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.
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.