Kyiv, Ukraine.
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Russia widens its attack on Ukraine: ‘We now have war in Europe’

Explosions resounded in Ukraine’s cities, airstrikes crippled its defenses and reports emerged of Russian troops entering by land and sea.

Russia pressed ahead with its assault on neighboring Ukraine on Thursday, with explosions resounding in cities across the country, airstrikes crippling its defenses and reports of troops crossing the border by land and sea.

Huge traffic snarls formed in Kyiv as residents tried to flee the Ukrainian capital. Video showed Russian armored vehicles advancing into mainland Ukraine from Crimea, the peninsula Moscow illegally seized eight years ago. Ukrainian air-traffic controllers sealed off the country’s airspace “due to the high risk of aviation safety for civil aviation.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law in his embattled nation and encouraged his compatriots to take up arms. Meanwhile, the U.S. and the West prepared to impose punishing sanctions on Russia for an invasion that they had warned for weeks was coming but that Moscow had denied was planned.

Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on Facebook that Russian missiles had struck Ukrainian military command centers, air bases and depots in Kyiv and the major cities of Kharkiv and Dnipro.

Russian President Vladimir Putin portrayed the incursion — which followed months of Russian military buildup along Ukraine’s borders to the north, east and south — as a move to liberate and protect eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed secessionists hold sway over a large swath of the region. He warned other countries not to intervene, saying that it would lead to “consequences you have never seen in history.”

President Joe Biden is expected to confer with other world leaders Thursday to try to coordinate a response to an act of aggression that has drawn outcry across the globe and that raised the specter of catastrophic bloodshed in Europe.

“We now have war in Europe on a scale and of a type we thought belonged to history,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday, describing the incursion as “a deliberate, cold-blooded and long-planned invasion” and a “blatant violation of international law.”

“This is a grave moment for the security of Europe,” said Stoltenberg, who will convene an emergency virtual summit of NATO leaders Friday. “Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked attack on Ukraine is putting countless innocent lives at risk with air and missile attacks, ground forces and special forces from multiple directions, targeting military infrastructure and major urban centers.”

In Washington, Biden said in a statement after the invasion began that “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.”

With the spotlight on Ukraine as the country faces a possible Russian invasion, UC Santa Cruz professor emeritus Peter...

Washington and its European allies are expected to enact new sanctions — likely designed to freeze out Russia from much of the international financial system — that go beyond those announced earlier this week. But Biden has insisted that U.S. and NATO troops will not fight in Ukraine itself, which is not a member of the transatlantic alliance.

NATO ambassadors said in a statement after emergency talks Thursday that the alliance would beef up land, sea and air forces on its eastern flank. “We have increased the readiness of our forces to respond to all contingencies,” the envoys said.

Putin announced his “special military operation” in east Ukraine in a nationally televised address early Thursday in Moscow.

Even as he spoke, bombing runs began across the former Soviet republic, with some two dozen strikes reported on major cities and other areas. An advisor to Zelensky said that more than 40 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and dozens more wounded in fighting.

Russia’s defense ministry said in a statement, quoted by the Russian Interfax news agency, that Ukrainian air defenses were “suppressed.” Ukraine’s defense ministry said its forces shot down five Russian warplanes and a helicopter, an assertion denied by Moscow.

Russian military vehicles were reported to have entered Ukraine from Belarus to the north, where Russian troops had been holding joint military drills that Western capitals warned were a prelude to an incursion. Kyiv lies barely 50 miles south of the Belarusian border.

On Wednesday, Western powers said Russian soldiers had already entered Ukraine from the east, in the industrial heartland known as the Donbas, where Moscow’s proxy militias have engaged in skirmishes with Ukrainian forces for eight years. Putin on Monday recognized two Donbas enclaves under the control of pro-Russia separatists, Donetsk and Luhansk, as independent republics, setting the stage for him to send in troops to the region under the pretext of “peacekeeping.”

Here in Kharkiv in northwest Ukraine, the country’s second-largest city, Ukrainian soldiers stood in a field with two Howitzers aimed north, where the Russian border lay. A convoy of large Ukrainian military trucks lumbered down the road.

Almost all shops were closed. In the lobby of the high-end Kharkiv Palace Hotel, guests sipped coffee, wondering if they should join the westward exodus.

“The Russians will be here in two hours,” said a man who gave his name as Anton, who had come to Kharkiv on a work trip and was trying to find a way to return to Kyiv. The road heading southwest to the city of Dnipro was not an option, he said, since he expected it to be bombed by the Russian military.

Some residents flocked to subway stations looking for escape or for shelter, lugging backpacks, small suitcases and pet carriers. Inside one station, people wedged themselves against the wall, using their bags to claim what little space they could as the crowds kept piling in. Those who could cram themselves into subway carriages did so, sitting on the seats, the floor or anywhere else they could find, waiting in darkness for the line to start up.

Outside, Nasruddin Nooruldin, a 23-year-old medical student from India, stood among a gaggle of other international students, all of them looking anxious.

“We’re hoping to get an evacuation flight,” he said. “There are hundreds, maybe even more than 1,000 of us from India here.”

Earlier in the Donbas town of Slovyansk, about 75 miles north of Donetsk, the sound of explosions filled the morning air, but residents appeared to remain calm. As the sun rose, some emerged to start their workdays, if under tense circumstances.

“We’re going to stay open,” said Bogdan, an 18-year-old barista, as he slipped an almond croissant into a paper bag and handed it to a waiting customer at a cafe. “For now we’re waiting.”

Anton Chechenko, 30, an electric engineer who works in Slovyansk but whose family lives in Dnipro, about four hours to the west, stood in the central square and watched a flock of pigeons strut on cold tiles.

“Everyone here has lived through war. And we’re not seeing shelling yet,” he said. Besides, he added, “fear isn’t something that can save your life or your health. You need calm for that.”

The most visible sign of any distress was at banks and gas stations, where queues formed in the early morning and persisted as the day wore on. Alexander, 30, who gave only his first name, stood near a bank talking to an army officer on the street. He had just come back from the store and had loaded his backpack with canned food and other supplies.

He planned to go to a village near Kharkiv, to the northwest. “It will be calm there,” he said.

Shortly after he spoke, Zelensky announced that Ukraine was formally severing ties with Russia, which had earlier pulled out its diplomatic personnel from Kyiv, before the invasion began. Zelensky exhorted “those who have not yet lost their conscience” in Russia to go out and protest against the incursion.

“As of today, our countries are on different sides of world history,” Zelensky tweeted. “Russia has embarked on a path of evil, but Ukraine is defending itself and won’t give up its freedom.”

The assault negated weeks of frantic diplomacy to try to prevent war — and indeed came as the United Nations Security Council was in the midst of discussing the crisis in an extraordinary session.

It shatters a three-decade stretch of relative peace in Europe, which survived two world wars and a cold one in the 20th century. Even some seasoned analysts of contemporary Russia were stunned by Putin’s decision to move in, despite all the signs pointing to just such an intention.

The West is now under heavy pressure to present a united front not only in its rhetoric but in the severity of penalties it is willing to inflict on Russia — and, as a consequence, on some of its own economies, particularly in Europe. Germany took a significant step toward that goal Wednesday when Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that his government was halting authorization of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project to bring Russian gas westward.

Much of Europe relies on Russian gas to heat homes and generate electricity. More than one-third of the gas consumed by the 27-nation European Union is imported from Russia, making some member nations nervous over major confrontation with Moscow. The Biden administration says it has been working with European partners to secure other sources of energy for the Continent, although a rise in prices would be an inevitable result.

Bulos reported from Kharkiv and Chu from London.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.