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Ukrainian servicemen sit atop armored personnel carriers driving on a road in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, on Feb. 24.VADIM GHIRDA/The Associated Press

It began, as invasions always begin, in the hour before dawn. On CNN, at around 10:15 p.m. in the eastern time zone on Wednesday evening, Don Lemon wasn’t talking about Donald Trump’s legal problems any more. He was talking to a jittery Matthew Chase in Kyiv. It was 5:15 a.m. there.

The CNN correspondent was putting on a flak jacket and a helmet, reporting from a hotel balcony that he’d heard numerous explosions in the distance, possibly from near the main airport. The sun would rise there in an hour, and the invasion of Ukraine seemed to be under way. Other CNN correspondents were reporting explosions and troop movements, Mr. Lemon said.

Context was given in the form of President Vladimir Putin making a rambling announcement. Mr. Putin, hands gripping a desk, looked grimly demented, like the villain in a James Bond movie, only more sinister. The scene was outlandish, since Mr. Putin was surrounded by an absurd number of desk phones.

Russia-Ukraine war live updates: Russian forces have seized Chernobyl; Biden announces new sanctions

On Fox News, I did not see correspondents reporting from the field, although a Fox News spokesman said they had four correspondents there who reported that night. Bret Baier sat in the studio and solemnly called on people to pray for Ukraine, adding that President Joe Biden didn’t want “a gunfight” there. As pundits chimed in, the topic of Mr. Trump’s relationship with Mr. Putin was raised but petered out.

What was unfolding on TV had a surreal quality. Kyiv looked serene. I’ve been there, to cover the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, and the vista on screen was familiar: the magnificence of the Maidan central square, the wide streets, the church spires, the subway terminus and that airport. There was little traffic, and those explosions seemed far away. What was starting was actually a 20th-century, old-fashioned war – one lacking in the perfect-for-TV pyrotechnics of missiles landing, setting the night itself on fire. It was hard to believe an invasion was happening unless one saw tanks and troops.

CBC News Network was still covering the Emergencies Act when sirens began wailing in Ukraine. But quickly on screen was Margaret Evans in Kyiv, saying young people there were unconvinced Russia would invade. Briar Stewart was in Russia itself, in quiet Rostov-on-Don; it seemed bizarre she could be in Russia to broadcast events at all.

Over on CNN, the network’s vast international resources were obvious, with Clarissa Ward reporting in a commanding voice from Kharkiv and speaking to people in Ukrainian. In an echo of the CBC report, she translated that they simply didn’t believe Mr. Putin would go through with it.

Around 12:20 a.m., the narrative took shape. There it was on CNN – footage of tanks crossing the border from Belarus in the semi-light. Ms. Stewart said on CBC that among local Russians in Rostov-on-Don, there was a sense of disbelief. But the world was seeing what it needed to see: troops streaming into Ukraine.

People gather in a shelter during Russian shelling, in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Feb. 24.Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press

Early on Thursday morning, CNN’s Mr. Chase had the goods. He was at a military airport outside Kyiv and pointed at soldiers moving equipment. “They’re Russian,” he said. “They’ve just landed.”

Gunfire was heard in the distance; footage showed damaged buildings and satellite dishes destroyed by rocket fire.

“There are jets in the sky above us. Let’s get out of here,” Mr. Chase said to his crew.

There was a pause in everything while stock markets opened and a person could see, on any channel, the markets collapse. After that, on CNN it was back to Ms. Ward in Kharkiv, where she was now in a subway station surrounded by anxious people sheltering in the dark. On CTV News, professor Olexiy Haran spoke from Kyiv, declaring “Russian mothers will see the corpses of their sons.” Several channels aired video of anti-war protesters in Russian cities, with police officers chasing them away.

Still, it seemed a slow-motion invasion and attack, difficult to grasp. Then came news that Russian forces had taken over the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear facility. On CNN, Jake Tapper asked a question a viewer had sent him: “Why do they want Chernobyl?” The answer from retired lieutenant-general James Clapper was that he didn’t know and could only speculate.

Next were the statements from our Prime Minister and Mr. Biden. In Ottawa, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was visibly upset about the plight of Ukrainians.

Not long after, that plight was entirely visible.

On CNN, Scott McLean was reporting from Medyka, Poland, a village near Ukraine. Fleeing Ukrainians were pouring over the border in the darkness, looking a bit lost, a bit relieved. But who knows what the next dawn will bring for them and their country?

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Fox News had correspondents reporting in Ukraine.

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