Russian forces pressed deep into Ukraine as deadly battles reached the outskirts of Kyiv, with explosions heard in the capital early Friday that the Ukraine government described as “horrific rocket strikes”.
The blasts in Kyiv set off the second day of violence after Russian President Vladimir Putin defied Western warnings to unleash a full-scale ground invasion and air assault that quickly claimed dozens of lives and displaced at least 100,000 people.
The United States and its allies responded with a barrage of sanctions, but the Russian forces appeared intent Friday on pressing home their advantage after a string of key strategic victories on day one.
“Horrific Russian rocket strikes on Kyiv,” Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba posted on Twitter after explosions were heard in the capital before dawn.
“Last time our capital experienced anything like this was in 1941 when it was attacked by Nazi Germany. Ukraine defeated that evil and will defeat this one.”
At least 137 “heroes” were killed during the first day of fighting, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday, as he called up conscripts and reservists nationwide to fight in a general mobilisation.
Zelensky said there was now a “new iron curtain” between Russia and the rest of the world, like in the Cold War, adding in a later speech his nation had been “left alone”.
“Who is ready to fight alongside us? I don’t see anyone.”
And while the United States moved to impose sanctions on Russian elites and banks, it stressed that American forces would not head to eastern Europe to fight in Ukraine.
NATO said it had activated “defence plans” for allied countries.
But NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said there was no plan to send alliance forces into Ukraine.
Among the highest-profile strategic developments on Thursday, Ukraine said Russian forces had seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant — prompting concern from international nuclear watchdogs.
Zelensky called the attack on Chernobyl “a declaration of war on all of Europe” while 18 people were killed at a military base near the Black Sea port of Odessa in the deadliest single strike reported by Kyiv.
Witnesses also told AFP that Russian paratroopers wrested control of the strategic Gostomel airfield, on the northwestern outskirts of Kyiv.
“The helicopters came in and then the battles started. They were firing machine guns, grenade launchers,” resident Sergiy Storozhuk said.
Russian ground forces had initially moved into Ukraine from the north, south and east, forcing many Ukrainians to flee their homes as the sound of bombing reverberated.
Moscow’s defence ministry said Thursday its forces had “successfully completed” their objectives for the day, earlier claiming to have destroyed over 70 Ukrainian military targets, including 11 airfields.
Western intelligence confirmed Moscow had established “complete air superiority” over Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces said they had killed “around 50 Russian occupiers” while repulsing an attack on a town on the frontline with Moscow-backed rebels, which could not immediately be confirmed by AFP.
Ukraine also said a military plane with 14 people on board crashed south of Kyiv with officials still determining how many people died, while a transport plane crashed in Russia killing the crew.
Olena Kurilo was among 20 people wounded by flying shards of glass following a blast in the eastern Ukrainian town of Chuguiv.
“Never, under any conditions will I submit to Putin. It is better to die,” the 52-year-old teacher said, her face covered in bandages.
In the Ukrainian village of Starognativka near the frontline where separatists have faced off against Kyiv’s forces, official Vladimir Vesyelkin said missiles had rained down since Friday morning and power was out.
“They are trying to wipe the village off the face of the earth,” he said.
Russian president justified the assault as a defence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics in eastern Ukraine.
The Kremlin earlier said the leaders of the two separatist territories had asked Moscow for military help against Kyiv after Putin recognised their independence on Monday.
A conflict between the separatists and government forces has dragged on since 2014, killing more than 14,000 people on both sides.
Russia has also long demanded that Ukraine be forbidden from ever joining NATO and that US troops pull out from Eastern Europe.
In the Baltics, Lithuania declared a national emergency. Latvia, Lithuania and Czech Republic, also stopped issuing visas to Russians.