Shortly after President Vladimir Putin announced the start of a “special military operation,” explosions were reported in Ukrainian cities.

After months of troop and tank build-ups, grim warnings of violence and ambiguous guarantees of peace, as well as diplomatic efforts in Washington, the halls of the United Nations and the capitals of Europe, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began early on Thursday, with artillery and missile strikes targeting several major cities, including the capital Kiev, and dozens of deaths.

Explosions rumbled in the pre-dawn gloom, minutes after Russian President Vladimir Putin cynically declared the start of a “special military operation” to “demilitarize” Ukraine but not occupy the country. His announcement came as an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council was taking place, surprising ambassadors who had to make impromptu reactions to rapidly changing events.

Hours before the attacks began, Ukraine’s President Volodomir Zelensky made a dramatic television appeal to the people of Russia, saying he wanted to address the people directly after Putin rejected his phone call.

“Listen to the voice of reason,” Zelensky said. “The Ukrainian people want peace.”

They didn’t get it.

Here’s a look at the conflict, how it got to this point, and what happens now:

Ukrainians had hoped for months that predictions of an invasion by Russia, a nation with which they share much history and culture, would not come true. But on Thursday they realized their terrible reality.

Long lines of cars were leaving Kiev, many heading west in the hope of finding refuge in the few areas of the country not surrounded by Russian forces. Elsewhere, people sought shelter in subway stations and bunkers as air raid sirens sounded.

By Thursday morning, more than 40 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and dozens wounded, said Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to President Zelensky.

Russian forces destroyed more than 70 military targets in Ukraine, including 11 airfields, three command points and a naval base, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

Russia bombed more than a dozen cities and towns. The missiles hit targets in Dnipro, Kharkiv and other cities, Ukrainian officials said. Explosions were reported in Kiev, including at the capital’s airport. Russia claimed its forces had disabled all of Ukraine’s defenses and air bases, while the Ukrainian military reported shooting down six Russian planes and a helicopter.

Ukraine’s government said Russian troops also attacked from Belarus to the north, where they were stationed for military exercises, something the United States had said was a possible front for an invading force preparing to attack Kiev. The troops attacked the border posts with artillery, heavy equipment and small arms.

In the afternoon, in Ukraine, the Russians entered the highly radioactive Chernobyl exclusion zone north of Kiev, according to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, with the risk of damaging the nuclear reactor that melted down in 1986, now encapsulated in cement.

Russian military also reached northern Crimea, with troops landing in Odessa on the Black Sea, according to Ukrainian officials.

In the east, Russian-backed separatists have launched attacks in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, which they claim but only partially control, Russian state media reported.

Putin has long sought to exert control in the neighboring country, once part of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. He expressed a sense of humiliation at the collapse of the Soviet Union and resentment at the way the West filled that void. NATO, the military alliance that includes the United States and European powers, has added members in Central and Eastern Europe that were once Soviet states or part of their sphere of influence, including Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Czech Republic.

In 2008, NATO said Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet states, could also join, without giving details of how or when that would happen. That, for Putin, was crossing a red line.

In 2014, after Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was ousted by massive street protests, Putin proceeded to annex Crimea to Russia. He has also provided support to separatist forces that control parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions to the east, where they have fought in protracted combat with the Ukrainian army.

The Ukrainian leadership has carried out a policy of rapprochement with the West. The country has included in its constitution the goal of joining NATO. But that’s not likely to happen any time soon. Some member countries, which must unanimously approve membership, have concerns about expanding their military commitments and doubt the strength of the rule of law in Ukraine, a young democracy with widespread corruption.

But even the remote possibility of Ukraine joining NATO has infuriated Putin, who says it poses a threat to Russian security.

Since last fall, Russia has begun amassing troops along its border with Ukraine and Belarus, a former Soviet allied state. The troop deployments were said to be training exercises, but the force continued to grow to some 190,000 military personnel. The United States and its allies had warned that Putin appeared poised to invade, often citing intelligence reports traditionally kept secret.

Russia repeatedly dismissed such claims. “Wars in Europe rarely start on Wednesdays,” Vladimir Chizov, Russia’s ambassador to the European Union, said last week.

But on Monday, Putin said he would recognize the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics and instructed the Russian military to station troops in those regions for what he described as “peace-keeping functions.”

During a lengthy speech, Putin defended the aggression against Ukraine , calling it an artificial creation of the Soviet Union that was manipulated into declaring independence. He accused Ukrainian leaders of oppressing the country’s Russian-speaking population, fomenting hatred of Moscow and planning hostilities against Russia, all of which necessitated self-defense.

Ukraine, the United States and others have condemned Russia’s aggression and dismissed Putin’s justifications. Allies of the United States and the European Union have already announced a series of limited sanctions, targeting much of Putin’s inner circle. Those measures included the suspension of a gas pipeline project to Germany, the blocking of international transactions by some Russian banks and the freezing of the foreign assets of some wealthy Russian families and top officials.

Both the United States and Europe promised much harsher measures if Russia went as far as a full invasion of Ukraine. They have been negotiating the details of the measures for weeks and it is expected that they will quickly proceed with new penalties.

However, the likelihood of external military intervention seems slim, despite the fact that the United States and some European allies have provided weapons to Ukraine.

Some of the first responses to the Russian invasion came from the United Nations Security Council, which was holding an emergency meeting when Putin announced military action.

“Unfortunately, while we were in a Security Council meeting tonight, it appears that Putin has ordered that last step,” US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said. “This is a serious emergency.”

Ukraine’s ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, asked his Russian counterpart to phone Putin and ask him to stop the war. “There is no purgatory for war criminals,” Kyslytsya said. “They go straight to hell, ambassador.”

The Russian ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, responded that his country was not attacking the Ukrainian people, but “the ruling junta in Kiev”.

The Security Council is expected to meet on Thursday to consider a resolution condemning the Russian actions, something Russia, a permanent member of the council, is likely to veto.

President Joe Biden said the United States and its allies will “impose severe sanctions on Russia” on Thursday, following an initial package of sanctions this week.

Biden disclosed that he spoke with President Zelensky, who asked him, he said, to “call on world leaders to speak out against President Putin’s blatant aggression and stand with the people of Ukraine.”

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