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Explosions, sirens heard in Kyiv as Russia launches attacks on key Ukrainian cities

The response from Western nations was swift. President Joe Biden announced another round of sanctions on Russia targeting four more major banks, including state-owned VTB, the second-largest bank in the country. Biden said “every asset they have in America will be frozen.”

The U.S. also restricted some exports to Russia and targeted elites close to Putin, but the plans stopped short of one of the tougher punitive measures: cutting Russia off from SWIFT, the Belgian financial messaging system that links more than 11,000 financial institutions in over 200 countries and territories.

“Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war. And now he and his country will bear the consequences,” Biden said.

The administration’s action followed an initial, narrow round of sanctions after Putin moved some troops into Moscow-backed breakaway regions in the eastern part of Ukraine.

The Group of Seven leading economies also denounced Putin in a joint statement after holding meeting on the conflict, promising “severe and coordinated economic and financial sanctions.”

“President Putin has reintroduced war to the European continent. He has put himself on the wrong side of history,” their statement said. The G7 exhorted the international community to “stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine, and raise their voice against this blatant violation of the fundamental principles of international peace and security.”

NATO also condemned the “unjustified and unprovoked” attack, calling it and a “serious threat to Euro-Atlantic security” and adding that it was deploying additional forces to the “eastern part of the alliance, as well as additional maritime assets.” 

Casualties mount

As the battles and military strikes unfolded across the country, Ukrainian officials reported that cruise or ballistic missiles had targeted military control centers in the area of the capital, Kyiv. Air raid sirens were broadcast across the city, and explosions were seen and heard there and in other cities, NBC News reporters on the ground said.

The missile attacks and shelling by Russia’s forces also targeted airfields, military depots and Ukraine’s infrastructure around the country, with dozens of Russian troops as well as Ukrainian soldiers and civilians killed in the fighting, Ukrainian officials said.

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In remarks posted on Telegram, Zelenskyy later renewed his calls for Ukrainian citizens to aid the defense forces, asking anyone with military experience to offer themselves in the effort.

The sounds that we hear today are not only missile strikes, explosions and rockets — it’s the sound of the Iron Curtain falling down and closing Russia from the other civilized world,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we have many losses among our heroes, but we also have the Russian military taken hostage,” Zelenskyy added. “We have destroyed a lot of Russian aviation and military equipment. I see that many Russians are shocked with what is happening. Some of them started posting in social media that they’re against this invasion.”

Ukraine said the Russian military was attacking with the help of Belarus, where Russian troops have been deployed for months. Surveillance video broadcast online by the Ukraine’s Border Guard Service showed tanks and armored vehicles crossing into Ukraine from Belarus, and four ballistic missiles were fired from there in a south-western direction, according to the government.

Battles also took place in Hostomel, home to an international cargo airport and located just outside Kyiv, as well as in the areas around Kharkiv in the east and Kherson in the south, Ukrainian officials said.

The government also reported “mass cyberattacks” on its websites.

NBC News was not immediately able to confirm the government reports of casualties, battles and troop movements.

A senior U.S. defense official said Russia was “making a move on Kyiv,” adding that the U.S. assessment of Putin’s actions indicate Russia has “every intention of basically decapitating the government and installing their own method of governance.”

Russia’s actions indicate that the invasion is only in its initial phase, the official said. 

“We have not been surprised so far with what we have seen them do,” the official said. “It is very much in line with what was expected.”

Retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander of NATO and an NBC News contributor, said in an interview on the “Today” show that he thought Russian forces would likely try to capture Zelenskyy.

Putin’s aims

In his special televised address, Putin said he was taking action to “demilitarize” Ukraine because the West had pushed too far in trying to draw the country into the NATO alliance.

“I urge you to immediately lay down your weapons and go home,” he said, addressing Ukrainian soldiers directly.

The Russian president has also claimed that Ukraine was subjecting Russian speakers to “genocide” — an assertion for which there is no evidence, and which international monitors on the ground reject.

Russia’s aim was the “neutralization of Ukraine’s military potential,” his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a press briefing after the incursion was launched. Russia was not talking about occupying Ukraine, he said.

There is little evidence of Russia’s claims of Ukrainian aggression, and the U.S. has warned for months that Moscow was trying to manufacture a pretext to start a conflict.

As dawn broke over the capital, NBC News’ Erin McLaughlin reported that residents were “terrified. They have been staying up all night monitoring the situation, and there has been an element of disbelief up until this point that the Russians would go after the capital.”

Highways out of the city of 3 million were gridlocked with cars as families attempted to flee, according to live television pictures and NBC News journalists in the city. There were also long lines at ATMs, grocery stores and gas stations.

The mayor also announced a curfew from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and opened subway stations as shelters for residents.

In the northeastern city of Kharkiv, less than 20 miles from the Russian border, explosions rang out in the distance and many stores appeared to be closed as people stocked up on food and gasoline, NBC News foreign correspondent Matt Bradley reported. Russian tanks stood near the city’s ring road, the mayor said, adding that the subway stations were the safest place for residents.

Meanwhile, more than 3,100 Ukrainians were evacuated from Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east, with more evacuations expected on Thursday, according to Ukraine’s Infrastructure Ministry.

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Leading up to the invasion, Russia had surrounded Ukraine on three sides, with some 150,000 troops, in addition to air and naval forces. The buildup, along with Moscow’s bold security demands, prompted fears of an invasion for weeks and stark predictions for civilian and military casualties.

After the fighting began, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that “the world can and must stop Putin,” while at the United Nations, Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya spoke directly to his Russian counterpart, saying, “There is no purgatory for war criminals. They go straight to hell.”

Thursday’s invasion comes eight years after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, a conflict that has remained unresolved and claimed an estimated 14,000 lives. Shelling escalated there in recent days, followed by Russia recognizing the breakaway regions’ independence and sending in troops for so-called peacekeeping operations.

The Kremlin said Wednesday that the separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine had asked for military assistance to defend against what it has called Ukrainian “aggression.”

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