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'An explosion made the ground beneath our feet tremble': NICK CRAVEN reports from Kiev

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Ukrainians woke to the sound of missiles and air strikes as their worst fears were realised, with explosions in Kiev causing the ground to tremble and windows shake.

All across the country people ran to basement bomb shelters as Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade.

Shortly after 5am the crumps of explosions shook the windows of my hotel room as myself and MailOnline photographer Simon Ashton donned the body armour and helmets that have weighed us down, unused in their bag for the last month.

For an hour the night sky lit up in the distance to the north and east of the city as military targets were pounded by bombs, and we run to the basement for safety.

Braver – or perhaps more foolish – souls headed in the other direction to the 11th floor roof bar in the Intercontinental Hotel where many international media have based themselves.

Pictured: Remains of a Russian missile in Kyiv. It's reportedly the remains of an Kh-31-series air-to-surface missile. Most likely the Kh-31P or PD anti-radiation variant

Pictured: Remains of a Russian missile in Kyiv. It’s reportedly the remains of an Kh-31-series air-to-surface missile. Most likely the Kh-31P or PD anti-radiation variant

A man stands next to the consequences of Russian shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday

A man stands next to the consequences of Russian shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday

Pictured: An explosion is seen in the distance as Russian airstrikes hit Kiev

Pictured: An explosion is seen in the distance as Russian airstrikes hit Kiev 

Nick Craven outside the Russian embassy where crosses have been planted by Ukrainians'Russian occupiers', with one bearing a note in English: 'Welcome to hell'

Nick Craven outside the Russian embassy where crosses have been planted by Ukrainians ‘Russian occupiers’, with one bearing a note in English:  ‘Welcome to hell’

At 6.36am there was by far the loudest explosion from our perspective, believed to be an air strike on a military airfield near Kyiv, which made the ground beneath our feet tremble.

By dawn there was an eerie calm as an overcast drizzly day began, broken only by the cheerful chimes of the bells of St Michael’s golden domed Monastery across the square from the hotel at 7am.

At 7.05am the first air raid sirens rang out all across the city, though no blitz followed in the central area at least.

Surreally, even as the dreaded noise of the sirens rent the air, a steady stream of headlights could be seen driving into the city as commuters came in to start the day.

But the calm wasn’t to last long as the full extent of the Russian invasion began to reveal itself, with troops attacking the border on three sides and air strikes right across the country, even as far west as Lviv, near the Polish border.

By 8am local time, queues of people were seen at bank ATMs in the city, perhaps the first sign of panic, following the introduction of a state of emergency across the country from midnight last night.

Police and soldiers stood on many of the street corners to keep order.

Traffic jams are seen as people leave the city of Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022

Traffic jams are seen as people leave the city of Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022

Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuguyev near Kharkiv on February 24, 2022

Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuguyev near Kharkiv on February 24, 2022

Pictured: A checkpoint of the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine in Kyiv region was shelled

Pictured: A checkpoint of the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine in Kyiv region was shelled

Ukrainian soldiers ride in a military vehicle in Mariupol, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022

Ukrainian soldiers ride in a military vehicle in Mariupol, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022

Long lines also formed at gas stations around the city, but with so many places being pounded from the air, it wasn’t obvious where would be the safest place to flee to.

Having said that, although the streets were noticeably quieter than usual as the working day began, people were mostly calmly going about their business, perhaps still coming to terms with what might be next.

When I first arrived in this country a month ago, few Ukrainians took Putin’s sabre-rattling seriously.

Most admitted that it was possible he might move into the Donbas to annexe the pro-Russian breakaway republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, but very few believed Russia would mount a full-scale invasion of their neighbour.

Yesterday evening, as I sat in a local restaurant with colleagues, the mood was sombre, and the streets of Kyiv quiet, following Russia’s invasion of the Donbas two days earlier.

There had been two earlier occasions in the last few days when an invasion or air strikes were widely expected, but this time it felt decidedly more real.

With the multiple indicators cascading minute by minute, such as massive cyber attacks, the declaration of a state of emergency, Russia’s NOTAM alert and closing airspace in eastern Ukraine, the dreaded moment seemed much closer.

Cars drive towards the exit of the city after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 24

Cars drive towards the exit of the city after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 24

Earlier in the day, we had visited the Russian Embassy, now deserted, where someone had planted wooden crosses to resemble gravestones, bearing the inscription ‘Russian Occupiers’.

A scrawled note on one read simply ‘Welcome to Hell’, no doubt to signify that Ukrainian defenders will fight to the death over every inch of their violated homeland.

But however bravely those soldiers and reservists fight against Putin’s invaders, no-one expects them to be able to resist the overwhelming might of the Russian military, now thought to number around 190,000 troops and clearly intent on regime change in Kyiv.

Ukraine will be no pushover, as the Kremlin planners have tacitly admitted with their construction of a field hospital, complete with blood supplies – and most tellingly, the provision of no fewer than 45,000 body bags for their troops.

The Ukrainians have already shown their resolve in holding the line against the rebel fighters of the Russian-backed breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, for eight years, but the forces now moving against them are of a different order.

Massively outnumbered and outgunned, the best the Ukrainians can now hope for might be to launch a guerrilla offensive against Putin’s invaders and pray that the number of soldiers returning home in those body bags will eventually convince the Russian public of the utter madness of the slaughter being conducted in their name. 

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