Vladimir Putin has warned the international community of “consequences greater than any you have faced in history” over any attempted interference as he declared the start of an invasion into Ukraine.
Mr Putin announced what he described as a “special military operation” in the breakaway eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass, saying that Russia was responding to pleas for help from the separatists there.
Yet shortly after Mr Putin’s televised address at around 6am in Moscow, explosions were heard outside Kiev itself and heavy clashes were reported in several major Ukrainian cities.
The Ukraine government said Mr Putin had “declared war” and Russian forces were entering the country from Belarus in the north and Crimea in the south, as well as Russia to the east.
In his address, Mr Putin claimed that “our plans are not to occupy Ukraine, we do not plan to impose ourselves on anyone by force”.
He repeated his position that Ukrainian membership of Nato was unacceptable, and that 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 its neighbour to the west.
“To anyone who would consider interfering from outside: If you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history. All the relevant decisions have been taken. I hope you hear me,” Mr Putin said.
“Russia cannot feel safe, develop, and exist with a constant threat emanating from the territory of modern Ukraine,” he added. “All responsibility for bloodshed will be on the conscience of the ruling regime in Ukraine.”
In Washington, Joe Biden warned that the US and its allies would respond in a “united and decisive way”, while at the United Nations, UN Secretary General Secretary-General António Guterres asked the Russian leader to withdraw his troops and “give peace a chance”.
Joe Biden, who plans to address the American public on Thursday, said: “The world will hold Russia accountable.”
In the early hours of Thursday, Ukraine’s leader warned Russia that his country would protect itself and that tens of thousands of people could die in the conflict.
In an emotional address, Volodymyr Zelensky insisted the people of Ukraine wanted peace. Yet, the president said if Russia were to push ahead with a full-scale invasion, his country would defend itself.
“The Ukrainian people want peace,” said Mr Zelensky. “The government in Ukraine wants peace and is doing everything it can to build it.”
In a speech delivered in Russian and which was partly directed at Russia and its leadership, he added: “If we are attacked, if someone attempts to take away our land, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves.”
He added: “When you attack us, you will see our faces, not our backs.”
Speaking at the second emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in three days, Britain’s UN envoy Ambassador Barbara Woodward said a wholly unprovoked attack on Ukraine was unfolding.
“For months, Russia has been holding a gun to Ukraine’s head. Now, President Putin’s finger is on the trigger,” she said.
“A full-scale conflict in a country of 44 million people will bring immense suffering, casualties on both sides and devastating humanitarian consequences.”
Later, Ms Thomas-Greenfield said: “This is a grave emergency. Unfortunately, while we’ve been meeting in the Security Council tonight It appears that President Putin has ordered that last step at the exact time, as we are gathered in the council, seeking peace.”
Shortly afterwards, Ukraine’s envoy to the UN, Sergiy Kyslytsya, told his Russian counterpart, Vasily Nebenzya, to explain why his president had gone on television and announced war.
Mr Kyslytsya, warned it was “too late” for de-escalation.
“Because it’s too late, my dear colleagues, to speak about de-escalation, too late,” he said. “The Russian president declared war.”
The Russian representative denied that war had been declared, insisting that Russia was launching a “special military operation”.
“The root of today’s crisis around Ukraine is the actions of Ukraine itself, who for many years were sabotaging its obligations under the [Minsk agreement],” said Mr Nebenzya.
CNN correspondents report explosions in Kiev
He claimed that the Russian operation aimed to protect residents in the separatist pro-Moscow regions of eastern Ukraine, “who for eight years have been cowering from Ukraine’s shelling”.
He claimed that “Ukrainian provocation against those in Donbass not only has not stopped but has intensified,” which prompted separatist leaders in the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk to request Russian assistance.
Russia currently holds the presidency of the UN Security Council.
Mr Nebenzya said “we aren’t being aggressive against the Ukrainian people but against the junta that is in power in Kiev”.
He then ordered the meeting closed.
Additional reporting by agencies