Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine’s Donbass region to “defend people” there against government forces, stressing that Moscow has “no plans to occupy Ukrainian territory.”
In a televised address early on Thursday, Putin said he had ordered the Russian Federation's military to carry out a “special military operation” in the Donbass region after the leaders of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk asked the Kremlin for military assistance in response to what they called “Ukrainian aggression.”
“Circumstances require us to take decisive and immediate action. The People's Republics of Donbass turned to Russia with a request for help. In this regard, in accordance with Article 51, part 7 of the UN Charter, with the sanction of the Federation Council and in pursuance of the friendship treaties ratified by the Federal Assembly and mutual assistance with the Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics, I have decided to conduct a special military operation,” the Russian president said.
In 2014, Ukraine’s two regions of Donetsk and Lugansk – collectively known as the Donbass – were turned into self-proclaimed republics by ethnic Russians, leading to a bloody conflict between the government forces and the armed separatists.
The conflict worsened following a wave of protests in Ukraine that led to the overthrow of a democratically-elected pro-Russia government, which was later replaced with a Western-backed administration. The majority in those areas refused to endorse the new administration.
More than 14,000 people have been killed so far.
Ukraine, as well as the European Union (EU) and the United States, claims that Russia has a hand in the conflict in the Donbass. Moscow denies the allegation.
On Monday, Putin signed a decree recognizing the breakaway Lugansk and Donetsk regions as independent republics. The recognition followed an address in which he referred to eastern Ukraine as “ancient Russian lands” being “managed by foreign powers.”
In his address on Thursday, Putin said the special operation would aim to he “demilitarize” and "de-Nazify” Ukraine, stressing, "We have no plans to occupy Ukrainian territory.”
The Russian leader emphasized that the goal of the military operation “will be to defend people who for eight years are suffering persecution and genocide by the Kiev regime.”
“For this we will aim for demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine, as well as taking to court those who carried out multiple bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russia Federation,” he declared.
Putin calls on Ukraine forces to lay down arms
Putin also called on Ukrainian government troops to immediately lay down their arms, saying, “All service members of the Ukrainian army who follow these demands will be able to leave the battle zone.”
Russia and the US-led NATO have long been at odds over Ukraine. Moscow views NATO’s eastward expansion as a direct threat to Russian security. Recently, it had put forward a set of security proposals to de-escalate the tensions, including a guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO, a demand that the alliance said was a non-starter.
"Russia cannot feel safe, develop, and exist with a constant threat emanating from the territory of modern Ukraine," Putin said on Thursday. "All responsibility for bloodshed will be on the conscience of the ruling regime in Ukraine."
Putin also issued a stern warning to countries that threaten Russia’s security.
“Anyone who tries to interfere with us, or even more so, to create threats for our country and our people, must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history,” the Russian leader said. “We are ready for any turn of events.”
Putin also emphasized that the Russian people were on the right side of history.
“You and I know that our strength lies in fairness and truth, which is on our side. And if this is so, then it is hard not to agree that it is strength and readiness to fight that are the foundation for independence and sovereignty,” he stressed.
Shortly after Putin’s speech, loud explosions were reported across Ukraine, including in the capital Kiev. The Ukrainian media reported that the country’s military command centers were attacked across the country.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed that Russian forces had carried out missile strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure and the Ukraine's border guards, and that blasts had been heard in many cities. He said he had spoken by phone to US President Joe Biden.
The White House said Biden had briefed Zelensky on the steps he is taking "to rally international condemnation" of the Russian move.
The Ukrainian leader "asked me to call on the leaders of the world to speak out clearly against President Putin's flagrant aggression, and to stand with the people of Ukraine," Biden said, according to the statement.
The US president said he will be meeting with G7 leaders later on Thursday, and that the United States and its allies "will be imposing severe sanctions on Russia."
"We will continue to provide support and assistance to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people," he said.
Ursula von der Leyen, the chief of the European Union’s Executive Commission, said on Twitter on Thursday that the bloc would hold the Kremlin “accountable” for what she called the “unjustified” and “unprovoked attack” on Ukraine.
Later on Thursday, EU leaders are set to hold an emergency summit in Brussels. The bloc’s first round of punitive measures against Russia took effect on Wednesday.
During an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the Russia-Ukraine crisis, which was held almost simultaneously with Putin’s speech, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made a personal appeal to the Russian president to not attack Ukraine.
“President Putin, stop your troops from attacking Ukraine, give peace a chance! Too many people have already died,” Guterres said, minutes before the Russian president ordered a military operation in Ukraine.
Ukrainian defense systems ‘neutralized’
This is while Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that the Russian Armed Forces are not conducting artillery or airstrikes against Ukrainian cities and are only striking military infrastructure with precision weapons.
“Precision weapons are degrading military infrastructure, air defense facilities, military aerodromes and aviation of the Ukrainian armed forces,” the ministry said, stressing that civilians are not threatened, TASS news agency reported.
The ministry further said that it had neutralized Ukrainian military airbases and its air defense systems.
“Military infrastructure at Ukrainian army air bases has been rendered out of action,” it said in a statement carried by news agencies, adding that Ukraine’s air defense systems were “eliminated.”
Separately, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic said that fierce fighting was going on between Ukrainian forces and those loyal to the breakaway region.
Eduard Basurin, the spokesman for the separatist region’s militia, said that, “The armed forces of the Donetsk People's Republic are attacking the positions of the the Ukrainian army along the entire line of contact, using every means of destruction available to them.”
Armed separatists in Lugansk also claimed on social media that they had shot down two Ukrainian warplanes in the breakaway region.
In a statement, Zelensky said that he had appealed to world leaders to impose all possible sanctions on Russia, including on Putin, claiming that the Russian president wanted to “destroy” Ukraine.
Ukrainian authorities also claimed that at least seven people were killed and nine others wounded by what they called Russian “shelling.”
Following Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, China once again urged all parties involved in the situation to exercise restraint.
“China is closely watching the development and is urging all parties to exercise restraint to prevent the situation from getting out of control,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a regular daily briefing.
Earlier in the day, China’s Ambassador to the UN Zhang Jun had also called on all parties involved in the Ukraine-Russia crisis to “stay cool headed and rational.”
“It is especially important at the moment to avoid fueling tensions. All parties concerned should exercise restraint and avoid the further escalation of tensions,” he said at the UNSC emergency meeting on Wednesday night.
Zhang also said that Beijing believed that the “door to a peaceful solution to the Ukraine issue is not fully shut.” He added that the Chinese government would continue to promote peace talks in its own ways and “welcomes and encourages all efforts aimed at a diplomatic solution.”
China’s Embassy in Ukraine has already told Chinese nationals in the crisis-hit country to stay at home or at least take the precaution of displaying a Chinese flag on their cars if they needed to go anywhere.