Tensions finally erupted into open warfare along Russia’s border with Ukraine on Thursday after Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” in the eastern regions of the neighbouring state, confirming fears that had lingered since December that he was amassing troops intent on an invasion.
The Kremlin leader said he believed that Russia had to take decisive, swift action and added that Moscow planned to carry out the “demilitarisation and de-Nazification” of Ukraine, also promising to put an end to eight years of war in which government forces have been battling pro-Russian separatists.
Explosions were reported soon afterwards on the outskirts of the cities of Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, Mariupol, as well as the capital Kiev, prompting many Ukrainians to form queues at supermarkets, ATMs and petrol stations in preparation for weathering the siege or attempting to flee.
Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said Mr Putin had “just launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine” and called it a “war of aggression”.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said his government was introducing martial law in all territories of the state and urged citizens to stay at home as much as possible.
The country’s airports have since been shut down temporarily and secured against potential Russian aircraft landings, while Russia has closed its own airspace around the border to civilian access for the next four months.
In the opening skirmishes, Ukraine’s military has said it has destroyed four Russian tanks on a road near the eastern city of Kharkiv, killed 50 troops near a town in Luhansk region and downed a sixth Russian aircraft, also in the country’s east.
US president Joe Biden, UK prime minister Boris Johnson and UN secretary general Antonio Guterres have joined other global powers in condemning Moscow’s “unprovoked and unjustified” attack and promised to hold it “accountable”, with Mr Johnson expected to announce further “unprecedented” sanctions to Parliament later on Thursday.
Mr Putin had previously continued to deny having any intention of invading the neighbouring state and had presented the West with a series of demands, including an end to the eastern expansion of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) membership to ex-Soviet states and the curtailment of US and alliance military activity on Russia’s doorstep.
Regional tensions were drastically ramped up on Monday when the Russian president and his security council moved to formally recognise two eastern Ukrainian breakaway regions, held by rebel groups, as independent states, giving his own country a pretext to send troops across the border while arguing that it was only doing so to protect its allies.
The decision to recognise the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), which first declared independence in May 2014 and have been engaged in bloody conflict ever since, came after a direct appeal for military and financial aid from their respective leaders, Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik.
Russia has previously denied accusations from Ukraine and Nato that it had been helping to arm and fund the rebels in a fight that has cost more than 14,000 lives.
The international community immediately hit out at Russia’s latest chess move, with the United Nations Security Council expressing “great concern”.
Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the UN, had insisted there would be no “new bloodbath” in eastern Ukraine but warned the West to “think twice” before making matters worse.
The UK has already announced sanctions against five Russian banks and three wealthy plutocrats, while German chancellor Olaf Scholz has said regulatory approval for the recently-completely Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany will be “reassessed” in light of the situation.
The escalation means that the frantic diplomatic efforts of the Western allies to find a peaceful solution to the tensions since the New Year have come to nothing.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken, in particular, had worked hard to defuse the situation, urging Russia to avoid a return to Cold War-era hostilities as he held numerous talks with his Russian counterparts, Mr Zelensky and other European leaders.
The issue of Ukraine’s exclusion from Nato has been a long-standing obsession for Mr Putin, who bitterly remembers the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s as “a decade of humiliation” in which Bill Clinton’s US “imposed its vision of order on Europe (including in Kosovo in 1999) while the Russians could do nothing but stand by and watch”, according to diplomatic relations expert James Goldgeier.
Mr Yeltsin did write to Mr Clinton in September 1993 expressing similar concerns, however, saying: “We understand, of course, that any possible integration of East European countries into Nato will not automatically lead to the alliance somehow turning against Russia but it is important to take into account how our public opinion might react to that step.”