Putin orders Russian attacks across Ukraine in ‘dark day’

Putin orders Russian attacks across Ukraine in ‘dark day’

Firefighters work at a burning building after the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv was bombed on Thursday. Russian armed forces invaded Ukraine from several directions, using rocket systems and helicopters. (AFP photo)

Russian forces attacked targets across Ukraine on Thursday after President Vladimir Putin vowed to “demilitarise” the country and replace its leaders, triggering the worst security crisis in Europe since World War II as the West threatened further punishing sanctions in response.

Russia launched a barrage of missile, artillery and air attacks early on Thursday. Ukraine’s border guard said that it was being shelled from five regions, including from Crimea in the south and Belarus to the north, as Russian tank columns moved into the country. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said that the capital, Kyiv, was under attack and urged citizens to go to shelters.

In a nationally televised address ahead of the offensive, Putin said that Russia doesn’t plan to “occupy” its neighbour but said the action was necessary after the US and its allies crossed Russia’s “red lines” by expanding the NATO alliance. US President Joe Biden called Putin’s move “an unprovoked and unjustified attack” and said the “world will hold Russia accountable”.

Commodities markets surged, with Brent oil extending gains above $100 a barrel for the first time since 2014 – when Russia annexed Crimea – while gold jumped as investors scrambled for havens. European energy prices soared, and Russia’s benchmark MOEX index tumbled the most on record.

Putin said he was taking action in part to protect civilians in separatist regions from Ukraine’s military, though there was no evidence they were under any threat of attack. The US and European allies have repeatedly warned that Moscow intended to create a false justification for military action.

The Russian leader made other unsupported claims in his speech, saying the goal of the operation was the “demilitarisation” of Ukraine and making clear Moscow seeks the ouster of what he called “the Kyiv regime”. He called on Ukrainian troops to lay down their arms but vowed to bring to justice those who carried out “multiple bloody crimes against civilians” — a reference to the current government.

Russia aims to ensure that a new government in Ukraine is friendly to Moscow and free of US influence, according to a senior legislator from the ruling party.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy imposed martial law and said that the country was facing difficult battles in the east, the south and the north. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a tweet that Putin has “launched a full-scale invasion” and vowed that Ukraine “will defend itself and will win”.

“Russia attacked our military infrastructure and our border guards,” Zelenskiy said in a video address on the Telegram channel after speaking with Biden. He urged people to stay calm and stay at home if possible. “We are working. The army is working.”

Russia’s defence minister said the strikes were targeting Ukrainian military infrastructure and didn’t pose a threat to the population, state-run TASS reported.

An armoured vehicle drives along a street, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in the town of Armyansk, Crimea, on Thursday.

Security camera footage showed a line of Russian military vehicles crossing into Ukraine from Crimea, Ukraine’s border guard service said. It said columns of Russian tanks had entered the Luhansk region, while attackers were trying to seize Ukraine’s Zmiinyi island on the Black Sea, roughly 100km from Odessa, and were calling on Ukrainian troops to surrender.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who held several calls with Putin and visited Moscow in an attempt to ease the tensions over Ukraine, denounced the attacks as “a blatant violation of international law”.

“This is a terrible day for Ukraine and a dark day for Europe,” he said.

Biden, Scholz and their Group of Seven counterparts will hold a call on Thursday to discuss the situation. European Union heads are due to hold an in-person summit the same day, with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saying that leaders will be asked to approve “massive and targeted sanctions” on Russia. Poland, which borders Ukraine, urged NATO to deploy further troops to its eastern flank.

Russia’s MOEX stock index was down as much as 41% as of 11.30am in Moscow, while the rouble weakened 6.4% against the dollar. The Moscow Exchange earlier halted trading after the currency fell to its lowest level since 2016.

The attack follows weeks of warnings by the US and its allies that Putin was planning a full-scale invasion, a charge that Russia repeatedly rejected as “hysteria” and propaganda even as it massed forces along Ukraine’s borders.

China refused to condemn Russia’s actions, instead urging restraint by “all parties” and repeating criticism that the US was to blame for “hyping” the prospect of war in eastern Europe.

Biden said he will address the American people to announce further punishments that would be placed on Moscow. The US and its European allies imposed an initial round of sanctions this week after Putin recognized two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine, providing him with the pretext for military action.

“President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering,” Biden said in a statement. “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.”

A man uses a carpet to cover a body on the ground after bombings on the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv on Wednesday, as Russian armed forces try to invade Ukraine from several directions, using rocket systems and helicopters to attack Ukrainian positions in the south, the border guard service said. (AFP photo)

Markets tumble

The flight to safer investments saw treasuries rally to lead gains in developed-market bonds with the US 10-year dropping as much as 13 basis points to 1.86%. Indexes tracking risk on European credit spiked, with the iTraxx Europe, which measures risk associated with investment grade credit across Europe, rising to its highest level since May 2020. The dollar and yen jumped, while the euro retreated.

In his address, Putin said the aim was to “protect people who for eight years have been suffering persecution and genocide by the Kyiv regime.” Ukraine and its western allies reject allegations of targeting civilians in the separatist areas and no international body supports Russia’s claims of “genocide.”

‘Demilitarisation and denazification’

“For this we will aim for demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine, as well as bringing to justice those who carried out multiple bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation,” he said. “Our plans do not include occupying Ukrainian territory.”

Russia has for years accused the government in Kyiv of supporting Nazi ideas, a charge rejected by Ukraine and its allies.

While NATO leaders have said that Russia has no veto over the bloc’s membership, the alliance has long been divided over admitting Ukraine. The Biden administration has repeatedly ruled out sending US or NATO armed forces into Ukraine, instead bolstering NATO allies elsewhere in eastern Europe.

The Kremlin said Wednesday that separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine had appealed to Putin for help fighting Ukrainian forces. The two self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk sought help under treaties Putin signed with their leaders Monday.

Russian forces invade Ukraine, striking major cities (Video: Reuters)