Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has warned that “enemy saboteur groups” have entered Kyiv and Russia is planning to assassinate him as Vladimir Putin’s invading forces intensified their attack on Ukraine’s capital and other cities on Friday.
Residents of central Kyiv woke to loud explosions shortly after 4am, a day after Moscow’s forces invaded Ukraine from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula, launching one of Europe’s largest military offensives since the second world war.
Ukraine’s military general staff said that its air defence systems had intercepted two Russian projectiles fired at the capital.
“According to our information, the enemy has identified me as the number-one target,” Zelensky said in an early-morning video address in which he wore a military-style green T-shirt and sweater. “My family is the number-two target. They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state.”
The Ukrainian president added that he was staying in the government quarter “with everyone who is needed for the work of the central government”.
Shortly after 7am, air raid sirens sounded in central Kyiv. The city’s municipal administration warned people to head for shelters and said that subway stations were open at any time of day for people seeking cover.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said that as of 3am on Friday, its military had taken down seven Russian aircraft, six helicopters and more than 30 tanks since the beginning of the invasion, and had killed roughly 800 “enemy” personnel.
Zelensky said that 137 of his countrymen, who he described as “Ukrainian heroes”, had died.
Russia provided no figures on damage to its military assets or on casualties it had suffered or inflicted.
But senior western officials warned that Russia was assembling an “overwhelming force” to take the capital, potentially within days, with tanks and armoured vehicles rolling into Ukraine from three fronts and fighter jets, airborne troops and helicopters attacking an important airport near Kyiv.
Shocked world leaders have condemned what they cast as the most momentous challenge to the postwar order in Europe for 80 years. “[Putin] has much larger ambitions than Ukraine,” said Joe Biden, US president, on Thursday. “He wants to, in fact, re-establish the former Soviet Union. That’s what this is about.”
Biden said the US and its allies would impose sanctions in response to Russia’s aggression. “Putin chose this war and now he and his country will bear the consequences.”
Zelensky called on “everyone with battle experience” to take up arms and resist forces that had invaded “just as fascist Germany did”. He also ordered a full mobilisation of the military.
Putin and Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, discussed the invasion in a telephone call on Thursday, the Kremlin said, the Russian president’s first conversation with a western leader since he recognised separatist states in eastern Ukraine and launched a full assault on the country.
The leaders had a “serious and frank exchange of views about the Ukraine situation”, the Kremlin said in a readout. A French official said Macron called Putin just before an EU summit in Brussels to demand “the immediate halt of Russian military operations”.
Zelensky thanked western leaders for their support but questioned their willingness to go further. “Who is ready to fight with us? Honestly, I don’t see anyone . . . I’m asking them, are you with us?”
On Thursday, Brent crude prices rose to more than $105 a barrel, the first time the international oil benchmark has crossed the $100 threshold since 2014. The price dropped back after the Biden administration announced a raft of sanctions that focused on Russia’s financial sector rather than its energy industry.
But in Asia on Friday morning, oil prices climbed back above $100, with Brent crude up 2.9 per cent to $101.90 a barrel.
Russian incursions suggested its forces aimed to advance towards Kyiv while simultaneously encircling Ukraine’s army in the east.
One senior US defence official said the initial campaign was “clearly designed to take key population centres”, with the intention of ultimately “decapitating the government” in Kyiv. Nato will hold an emergency summit of its members’ 30 leaders on Friday to discuss the invasion.
The Russian assault began with missiles hitting about a dozen airfields across the country, including Kyiv’s airport Boryspil and facilities in the Black Sea port city of Odesa. US defence officials estimated that 100 missiles were fired in the initial assault.
By late Thursday morning, dozens of Russian helicopters had begun attacking Hostomel airport in a suburb north of Kyiv.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Japan, Sergiy Korsunsky, described in a press conference in Tokyo on Friday an early encounter at a Black Sea outpost known as Serpent Island, or zmiinyi in Russian, that he said was a “symbol of resistance”.
The envoy played a recording of a radio conversation between Russian naval vessels and the lightly armed Ukrainian border guards stationed on the island. Korsunsky said the Russian vessels had twice demanded the Ukrainians lay down their weapons and surrender or be destroyed.
“The answer was ‘go fuck yourself’,” said Korsunski, adding that the Russians then obliterated the structures on the island, killing the 13 guards stationed there.