Russian missiles pounded Kyiv, families cowered in shelters and authorities told people to prepare petrol bombs to defend their capital on Friday, as Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the Ukrainian military to seize power and make peace.
After weeks of warnings from Western leaders, Putin unleashed a three-pronged invasion of Ukraine from the north, east and south before dawn on Thursday, in the biggest attack on a European state since World War Two.
“I once again appeal to the military personnel of the armed forces of Ukraine: do not allow neo-Nazis and (Ukrainian radical nationalists) to use your children, wives and elders as human shields,” Putin said at a televised meeting with Russia’s Security Council on Friday. “Take power into your own hands, it will be easier for us to reach agreement.”
Putin says he does not plan a military occupation, only to disarm Ukraine and remove its leaders, alluding to Ukrainian far-right nationalists who collaborated with Nazi invaders in World War Two to fight Soviet Russia. But it is not clear how a pro-Russian leader could be installed unless Russian troops control much of the country.
Moscow said it had captured the Hostomel airfield northwest of the capital – a potential staging post for an assault on Kyiv that has been fought over since Russian paratroopers landed there in the first hours of the war. This could not be confirmed and the Ukrainian authorities reported heavy fighting there.
“Shots and explosions are ringing out in some neighbourhoods. Saboteurs have already entered Kyiv,” said the mayor of the city of 3 million, former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko. “The enemy wants to put the capital on its knees and destroy us.”
Amid the chaos of war, a picture of what was happening on the ground was slow to emerge.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted that there had been heavy fighting with people killed at the entrance to the eastern cities of Chernihiv and Melitopol, as well as at Hostomel.
Witnesses said loud explosions and gunfire could also be heard near the airport in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, close to Russia’s border, and air raid sirens sounded over Lviv in the west. Authorities reported heavy fighting in the eastern city of Sumy.
NEW ROUTE OF ADVANCE
Britain’s defence ministry said in an intelligence update that Russian armoured forces had opened a new route of advance towards the capital after failing to take Chernihiv, and most troops remained more than 50 km (30 miles) from Kyiv’s city centre.
Ukraine said more than 1,000 Russian soldiers had been killed so far. Russia did not release casualty figures. The United Nations said 25 civilians had been killed and 102 wounded, figures that were likely to be a “significant under-estimate”. None of the tolls could be independently verified.
Air raid sirens wailed over Kyiv for a second day, and some residents sheltered in underground metro stations.
Windows were blasted out of a 10-storey apartment block near the main airport. A two-metre crater showed where a shell had struck before dawn.
“How can we be living through this in our time? Putin should burn in hell along with his whole family,” said Oxana Gulenko, sweeping broken glass from her room.
Hundreds crowded into a cramped bomb shelter beneath one building after a televised warning of air strikes.
“How can you wage a war against peaceful people?” said Viktoria, 35, as her children aged 5 and 7 slept in their winter coats.
Alla, 40, said: “The kids were scared, they were crying and asking ‘Mom, will we all die?’.”
Thousands of people crowded Kyiv’s railway station trying to force their way onto packed trains evacuating people westward to Lviv. When a train arrived, people rushed the doors, some screamed, and guards fired blanks to scare the crowd away.
Maria, 30, had been there since the morning with her child, husband and dog, trying and failing to board the trains.
“It’s dangerous to break through the crowd with a kid. The dog is scared. Honestly, we’re exhausted,” she said.
But when a squad of soldiers marched through the station, people clapped and shouted the national military cry of “Glory to Ukraine!”. The soldiers shouted back the traditional response: “Glory to the heroes!”
Ukrainians were circulating an unverified recording on Friday of a Russian warship ordering a Ukrainian outpost on the tiny Black Sea island of Zmiinyi (Snake Island) to surrender.
The Ukrainians reply: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” Zelenskiy said the 13 guards had been killed by a Russian strike and would receive posthumous honours.
‘NUMBER ONE TARGET’
Envoys of the EU’s 27 member states agreed to freeze any assets in the EU belonging to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, adding to a slew of sanctions backed by the leaders at an emergency summit on Thursday night.
Numerous Western countries have announced new sanctions on Russia, including blacklisting its banks and banning technology imports. But they have so far stopped short of forcing it out of the SWIFT system for international bank payments, drawing criticism from Kyiv which says there is no reason to hold back.
U.S. officials believe Russia’s initial aim is to “decapitate” Zelenskiy’s government. Zelenskiy said he knew he was “the number one target” but would stay in Kyiv.
An adviser to Zelenskiy said Ukraine was prepared for talks with Russia, including on staying neutral, one of Moscow’s pre-war demands. The Kremlin said it had offered talks in the Belarusian capital Minsk, but that Ukraine had proposed Warsaw instead and there was now a “pause” in contacts.
Putin says Ukraine is an illegitimate state carved out of Russia, a view Ukrainians see as aimed at erasing their more than thousand-year history.
U.N. agencies said as many as 5 million people could try to flee abroad. Ukraine has banned men of fighting age from leaving, and at borders with Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, those crossing were mostly women and children.
Women cried as they bade goodbye to male loved ones and crossed into Romania.
Ukraine, a democratic nation of 44 million people, voted overwhelmingly for independence at the fall of the Soviet Union and hopes to join NATO and the EU – aspirations that infuriate Moscow.
Russia is one of the world’s biggest energy producers and Europe’s biggest gas supplier, and both it and Ukraine are among the top exporters of grain. War and sanctions will disrupt economies around the world.
Oil and grain prices have soared. Share markets around the world, many of which plunged on Thursday at news of the outbreak of war, were mainly rebounding on Friday.