Russia has pressed its invasion of Ukraine to the outskirts of the capital after unleashing air strikes on cities and military bases and sending in troops and tanks from three sides in an attack that could rewrite the global post-Cold War security order.
Explosions sounded before dawn on Friday in Kyiv and gunfire was later heard near the government quarter as Western leaders scheduled an emergency meeting and Ukraine’s president pleaded for international help to fend off an attack that could topple his democratically elected government and cause massive casualties.
Among the signs that the Ukrainian capital was increasingly threatened, the military said on Friday that a group of Russian spies and saboteurs was seen in a district of Kyiv about three miles north of the city centre.
Earlier, the military said that Russian forces had seized two Ukrainian military vehicles and some were heading towards the city to try to infiltrate under the guise of being locals.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken said Kyiv “could well be under siege” in what US officials believe is a brazen attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to install his own regime.
The assault, anticipated for weeks by the US and Western allies, amounts to the largest ground war in Europe since the Second World War.
After weeks of denying plans to invade, Mr Putin launched his attack on the country, which has increasingly tilted towards the democratic West and away from Moscow’s sway.
His grasp on power increasingly tenuous, President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to global leaders for even more severe sanctions than those imposed by Western allies and for defence assistance.
“If you don’t help us now, if you fail to offer a powerful assistance to Ukraine, tomorrow the war will knock on your door,” said the leader, who cut diplomatic ties with Moscow, declared martial law and ordered a full military mobilisation that would last 90 days.
As air raids sirens sounded in Kyiv on Friday, guests of a hotel in the city centre were directed to a makeshift basement shelter, lined with piles of mattresses and bottles of water.
Workers, all local university students, served tea and cookies to the guests.
“We’re all scared and worried. We don’t know what to do then, what’s going to happen in a few days,” said one of the workers, Lucy Vashaka, 20.
The invasion began on Thursday morning with a series of missile strikes on cities and military bases, and then quickly followed with a multi-pronged ground assault that rolled troops in from several areas in the east as well as from the southern region of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and from Belarus to the north.
Ukrainian officials said they lost control of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, and civilians in many parts of the country piled into trains and cars to flee.
Ukraine’s nuclear energy regulatory agency said that higher than usual gamma radiation levels have been detected in the area near the decommissioned plant after it was seized by the Russian military.
The State Nuclear Regulatory Inspectorate said attributed the rise to a “disturbance of the topsoil due to the movement of a large amount of heavy military equipment through the exclusion zone and the release of contaminated radioactive dust into the air”.
Mr Zelensky said in a video address that 137 “heroes”, including 10 military officers, had been killed and 316 people wounded.
He concluded an emotional speech by saying that “the fate of the country depends fully on our army, security forces, all of our defenders.”
He also said the country had heard from Moscow that “they want to talk about Ukraine’s neutral status” – a reference to its demand that the country drop its bid to join to western Nato alliance.
Fearing a Russian attack on the capital city, thousands of people went deep underground as night fell, jamming Kyiv’s subway stations.
At times it felt almost cheerful. Families ate dinner and children played. People brought sleeping bags or dogs or crossword puzzles – anything to alleviate the waiting and the long night ahead.
“Nobody believed that this war would start and that they would take Kyiv directly,” said Anton Mironov, waiting out the night in one of the old Soviet metro stations. “I feel mostly fatigue. None of it feels real.”
Russia said it was not targeting cities, but journalists saw destruction in many civilian areas, and Kyiv mayor Vitaly Klitschko said at least three people were injured when a rocket hit a multi-storey apartment building in the city on Friday, starting a fire.
The Ukrainian military on Friday reported significant fighting near Ivankiv, about 40 miles north-west of Kyiv, as Russian forces apparently tried to advance on the capital from the north. Russian troops also entered the city of Sumy, near the border with Russia that sits on a road leading to Kyiv from the east.
“The hardest day will be today. The enemy’s plan is to break through with tank columns from the side of Ivankiv and Chernihiv to Kyiv,” said interior ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko on Telegram.
The conflict has shaken global financial markets: Stocks plunged and oil prices soared amid concerns that heating bills and food prices would skyrocket.
Condemnation came not only from the US and Europe, but from South Korea, Australia and beyond – and many governments readied new sanctions. Even friendly leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban sought to distance themselves from Mr Putin.
US President Joe Biden announced new sanctions that will target Russian banks, oligarchs, state-controlled companies and high-tech sectors, saying Mr Putin “chose this war” and had exhibited a “sinister” view of the world in which nations take what they want by force.
He added that the measures were designed not to disrupt global energy markets. Russian oil and natural gas exports are vital energy sources for Europe.
Mr Biden will meet fellow leaders of Nato governments on Friday in what the White House described as an “extraordinary virtual summit” to discuss Ukraine.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he aimed to cut off Russia from the UK’s financial markets as he announced sanctions, freezing the assets of all large Russian banks and planning to bar Russian companies and the Kremlin from raising money on British markets.
“Now we see him for what he is – a bloodstained aggressor who believes in imperial conquest,” Mr Johnson said of Mr Putin.
Meanwhile, Russia’s civil aviation authority banned UK flights to and over Russia in retaliation to the British ban on Aeroflot flights.
Rosaviatsiya said that all flights by UK carriers to Russia as well as transit flights had been banned.
It said the measure was taken in response to the “unfriendly decisions” by the British authorities who banned flights to the UK by the Russian flag carrier Aeroflot as part of sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While some nervous Europeans speculated about a possible new world war, the US and its NATO partners have shown no indication they would send troops into Ukraine, fearing a larger conflict.
Nato reinforced its members in eastern Europe as a precaution, and Mr Biden said the US was deploying additional forces to Germany to bolster Nato.
Ukrainians were urged to shelter in place and not to panic.
“Until the very last moment, I didn’t believe it would happen. I just pushed away these thoughts,” said a terrified Anna Dovnya in Kyiv, watching soldiers and police remove shrapnel from an exploded shell. “We have lost all faith.”