Frightened Ukrainians took to subway stations on Thursday as air raid sirens rang out across the country’s main cities following Russia’s launch of its feared military attack.
Ksenya Michenka looked deeply shaken as she took cover with her teenage son — their cat peeking out of a bag — in a metro station off Kyiv’s historic Maidan Square.
The expansive square was the focal point off two pro-Western revolutions that Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to reverse in 2004 and 2014.
But the former Soviet republic continued pulling away from Russia and building ties with the West.
Putin responded on Thursday by doing what many thought unimaginable; launching an all-out air and ground assault on Ukrainians.
Michenka said she ran to the subway station for cover “because Russia has started a war against Ukraine.”
“We need to save our lives,” she said in a tense voice. “We hope the metro can save us Ukrainians; because it is underground.”
Many in the city of three million people woke up to a series of terrifying booms echoing somewhere in the distance in the deep of night.
“I woke up because of the sounds of bombing,” said 29-year-old Maria Kashkoska as she sat on the subway station’s floor.
Ukrainian Defense officials later said that Kyiv’s main international airport had come under a Russian bombing attack.
Kharkiv rests just 35 kilometres (20 miles) south of the Russian border and once served as the capital of Ukraine when its was still part of the Soviet state.
Russian-backed insurgents tried but failed to seize the city of 1.4 million people when they launched their deadly insurgency in 2014.
“I once again call on the people of Kharkiv to stay at home and to remain as calm as possible,” mayor Igor Terekhov said.
But the most frightening explosions and heaviest fighting was ringing out across the scattering of impoverished towns that hug Ukraine’s frontline with Russian-backed rebels in the east.
It was reported that in the eastern town of Chuguiv, a Ukrainian man was seen crying over a body stretched out on the ground.
Firefighters tried to extinguishes the flames of a house burning after an apparent attack.
“If they continue to bomb us, I will find weapons and defend my homeland,” said 62-year-old Vladimir Levichov.
Putin described the “special military operation” in limited terms; to protect people living in Donbas who; he claimed, had been subjected to “genocide,” a charge that Ukraine has strenuously denied.
But in the next breath, Putin lashed out more broadly saying: “NATO supports Ukrainian neo-Nazis; our actions are self-defense against threats.”
Then, in an extraordinary passage; he spoke directly to members of Ukraine’s military; at that very moment in the crosshairs of the Russian military. Addressing them as “dear comrades,” he told them they had taken an “oath of allegiance to the Ukrainians; and not to the anti-people junta that is robbing Ukraine and abuses those same people.“
“Don’t follow its criminal orders!” he demanded. “I urge you to lay down your weapons and go home.”
As he has done so many times before, Putin claimed Russia had no choice but to defend itself.
With a hard-edged tone in his voice; Putin seemed to threaten the US, Europe and NATO which; in just a few minutes, would witness his armed forces opening fire on Ukraine; something the Kremlin had previously and consistently dismissed as western “hysterics.”
“Whoever tries to interfere with us, and even more so, to create threats for our country; for our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history,” said Putin.
“We are ready for any development of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have been made.”
Putin, who for years had criticized the West for ignoring his complaints about NATO’s expansion toward Russia’s borders; was finally striking back with fury. “I hope,” he concluded his short address, “that I have been heard.”