Russia’s Attack on Ukraine: What You Need to Know

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the beginning of a "special military operation" in Ukraine. Biden calls it a "war." Here's what you need to know.

Vladimir Putin is pictured at a podium

Image via Getty/SERGEI GUNEYEV/Sputnik/AFP

Vladimir Putin is pictured at a podium

Russia has launched what was initially described by President Vladimir Putin as a “special military operation” in Ukraine, with subsequent reports stating that at least 40 people had already died as part of what many world leaders and those in the intelligence community are describing as a full-scale invasion of a sovereign country.

As explosions went off all across Ukraine shortly after Putin essentially declared war on the country, President Joe Biden issued a written statement in which he said Ukraine was facing an “unprovoked and unjustified attack” by Russian military forces. 

“The world will hold Russia accountable,” Biden said.

While the situation continues to develop, we’ve put together a breakdown of what’s happened so far, why it happened in the first place, and what it could mean for the world at large moving forward.

For months, questions have been raised regarding the presence of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border, with many speculating that an invasion was imminent. Over the last few weeks, the U.S. government made it clear that all signs were pointing to a Russian invasion of Ukraine. It all came to a head on early Thursday morning (Ukraine time), when Putin made the aforementioned announcement of a “special military operation.”

The ensuing attack included airstrikes and more, with civilians being reported to have swiftly started fleeing cities via car and train. While the Associated Press has since noted that “disinformation” is being spread about the attack, incidents the outlet has confirmed via direct witness accounts include explosions in the Kyiv area, a fire near Ukrainian defense ministry intelligence headquarters, and much more. Meanwhile, Russia—as of Feb. 24—said it had destroyed 74 Ukrainian military-related facilities.

Early reports from Ukraine were that at least 40 soldiers and as many as 10 civilians had been killed during the attacks on Thursday. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, later said that Russian forces were attempting to seize the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Later, it was reported (by way of a presidential adviser) that Ukraine had lost control of the site. In another address, Zelenskyy said that Ukraine had lost “137 heroes,” 10 of whom were officers.

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Russia-based human rights organization OVD-Info, per Axios, said Thursday that Russian police had arrested more than 1,700 people who took part in protests against the invasion. By Friday, the group was reporting that more than 1,857 people had been detained across multiple different cities.

Also on Friday, Russian forces were reported to be closing in on Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Meanwhile, Zelensky is calling for he and Putin to have the opportunity to “sit down at the negotiating table” to stop more people from dying.

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The current status of the relationship between these two countries has its roots in Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, when pro-Russian separatists laid claim to the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.

While a ceasefire agreement was announced in 2015, the conflict (which itself can be traced back to the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union) has persisted, with Putin this month saying that Moscow would recognize the separatists-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in the Donbas.

Previously, Putin argued that Russians and Ukrainians represent “one nation,” saying in a 2019 interview with Wall Street director Oliver Stone that he believed this could be used to a “competitive advantage.”

In his most recent address, Putin attempted to justify the military action with reasons that the international community doesn’t give credence to. “Its goal is to protect people who have been subjected to bullying and genocide,” he said of the invasion. “And for this we will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.”

Putin said he wants to “bring to court those who committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.”

While he said Russia has no intention of occupying Ukraine, the U.S. believes Russia wants to “decapitate” Ukraine’s government and install their own. 

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Ahead of Russia’s attacks, Ukraine entered a state of emergency, as many citizens attempted to flee the country. 

Shortly after midnight Thursday in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky said his people “want peace.”

“You are told we are Nazis, but can a people support Nazis that gave more than eight million lives for the victory over Nazism?” Zelensky, whose is Jewish, said in response to Putin’s claim that he wants to “denazify” the country. “How can I be a Nazi? Tell my grandpa, who went through the whole war in the infantry of the Soviet Army and died as a colonel in independent Ukraine.”

He added that his people plan to defend themselves against Russian aggression. “We won’t attack, but defend ourselves. And you will see our faces — not our spines.”

Ukraine’s official Twitter account shared a cartoon image showing both Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler. In a follow-up tweet, the account added that this is “our and your reality right now.”

World War II was also evoked in additional comments from Zelensky, who said in a tweeted statement that Russia had “treacherously attacked” Ukraine.

Hours later, Zelensky looked ahead to more sanctions against Russia from the European Union. Zelensky has also called on Ukrainians to “do everything that is needed’ to support their armed forces, including fighting back on their own.

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“Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its Allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way. The world will hold Russia accountable,” President Joe Biden said in an initial statement.

Biden later confirmed that he had spoken with Zelenskyy, adding that he had briefed the Ukrainian president on what the U.S. was doing in terms of boosting “international condemnation” of Russia’s actions.

In a subsequent address to the nation, Biden elaborated further on what he called the “brutal assault” on the people of Ukraine.

“This is a premeditated attack,” Biden said during his extended address, after which he also faced questions from reporters. “Vladimir Putin has been planning this for months, as we’ve been saying all along.” Biden also stated the implementation of additional “strong sanctions” that he said were intentionally designed to cripple Russia’s economy.

“Putin is the aggressor,” Biden said. “Putin chose this war and now he and his country will bear the consequences.” Later, Biden said in response to a reporter’s inquiry that Putin was trying to reestablish the Soviet Union, saying “that’s what this is about.”

The U.S., in partnership with allies, later detailed what’s being touted as the “sweeping financial sanctions” against Russia. Included among the White House-announced actions are the severing of Sberbank’s connection to the US. financial system, full block sanctions on Russia’s VTB Bank and other institutions, restrictions on Russia’s military, and more.

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As was discussed in the weeks leading up to Russia’s “special military operation,” the attack could embolden inflation concerns while also driving up food and energy prices. However, as the New York Times explained here, the effects won’t be uniform across the globe and will likely instead hit more reliant regions hardest.

Meanwhile, a recent CNBC breakdown notes that it won’t be only the EU noticing such impacts, with a growing amount of attention being paid to the fact that Russia is the leading wheat exporter.

Zooming out even further, concerns have been expressed regarding the likelihood of what’s happening now in Ukraine spurring additional crises elsewhere.

“We meet in the face of the most serious global peace and security crisis in recent years , and certainly in my time as Secretary-General,” António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said when assessing Russia’s actions. “Our world is facing a moment of peril. I truly hoped it would not come.”

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A helpful landing page has been making the rounds in recent days featuring contact and donation info for groups said by reporter and Shorenstein Center research fellow Jane Lytvynenko to be “reputable organizations doing good work.”

Named among the listed ways to help are military-focused groups like Come Back Alive and Army SOS, as well as the eastern Ukraine-based charitable foundation Voices of Children. See more below.

Simultaneously, reminders have surfaced for those interested in helping and/or gaining knowledge about the Russia-Ukraine situation to tread carefully and speculatively, including by continually carrying out one’s own research:

And while the impact of the crisis, for many, precedes the events of this week, Ukrainians have remained vigilant in unveiling new and creative endeavors. For example, a collaboration between Ukraine-based outwear brand IENKI IENKI and the National Antarctic Scientific Center of Ukraine was announced mere days before the attack. 

Elsewhere on the fashion industry front, the Fashion Group Foundation announced the launch of its Help Ukraine fund, which marks a partnership with Delivering Good.

“As a global organization with connections around the world, Fashion Group Foundation has established a fund … and is reaching out to our partners and community for support,” Maryanne Grisz, president and CEO at Fashion Group International, said of the collaborative effort. “We have partnered with Delivering Good, a New York-based 501(c)(3) organization, to assess needs and provide direct financial support to those in the Ukraine and refugees abroad.”

For additional info on the Help Ukraine fund, head here.

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