Ukraine leaders warn world to wake up to Russian threat as west promises to make Putin international pariah

Woman with bloodied face and bandaged head
World leaders warn Moscow has embarked on a dangerous new era of imperial expansion.Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Ukraine was fighting for its survival after Vladimir Putin unleashed a punishing offensive on the country that left hundreds dead or injured, and world leaders warned that Moscow had embarked on a dangerous new era of imperial expansion.

The continent awoke to the shock of scenes it once believed it had left in the 20th century: helicopters strafing homes outside the capital, long lines of tanks ploughing ever deeper towards Ukraine’s heartland, roads choked with refugees, and civilians huddled in underground stations to escape bombardment.

The west scrambled to respond with a range of new sanctions against Moscow, with the US also announcing it would send 7,000 more troops to Germany to shore up Nato’s eastern borders. But even after the invasion there were divisions on the strength of the response, as Russian forces advanced undeterred by the threats.

With ferocious fighting on multiple fronts, Putin’s ultimate war aims were not entirely clear, but they appeared to be ambitious. Russian airborne forces descended on a military base at Hostomel, just outside Kyiv, with the possible objective of forcing open a pathway to the capital.

US secretary of state, Antony Blinken said that “all evidence suggests that Russia intends to encircle and threaten Kyiv”.

“We believe Moscow has developed plans to inflict widespread human rights abuses – and potentially worse – on the Ukrainian people,” Blinken told a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Russian troops were also clearly attempting to cut off Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, with a population of nearly 1.5 million, in the east.

Ukrainian authorities said one Russian column had seized control of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, the site of Europe’s worst environmental disaster in 1986, and an emblem for many Ukrainians of the incompetent despotism of rule from Moscow.

Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to the head of the president’s office in Kyiv, admitted it was “impossible to say” whether the site, where the remains of its radioactive reactor core lie buried, was safe.

The port city of Mariupol, which lies between the two regions of Ukraine already occupied by Russia, Crimea and the Donbas in the east, was also reported to be under heavy fire.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, declared martial law and pledged that his government would arm every Ukrainian willing to defend their country. In a late-night address, he said that 137 people had died in fighting, and claimed that Russia had named him “target number one.”

As Ukrainian diplomats pleaded with the world to stop the Russian aggression, Zelenskiy warned of a bleak return to the past. “What we have heard today are not just missile blasts, fighting and the rumble of aircraft,” he said.

“This is the sound of a new iron curtain, which has come down and is closing Russia off from the civilised world. Our national task is to make sure this curtain does not fall across our land.”

Many of Putin’s keenest observers had thought the Russian leader would hesitate before ordering an all-out land war to subjugate Ukraine because of the potentially catastrophic consequences for Russia as well as Ukraine, but he proved them wrong.

While Russia was chairing an emergency session of the UN security council that was tasked with finding a way out of the crisis the Kremlin had engineered, Putin broadcast a declaration of war he had recorded three days earlier, underlining the futility of the global diplomatic efforts to dissuade him.

The US and Europe sought to inflict punitive measures on his regime with the aim of ensuring that Putin’s war of choice became his worst strategic blunder, by crippling the Russian economy.

“Putin’s aggression against Ukraine will end up costing Russia dearly economically and strategically,” Joe Biden warned. “We will make sure of that. Putin will be a pariah on the international stage.”

Biden said he was sending 7,000 more troops to strengthen Nato’s eastern borders, expelling Russian diplomats, imposing sanctions on Russia’s two largest banks and almost 90 financial institution subsidiaries around the world.

Asked if the invasion marked the start of a new cold war, Biden replied: “That depends. It’s going to be a cold day for Russia.”

At the same time, the UK announced its “largest ever” set of economic sanctions on Russia, freezing assets of all major Russian banks and limiting cash held by Russian nationals in UK banks and sanctioning more than 100 individuals and entities.

However, clear divisions remained among western countries, with the US and European allies concerned about the global economic ramifications of some of the stronger sanctions. Biden admitted for example that exclusion from the Swift global electronic transactions system was not in the present package of sanctions. It was not, Biden said, the “position that the rest of Europe wishes to take”. Nor did the sanctions announced on Thursday include restrictions on Putin himself.

The omission of Swift sanctions enraged the Kyiv government. The foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said that those opposing the move had to “understand that the blood of innocent Ukrainian men, women and children will be on their hands too”.

In announcing the sanctions on Thursday, Biden suggested that a wider conflict was possible, given Putin’s aspirations. “He has much larger ambitions than Ukraine. He wants to reestablish the former Soviet Union – that’s what this is about,” he said.

Late on Thursday, French president Emmanuel Macron called Putin “to demand an immediate halt” to Moscow’s offensive, the Elysee Palace said. The Kremlin, meanwhile, said only that the two leaders had a “serious and frank exchange of views” about Ukraine.

In his speeches, Putin has portrayed the Ukrainian government as a mortal threat to Russia, and hinted heavily at his desire for regime change. He claimed that the Kyiv government had ambitions and means to acquire nuclear weapons, and was run by Nazis – claims so outlandish that they triggered questions about the Russian leader’s mental stability.

By mid-afternoon on Thursday, Russia’s defence ministry claimed to have “neutralised” Ukraine’s airbases and air defences, destroying 74 military ground facilities, including 11 airfields, three command posts and 18 radar stations for anti-aircraft missile systems.

Ukrainian authorities said Russia had carried out 203 attacks and that fighting was raging across almost the entire territory.

Military sources in Ukraine said 20 Russian helicopters and Mi-8 aircraft had landed paratroopers at Hostomel airport in the Kyiv region, where forces from both sides were fighting for control. They said Ukrainian forces had killed 50 Russian troops, destroyed four Russian tanks, and downed six Russian planes and four helicopters. Zelenskiy also said Ukrainian forces were fighting to prevent Russian troops capturing the former nuclear power plant at Chernobyl.

The early hours of the invasion appeared to have claimed dozens of civilian lives in Ukraine. According to the authorities, 18 people were killed in a missile attack in the southern Odessa region, six people were killed in the town of Brovary, near Kyiv, and four people were killed and 10 injured after an “occupier’s shell” hit a hospital in the city of Vuhledar in Donetsk.

Air raid sirens sounded in Ukraine’s major cities, and civilians in Kyiv and Kharkiv sheltered in the cities’s metro stations – scenes that have not been seen in those cities since 1941. Kuleba urged the world to wake up.

“Putin has just launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” he said “Peaceful Ukrainian cities are under strikes. This is a war of aggression. Ukraine will defend itself and will win. The world can and must stop Putin. The time to act is now.”