'A surreal moment': Stunned Ukrainian citizens react as Russia launches invasion

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Betty Endale was “worried,” the Kyiv-based musician told Yahoo News around 5 a.m. local time on Thursday. Russian President Vladimir Putin had just announced he was sending troops into her country, and Ukraine’s banks and government ministries had already been hit the day before by another round of cyberattacks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had telephoned Putin shortly after midnight on Thursday, but his call wasn’t put through. Shortly thereafter he declared a state of emergency that morphed, as Russian troops advanced, into martial law.

Minutes after Putin announced his plans Thursday morning to “demilitarize” and “de-Nazify” Ukraine, Endale’s frightened parents phoned her from the northeastern city of Kharkiv, having been woken by explosions. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, was under attack by Russia, missile fire lighting up the night sky. Then explosions began booming on the outskirts of Kyiv, and Ukrainian television news told of other attacks in cities from Odessa in the south to Donetsk in the east. As Endale watched, air raid sirens rang in Kyiv.

She fled to a friend’s apartment, discovering in the dim morning light that a missile had exploded in a building a few doors from her apartment. “This is a surreal moment,” she said, echoing others who spoke of disbelief at Putin’s apparent decision to attack Ukraine from all sides.

Smoke and flames appear behind buildings.
An explosion near Dnipro in eastern Ukraine on Thursday. (Reuters)

The city’s airport had been closed, reportedly attacked and damaged by Russian drones and missiles. Traffic jams clogged the highways as many Kyiv residents headed west to cities like Lviv or toward the Polish border. Security checkpoints had hastily gone up in every city, and police patrolled the streets. Some people in Kyiv hunkered down in their basements or huddled in their living rooms watching reports on TV. Others, with children and pets in tow, headed to subway stations that doubled as bomb shelters. “Everyone in Kharkiv is in bomb shelters,” Endale said, noting that her parents had relocated to one.

By midmorning in the capital, as explosions subsided, Kyivans ventured out, finding parts of missiles in the street and dark smoke billowing from the suburbs, where missiles had attacked a military airfield, killing six. Russian forces now controlled the airfield, CNN reported, some soldiers having parachuted in.

Lines quickly formed outside ATMs and grocery stores, where some clerks demanded cash payments only. “My father is trying to wire me money,” one Ukrainian told Yahoo News, “but the transfer won’t go through.”

Zelensky appeared before his countrymen at 12:30 p.m. local time, saying diplomatic relations with Russia were severed and the government was delivering weapons to sites for the volunteer reserve forces. He urged all Ukrainians who were able to take up arms to defend the country. “Anyone with military experience must report to stations,” he said. He also asked that Ukrainians call their friends and families in Russia to tell them what was unfolding.

Thousands of volunteers had signed up within hours, according to Kyiv resident Yehor Soboliev, a former parliamentarian turned computer analyst, who has been training with the civilian Territorial Defense Forces since summer. “There are lots of newcomers just today,” he said. “All of us are very angry. Putin is ruining our lives, our families, our careers, our country. We want to kill him and the slaves he’s sent into Ukraine.”

People stand around a damaged structure.
People stand around a structure damaged by a rocket in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

By late afternoon Thursday, Russian forces had taken control of a hydroelectric plant near Crimea in the south. To the north, fighting was taking place near Chernobyl, fueling fears it would disturb radioactive material left behind in the 1986 nuclear disaster that rendered the area all but deserted. Zelensky posted an evening tweet to alert residents that Russian forces were trying to seize the entire radioactive plant and site. Just hours into the invasion, over 100 Russian troops had been killed, according to Ukrainian news reports, and the Ukrainian military had destroyed seven Russian planes, four helicopters and at least 10 armored vehicles. Ukrainian deaths had yet to be tallied, but dozens had died by midafternoon.

Another resident of Kyiv, fashion public relations specialist Lesia Donets, told Yahoo News that she hadn't heard explosions in the city. “The Russian army, however, seems to be getting closer — now they're trying to get into the Kyiv area,” she said.

On Wednesday evening, Kyiv artist Daria Pugachova hired a car to visit her parents in the western city of Rivne, a five-hour drive from the capital, which thus far hasn’t been bombed. “I didn’t know the invasion was so close,” she told Yahoo News. “I’m not surprised that Putin did this, but it’s hard to believe war is really happening.” She sees Putin’s announcement that he is “protecting the people of Donbas” in the east as an obvious ruse “to justify the war.” Putin, she noted, “said the so-called Kyiv regime is to blame, but we don’t have a regime here. We are a free nation, and we will stand up for our freedom.”

Military helicopters fly over homes on a hillside.
Military helicopters, apparently Russian, fly over the outskirts of Kyiv. (Ukrainian Police Department Press Service via AP)

Throughout the day, Ukrainian copywriter Ira Luzina was touched by letters from friends and colleagues in Russia. “I would like to offer my deepest apologies,” wrote one. “The moment when it was still possible to change something in Russia peacefully has long passed. And it is very painful for all of us now to realize the consequences of this inaction.” Another Russian wrote on Facebook that she felt only “shame and sorrow,” said Luzina, who recently left Kyiv for Spain.

“I’m glad,” she told Yahoo News, “that Putin didn’t do this kind of attack in 2014” — when Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. “Now world leaders are more united against Putin and see how crazy he is. They realize that his goal is not just to take Ukraine — he is trying to change the geopolitical architecture of the world.” Unlike in 2014, she added, “this time the West is helping with arms, financial support and sanctions. This time, with Western support, I think Ukraine can fight back.”

“Civilians are keeping calm,” Endale reported in the late afternoon. Sporadic bombing and explosions continue, and she said the Donetsk and Luhansk areas in eastern Ukraine had been severely damaged. Reports of fatalities, including 40 military personnel and dozens of civilians, were filtering in. “But we are staying strong. We are not running away or panicking. Today Ukraine is stronger than ever. We’re making history and giving an example to the whole world of what it is to fight for freedom.”

Where are Russian forces surrounding Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.