Officials and media said the attacks were launched after President Vladimir Putin authorised what he called a “special military operation” in the east.
Weeks of intense diplomacy and the imposition of Western sanctions on Russia 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 that triggered immediate condemnation from US President Joe Biden and sent global financial markets into turmoil.
Shortly after Putin spoke in a televised address on Russian state TV, explosions could be heard in the pre-dawn quiet of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
Gunfire rattled near the capital’s main airport, the Interfax news agency said, and sirens were heard over the city.
Media reported that military command centres in Kyiv and the city of Kharkiv in the northeast had been struck by missiles while Russian troops had landed in the southern port cities of Odessa and Mariupol.
Explosions also rocked the breakaway eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.
The extent of Thursday’s attacks was not immediately clear, but Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the worst-case scenario was playing out.
“Putin has just launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Peaceful Ukrainian cities are under strikes,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter.
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.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy then declared martial law, saying Russia has targeted Ukraine’s military infrastructure.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine declared martial law in the country because of the Russian invasion.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) February 24, 2022
Explosions were heard in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and several other cities, according to AFP correspondents.
Putin called on Ukrainian soldiers to lay down their arms, and justified the operation by claiming the government was overseeing a “genocide” in the east of the country.
The Kremlin (Russian government) had earlier said rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine had asked Moscow for military help against Kyiv (Ukraine).
U.S. President Joe Biden, reacting to an invasion it had been predicting for weeks, said his prayers were with the people of Ukraine “as they suffer an unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces”.
The conflict which has been lingering for years started over Russia’s demand of an end to NATO’s eastward expansion.
Russia has long demanded that Ukraine be forbidden from ever joining the NATO alliance and that US troops pull out from Eastern Europe.
Putin has in the past few weeks repeated his position that Ukrainian membership of the U.S.-led Atlantic military alliance was unacceptable.
He said he had authorised military action after Russia had been left with no choice but to defend itself against what he said were threats emanating from modern Ukraine, a democratic state of 44 million people.
Russia cannot feel safe, develop, and exist with a constant threat emanating from the territory of modern Ukraine.
Putin’s move came after Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky made an emotional appeal late on Wednesday night to Russians not to support a “major war in Europe”.
Speaking Russian, Zelensky said that the people of Russia were being lied to about Ukraine.
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.
Putin had for weeks 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.
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.
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.
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 could call up to 250,000 reservists.
Moscow’s total forces are much larger — around a million active-duty personnel — and have been modernised and re-armed in recent years.
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.