WASHINGTON – In the opening hours of Russia's assault on Ukraine, ballistic missiles by the dozens struck mostly military targets across the country, but there was little sign of Russian soldiers crossing the border or naval infantry landing on Ukraine's shores.
So was this an invasion, or something less? The ambiguity did not last long.
Russian ground forces soon captured the Chernobyl nuclear site north of Kyiv, the capital, and other Russian troops were seen moving on Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city to the east. Pentagon officials said Thursday this was the first phase of a Russian war whose ultimate aim appeared to be “decapitation” of the Ukrainian government, meaning the removal by force of its elected leadership.
President Joe Biden, who two days earlier declared “the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine” when Russian forces began moving into the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, used other terms Thursday when he announced a new set of economic sanctions against Moscow. He called it a “brutal assault,” and said, “This is a premeditated attack.”
“Putin chose this war,” Biden said, and the United States and others will fight back with non-military means. He announced U.S. sanctions targeting Russian banks, oligarchs and high-tech sectors. U.S. and other international sanctions are the West's main tool for punishing Putin; unless he extends the war into NATO territory, the U.S. and its allies will not join the fighting.
WHAT’S HAPPENING ON THE GROUND IN UKRAINE?
The full dimensions of the Russian invasion are not yet clear. As expected, Putin has used a lethal combination of attacks, including cyberattacks, missile and artillery strikes, airborne assaults and other means to try to disrupt Ukrainian commanders' ability to direct a cohesive defense. He appeared to be laying the groundwork for an intensifying assault.
In announcing his “special military operation,” Putin said his goal was to “demilitarize” Ukraine, a euphemism for destroying its armed forces. Whether that entails capturing control of the entire country, in addition to Kyiv, is yet to be seen.
Ukrainian forces were fighting back, but the scale and effectiveness of their defenses was hard to judge in the early going.
IS THIS AN INVASION?
Even after U.S. officials began calling this an invasion, news organizations, including The Associated Press, were hesitant to do so until they could confirm that the initial wave of air attacks was followed by ground forces entering Ukrainian territory.
In his remarks from the White House on Thursday, Biden said there can be little doubt that Putin had long planned to invade.
“Vladimir Putin has been planning this for months, as we've been saying all along,” Biden said. “He moved more than 175,000 troops and military equipment into positions along the Ukrainian border. He moved blood supplies into position and built field hospitals, which tells you all that you need to know about his intentions all along.”
Mary Ellen O’Connell, a Notre Dame law professor and an expert on international law and the use of force, says any crossing of a national border with military forces is unlawful, even if it’s called something other than an invasion. On Thursday she called Putin's invasion “the most serious violation of international law in Europe since World War II.”
“He and his leadership are criminally responsible for the deaths and destruction that are occurring as Ukraine attempts to defend its very existence as an independent state,” O'Connell said. “Other states in the world have certain obligations to support Ukraine and the rule of law. There is no obligation to join Ukraine in fighting Russia. There is an obligation to do everything short of that step.”
WHAT WILL WASHINGTON DO NEXT?
After stating publicly that Russia has again invaded Ukraine, after seizing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the question is how far Biden will go in responding. He has made clear that he would not send U.S. troops into Ukraine, but on Thursday he ordered the deployment of more U.S. troops to Europe. The Pentagon said Biden approved sending approximately 7,000 additional troops, comprised of an Army brigade of armored forces and support troops. They will deploy to Germany, the Pentagon said, to reassure NATO Allies, deter Russian aggression and “be prepared to support a range of requirements in the region.”
Global reaction against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been swift, with little argument about the legality.
Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO, called the invasion an unprovoked and unjustified assault on Ukraine.
“We now have war in Europe, on a scale and of a type we thought belong to history,” he said.
WILL RUSSIAN TROOPS STOP AT INVADING UKRAINE?
Putin has given no indication he intends to start a war on NATO territory, but the allied nations still worry. That is why the Biden administration sent additional troops to Poland this month and set up a more robust military headquarters staff in Germany, while also shifting 1,000 troops from Germany to Romania and sending combat aircraft to other Eastern European countries.
Biden said he would participate in a virtual conference Friday with the heads of other NATO governments to assess the war in Ukraine and coordinate a strategy for responding to the crisis, including a potential flood of refugees.
“The United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power,” he said.