Russian military tanks and armored vehicles advance in Donetsk, Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

Russian military tanks and armored vehicles advance in Donetsk, Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Russia Launches Heavy Attack Deep into Ukraine; Putin Warns World Not to Interfere

Biden: “The world will hold Russia accountable.”

Updated: 12:20 a.m. ET.

Russian forces began a large-scale invasion of Ukraine early on Thursday morning local time as Vladimir Putin announced in a pre-taped speech the start of a “special military operation,” instructed Ukrainians to lay down their arms, and warned other countries not to interfere. 

“Russia will respond immediately and you will have consequences that you never have had before in your history,” Putin said, as the United Nations Security Council convened an emergency meeting in which leader after leader condemned the unprovoked attack. 

Loud explosions were heard in the background as journalists reported live from Kyiv. CNN, citing an “advisor to the Ukrainian interior ministry,” reported that the explosions were from Russian missile strikes. Reports poured in of Russian attacks elsewhere by land and sea, as well, including from Reuters and U.S. officials. Videos quickly began circulating on social media that purport to show explosions in Kharkiv.

“Putin has just launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine," Ukraine foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted at 10:58 p.m. Eastern time. "Peaceful Ukrainian cities are under strikes. This is a war of aggression. Ukraine will defend itself and will win. The world can and must stop Putin. The time to act is now.”

Ukraine’s interior ministry says casualties from initial missile strikes are “in the hundreds,” CNN’s Matthew Chance reported around 11:30 p.m. Eastern time. 

About quarter to midnight Eastern time, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said in a statement: “Russian troops are carrying out strikes on peaceful Ukrainian cities from various directions, including from the side of the temporarily occupied Donbass and Crimea, as well as the northeastern region. This is an act of war, an attack on sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, a gross violation of the UN Statute and the fundamental norms and principles of international law.”

The ministry added that its forces would fight back: “The moral [sic] of the Ukrainian military is high, our defenders are ready to give a decisive dividend to the aggressor state and will protect Ukrainian land with all their might.”

Just before midnight Eastern time, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave a short address to his fellow Ukrainians. "I spoke to [U.S. President Joe] Biden. They are preparing international support,” Zelenskyy said, according to The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon. "Stay calm, stay at home, the army is doing its work."

About the same time, Zelenskyy's office posted a statement: "There are strikes on military and other important defense facilities, border units are under attack, the situation in the Donbas has degraded. The Armed Forces of Ukraine, all special and law enforcement agencies of the state are on alert. The National Security and Defense Council is working in an emergency mode. Martial law will be imposed."

President Joe Biden said in a statement, “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. 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.”

Shortly after midnight Eastern time, Biden confirmed that he had talked with Zelenskyy, adding in a statement: “Tomorrow, I will be meeting with the Leaders of the G7, 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.”

Hours before the explosions, Russia closed off commercial airspace over Ukraine. By late Wednesday evening, no aircraft were visible over Ukraine, according to multiple flight tracking services.

In his Wednesday night speech, Putin offered a false pretext for war, as Western officials had predicted. The Russian leader claimed, against all evidence, that he was acting in “self-defense” and to end “genocide” in Ukraine. He added that he had received pleas from leaders of Moscow-backed separatists for “help in repelling the aggression from the Ukrainian Armed Forces in order to avoid civilian casualties and prevent a humanitarian disaster in Donbass.” 

In fact, the separatist groups seized Ukrainian territory in 2014 and have been backed by Moscow in the ensuing fight against government forces.

Before the first explosions in Kyiv, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rejected Putin’s claims and made a final plea to Putin in a televised speech. “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,” according to the Associated Press.

At the United Nations, Russia’s ambassador denied that a “war” was happening as Ukraine’s ambassador angrily offered to play video of Putin’s own speech earlier in the evening. 

“President Putin, stop your troops from attacking Ukraine,” said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. "Give peace a chance. Too many people have already died.” 

“I strongly condemn Russia’s reckless and unprovoked attack on Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement. “This is a grave breach of international law, and a serious threat to Euro-Atlantic security. I call on Russia to cease its military action immediately and respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. NATO Allies will meet to address the consequences of Russia’s aggressive actions. We stand with the people of Ukraine at this terrible time. NATO will do all it takes to protect and defend all Allies.”

In Congress, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif, called the attack “a devastating strategic miscalculation by Putin.” Schiff called for an immediate escalation of sanctions. “The United States will stand with the people of Ukraine—now and always. This begins by moving swiftly beyond the significant sanctions already announced by the Biden administration to fully cutting off Russia’s leading financial institutions from the global economy and ending Europe’s dependence on Russian oil for good.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., vice chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, began warning of the coming attack hours earlier in various media appearances. Rubio took to Twitter late Wednesday, sharing what appeared to be intelligence updates. “#Russia’s airborne forces are attempting to take control of the airport in #Kyiv to [sic] they can fly in forces to occupy the capitol [sic] city,” he tweeted about 10:30 p.m. Eastern time. “An amphibious assault on the key port city of #Mariupol is now underway…Ground forces now moving in from Belarus,Crimea & from #Russia”

Other members of Congress used Putin’s invasion to attack the U.S. president. Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., who sits on the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees, said in a statement: “Instead of swift, crippling sanctions, the Biden Administration chose the wait-and-watch approach. In the midst of destabilizing Russian aggression, the time for action was months ago.” Green, an Army veteran, said, “As the world witnesses this invasion, our prayers remain with our fellow Americans on the ground in Eastern Europe—including those from Fort Campbell—and with the brave people of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has chosen devastation over democracy, and the free world will not forget it.”

Still, other key House Republicans declined to pounce on Biden in the moment. “Every drop of Ukrainian and Russian blood spilled in this conflict is on Putin’s hands, and his alone,” wrote House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Mike Rogers, R-Ala., House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Michael McCaul, R-Tex., and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Ranking Member Mike Turner, R-Ohio.

Reaction from world leaders began pouring in. “The military aggression that started today is a very serious breach of the international law. I firmly condemn this action,” said Romania’s Prime Minister Nicolae Ionel Ciucă.

Belarus’s pro-democracy leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said, “Russia with the participation of [President Alexander] Lukashenka’s regime launched a groundless and shameless military aggression against Ukraine. The regime turned our country into an aggressor. But Belarusians don’t want war.  Belarus strongly condemns this move and stands with Ukraine.”

Kevin Baron, Caitlin M. Kenney, Bradley Peniston, Patrick Tucker, and Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.