1 of 5 | Vehicles headed in one direction are caught in a traffic jam in Kiev, Ukraine, on Thursday after Russia launched a military invasion into the country. Smoke can be seen rising off in the distance. Photo by Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA-EFE
Feb. 24 (UPI) -- After weeks of warnings from the West and Ukraine, Russia launched an attack against the Eastern European country late Thursday under orders from President Vladimir Putin, who said it was the start of a "special military operation."
Ukraine's border guard service said in a statement that Russian troops, supported by Belarus' military, began attacking northern border units with artillery, heavy equipment and small arms at about 5 a.m. local time from Belarus where they were stationed.
Attacks were also occurring in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Sumy, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Zhytomyr, as well as in the southern Crimea Peninsula and in several western Ukrainian regions, officials said.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces and National Guard were returning fire at the northern border, officials said, adding that the number of casualties was being "clarified."
Ukrainian officials reported several deaths -- including border guards in Skadovsk near Crimea and civilians in the Berdyansk and Donetsk regions.
The ministry said in a statement that Russia had destroyed the airport in Ivano-Frankivsk with missiles and struck another in Lutsk. Military installations throughout Ukraine had been hit and the villages of Horodyshche and Milove in Luhansk had been captured, it said. Columns of Russian tanks moved into the captured areas, the ministry added.
Following the attack, sirens blared throughout the western city of Lviv and Ukrainian citizens there were evacuated to shelters.
The office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said strikes were being conducted on "important defense facilities" and that the situation in Donbas "has degraded." In response, he imposed martial law and told civilians to stay in their homes.
"Our diplomats are informing the world about what is happening," he said in a statement. "Ukrainians will never give up their freedom and independence to anyone.
"Take care of those who need help. All thoughts and prayers are with our soldiers."
Putin announced the military operation in a televised speech as the United Nations Security Council was in an emergency session in New York City attempting to prevent war. Putin said the aim was the "demilitarization" and "denazification" of Ukraine -- a World War II-era term for ridding Germany and Austria of Nazi ideology. Putin and Russia have long accused Ukraine -- falsely -- of harboring neo-Nazi ideologies.
Putin added that the military incursion is about protecting Russia from those "who took Ukraine hostage."
"It's goal is to protect people who have been bullied for eight years, genocide by the Kiev regimen," he said. "And for this purpose, we will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine, as well as bring to justice those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation."
The announcement came hours after the Kremlin said Russia-backed rebels in the breakaway eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbas, asked for military assistance. Both regions seceded from Ukrainian control in 2014 and Putin declared them independent early this week.
Putin said Russian forces don't intend to occupy Ukraine and pledged that all Ukrainian soldiers who lay down their arms will be allowed to leave the "combat zone." He warned the United States, NATO and other world leaders that attempts to intervene will be met by an immediate Russian response that "will lead you to such consequences that you have never faced in your history."
This week, Putin falsely said Ukraine was historically Russian land and that modern Ukraine was "entirely created" by Moscow when former leaders awarded Kiev too much autonomy following the 1917 revolution.
Putin has also justified the months-long military buildup of more than 150,000 troops encircling Ukraine as a response to the unfounded allegation that Kiev is being run by neo-Nazis and concern that the country was attempting to join NATO.
Ukraine has refuted the accusations. Zelensky, who is Jewish, said in an address to the people of Russia late Wednesday that 8 million of them died in the fight against Nazism.
The United States and allies have warned for weeks that a Russian invasion was imminent and that Moscow would use a false pretext for an attack.
After Putin's speech, U.S. President Joe Biden issued a statement saying that Russia is alone in bearing the responsibility for the death and destruction that its "premeditated war" will create.
"The United States and its allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way," he said. "The world will hold Russia accountable.
"The prayers of the entire world are with the people of Ukraine tonight."
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said member nations will hold an emergency meeting to address "the consequences" of Russia's "reckless and unprovoked attack."
"NATO will do all it takes to protect and defend all allies," he said in a statement.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the alliance will present a "massive and targeted" sanctions package to block Russian access to key technologies and markets, freeze Russian assets and block access to European financial markets.
"We will not allow President Putin to replace the rule of law by the rule of force and ruthlessness," she told reporters in a news conference. "He should not underestimate the resolve and strength of our democracies."