the security of Allied territory, especially on NATO’s Eastern Flank. Secretary Blinken stressed that the U.S. commitment to NATO’s Article 5 is ironclad,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price in a statement.

Putin announced overnight on Feb. 24 that his country would launch a military operation in eastern Ukraine as the United Nations Security Council convened an emergency meeting to discuss Moscow’s recent escalation.

In an ominous speech laden with historical inaccuracies and debunked conspiracy theories, Putin said he was responding to a request for assistance from the de facto authorities in Ukraine’s breakaway regions in Donetsk and Luhansk, and he vowed to “demilitarize and de-Nazify” the country. He offered no detail about the timeline of the operation or specifics about where it would take place.

In a direct message to any countries that may want to intervene, Putin said: “Russia will respond immediately, and you will face consequences that you never have had before in your history.”

In a dramatic split screen, Putin’s speech was released at the exact same time as the U.N. Security Council convened an emergency meeting to condemn Russia’s actions and urge a diplomatic solution to the crisis. But the diplomats appeared to be falling behind the news of a rapidly advancing military offensive. Putin said that he had no intention of occupying Ukrainian territory. 

“President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering,” Biden said in a statement, calling the Russian attack unprovoked. “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.”

Western governments have been warning about a possible Russian invasion for weeks, while Russian officials dismissed those claims as false and alarmist. The Kremlin had amassed an estimated 190,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders ahead of Putin’s decision on Monday to recognize the independence of two pro-Russia separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and deploy so-called peacekeepers there.

In a direct address to the Ukrainian armed forces, Putin urged them to put down their weapons. “Your fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers did not do battle with the Nazis in defense of our shared homeland so that today’s neo-Nazis could seize power in Ukraine,” he said. Russian officials have routinely sought, without evidence, to characterize the Ukrainian government and its Jewish president as fascist and to liken the conflict in eastern Ukraine with the fight against the Nazis in World War II.

Putin’s announcement came after a slate of unconfirmed reports of Russian troops moving on key checkpoints in eastern Ukraine, cyberattacks targeting Ukrainian government agencies, and the closure of commercial airline flight space over Ukraine.

The United States had made clear it would not deploy troops to Ukraine, but it would unleash devastating economic sanctions on Russia, in cooperation with European countries and other allies around the world, if Moscow carried forward with invasion plans.

The decision to invade, which a week ago Biden said that Putin had already made, came after the Kremlin rebuffed diplomatic offramps earlier this week.

Putin’s declaration could launch Europe into the largest conflict on the continent since World War II, with U.S. officials already estimating thousands of deaths and as many as 5 million refugees fleeing west in a worst-case scenario if Russian troops attempt to capture Kyiv and topple the Ukrainian government.

At the U.N., just as Putin gave what amounted to a declaration of war on Ukraine, top global powers were urging him to stand down.

“We’re here for one reason, and one reason only: to ask Russia to stop,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said at the meeting. “To back away from the brink before it’s too late.”

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres issued a similarly desperate plea. “If indeed an operation is being prepared, I have only one thing to say from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “President Putin, stop your troops from attacking Ukraine. Give peace a chance. Too many people have already died.”

But it seemed as though the Russian playbook had been written long before. In the hours before Putin’s speech, cyberattacks hit Ukrainian government websites, and Russia issued notices shutting down airspace in the east of the country, which cut off all air traffic by the early hours of the morning on Thursday, with passenger aircraft routing around Ukraine. The last plane in Ukraine’s skies was a U.S. Global Hawk surveillance drone surveying Russian troops as it moved west across the country toward Poland, according to flight tracking software.

Ukrainian officials, who had spent weeks playing down the imminent risk of invasion, have struck a more somber tone in recent days, spending much of Wednesday digging in for an invasion. Zelensky ordered the military to call up veterans and announced compulsory military service as well as a national state of emergency, which began at midnight Thursday.

In a last gasp of diplomacy after Western leaders canceled last-ditch meetings with Putin earlier this week, Zelensky said he tried to contact Putin one last time on Wednesday but was rebuffed. So instead, the former television actor turned his wartime address into a dramatic address directly to the Russian people.

“Lots of you have relatives in Ukraine,” Zelensky said in the impassioned address, speaking in Russian. “You studied in Ukrainian universities, you have Ukrainian friends. You know our character, our principles, what matters to us. Listen to yourselves, to the voice of reason. The people of Ukraine want peace.”

Update, Feb. 24, 2022: This story has been updated to include new developments. 

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.