SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — The Russian military plunged into Ukraine by land, sea and air on Thursday, killing more than 100 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, and ominously touching off a pitched battle at the highly radioactive area around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that melted down in 1986.
Day 1 of the first major land war in Europe in decades began before sunrise with the terrifying thud of artillery strikes on airports and military installations all over Ukraine. A senior Pentagon official said that three lines of Russian troops and military forces were moving swiftly toward Ukrainian cities — one heading south from Belarus toward Kyiv, the capital; another toward Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine; and a third toward Kherson in the south, near Crimea. The forces were using missiles and long-range artillery, the official said.
By sunset, Russian special forces and airborne troops were pushing into the outskirts of Kyiv. While the ultimate goal of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, and his generals remained unclear, American officials assessed that the end game was likely the replacement of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government with a Russian-controlled puppet regime.
Late on Thursday evening, Mr. Zelensky remained in place as commander in chief, and Ukrainian forces, which officials said had shot down several Russian jets and a helicopter, were engaged in fierce battles all along a broad front line to maintain control over their country. In an address to the nation, which remained under a curfew, Mr. Zelensky said 137 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed.
The lethal realities spurred tens of thousands of Ukrainians to flee by car or bus toward the far-western part of the country, which was deemed safer, snarling the roads, and there were long lines at gas stations.
The day also ended with Russian forces in control of the facility at Chernobyl, according to Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president’s office, though the condition of the plant and its nuclear waste storage facilities was unknown.
The invasion prompted an immediate outcry around the world and — to a lesser but still surprising extent — across Russia itself.
President Biden denounced Mr. Putin for launching a “brutal assault on the people of Ukraine,” and added, “Now he and his country will bear the consequences.”
He said the United States was freezing trillions of dollars in Russian assets, including the funds controlled by Russian elites and their families, and that it would restrict Russia’s access to high-tech imports, impairing their military and their industrial capacity.
He also said the U.S. would send more troops to Eastern European countries in the NATO alliance.
“This aggression cannot go unanswered,” Mr. Biden said. “If it did, the consequences for America would be much worse. America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.”
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the country would ban flights by Aeroflot, Russia’s flagship airline, and he vowed to expand sanctions, adding 100 companies, entities and rich oligarchs, as well as limiting exports to Russia of British technology.
The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, called the Russian invasion a forcible attempt to shift European borders and “perhaps even to wipe an entire country off the world map” in a televised address to Germans.
As a result of the sanctions, the Russian stock market nose-dived, losing a third of its value, while the ruble fell to a record low exchange rate.
Some responses were more tepid. Brazil called for a peaceful solution that “takes into account the legitimate security interests of all parties involved.”
In China, which has developed close ties with Mr. Putin, Wang Yi, the foreign minister, repeated that his country believed that the territorial integrity of all countries should be respected, while noting the complexity of the Ukraine issue and Russia’s “legitimate” security concerns, according to Chinese state media.
In a somewhat troubling sign for Mr. Putin, thousands of Russians defied the rule stipulating that protests consist only of lone pickets, a measure Mr. Putin had pushed as he moved to undermine most opposition groups.
Chanting “No to war!”, people took to the streets from St. Petersburg to Siberia, in more than 50 cities overall, according to OVD Info, a rights group, which said that more than 1,700 protesters had been arrested nationwide.
Few Russian political or business leaders dared question the move, but some famous singers, theater directors and television personalities criticized the war, risking their access to state money and broadcasts.
Still, Mr. Putin was resolute. In a rambling early morning speech, he made clear that his ambitions extended beyond Ukraine and included upending the American-led world order. He denounced what he called the United States’ “empire of lies.” And he threatened severe consequences for any country that tried to interfere with him, ominously reminding the world that Russia “remains one of the most powerful nuclear states.”
The invasion rattled markets early in the day and sent oil prices soaring, at one point past $105 a barrel. Energy prices fell after Mr. Biden said the United States and other nations were considering a combined release of oil from strategic reserves, and the S&P 500 rallied to close with a small gain.
Among the most alarming reports of Thursday’s armed conflict came from the toxic marshes of the protective zone surrounding Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear accident in history; the shortest direct route from Belarus to Kyiv cuts through a portion of it.
By Thursday afternoon, “national guard troops responsible for protecting the storage unit for dangerous radioactive waste” were “putting up fierce resistance,” Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on Facebook, warning of a catastrophe if a shell struck it. Late in the day Ukraine reported that Russia had taken control of the facility.
In the end, the war appeared to be playing out exactly as the American intelligence community said it would when officials first warned about the threatening movement of Russian troops toward Ukraine’s borders last fall.
Over many months, the Russian military moved soldiers and heavy equipment in plain view of the world, surrounding Ukraine on three sides and drawing increasingly alarmed warnings from the White House about an imminent attack. All the while, Russian leaders including Mr. Putin adamantly denied having any such intention.
In his early morning speech Thursday, Mr. Putin confirmed what many, including Ukraine’s own leaders and much of the Russian populace, had for months refused to believe: that the Russian military was invading Ukraine.
“A decision was taken by me to carry out a special military action,” Mr. Putin announced.
It was an awkward, passive-voiced declaration of war, which nevertheless touched off a calamity that could shape the face of Europe for years to come. Almost as soon as Mr. Putin delivered his speech, the attack began.
Russia hit airports and military installations all over the country, shattering glass in nearby apartment buildings and jolting Ukrainian citizens even miles away into a terrifying new reality.
At least 18 military officials were killed in an attack outside the Black Sea city of Odessa, where amphibious commandos from the Russian Navy came ashore, according to Sergey Nazarov, an aide to Odessa’s mayor.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Washington, Oksana Markarova, said dozens of civilians had been killed, and pleaded with the world to provide more help.
Understand Russia’s Attack on Ukraine
What is at the root of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has grown unnerved at Ukraine’s closeness with the West and the prospect that the country might join NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
At the United Nations Security Council, the United States proposed a resolution that would order Russian troops out of Ukraine immediately and unconditionally. The resolution, which will likely be voted on Friday, will almost certainly be vetoed by Russia. But approval by a large majority of the council’s other 14 members could reinforce Moscow’s global isolation.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said that the country was facing “a full-scale attack from multiple directions” but that it “continues to defend itself.”
Russian forces fired more than 160 missiles at targets around Ukraine, primarily short-range ballistic rockets, but also cruise missiles and rockets fired from the Black Sea, according to the senior Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military assessments. As many as 75 Russian aircraft entered the fray, the official said.
The targets were primarily military: barracks, ammunition depots and air fields, the official said.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement on Thursday that its forces had destroyed more than 70 military targets in Ukraine, including 11 airfields, three command points and a naval base. Russian forces also downed one helicopter and four Bayraktar TB2 drones, said Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the ministry’s spokesman, speaking from Moscow. He said that Russia had lost one fighter jet because of a “piloting error.”
By Thursday evening Russian Armed Forces had reached the city of Kherson, located just south of the Crimean peninsula, and unblocked the North Crimean Canal, said a spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense. For Russia it was a major piece of unfinished business, reversing a Ukrainian water blockade imposed after Russia seized the peninsula in 2014.
In total since the beginning of the operation, Russian forces destroyed 83 Ukrainian military infrastructure objects, four fighter jets, one helicopter and four drones, the spokesman said.
Video verified by The Times showed at least half a dozen Russian helicopters flying west over the Dnieper river toward Hostomel, a town on the outskirts of the capital, with some helicopters apparently attacking Hostomel’s airport. One video released by Ukraine’s armed forces appeared to show at least one of those helicopters being shot down.
As horrific as the first day was, the senior Pentagon official said it was only the beginning. Russian troops seen crossing into Ukraine on Thursday represented only a fraction of what the military had deployed along the Ukraine border, the official said.
Though the Ukrainian army is badly outgunned and outmanned by Russian forces, it did report some successes. The military said it had shot down several Russian fighter aircraft and a helicopter in an increasingly intense battle to maintain control over key cities. Ukrainian troops had also repelled Russian advances on two major cities: Kharkiv, in the northeast, and Chernihiv in the north, a senior Ukrainian military official said.
In Kramatorsk, in eastern Ukraine, about 100 men, ranging in age from their 20s to 50s, turned up at a military recruitment office even as the dull thuds of explosions could be heard from the direction of the town’s military airport.
They packed into a corridor and filled out forms, heeding a call from Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, who asked all able citizens to immediately enlist with the country’s territorial defense units.
“The enemy is attacking, but our army is indestructible,” he said. “Ukraine is moving into all-out defense mode.”
Michael Schwirtz reported from Slovyansk, Ukraine; Eric Schmitt from Washington; and Neil MacFarquhar from New York. Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer from Kramatorsk, Ukraine; Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv, Ukraine; Ivan Nechepurenko and Oleg Matsnev from Moscow; Helene Cooper from Washington; and Farnaz Fassihi from New York.