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Visitors of a gun shop in Kyiv stand in line amid rising demand for bullets and weapons.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a special military operation in Eastern Ukraine on Thursday, in what could be the start of war in Europe over Russia’s demands for an end to NATO’s eastward expansion.

Explosions rocked the breakaway Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk and civilian aircraft were warned away as the United States said a major attack by Russia on its neighbor was imminent. There were also reports of explosions in Kyiv and the capital’s main airport cancelled flights.

In comments reported by Russian media early Thursday morning, Mr. Putin said he had authorized a special military operation in breakaway areas of Eastern Ukraine and clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces were only a matter of time.

Hours after pro-Russian separatists issued a plea to Moscow for help to stop alleged Ukrainian aggression – claims the United States dismissed as Russian propaganda – Mr. Putin said he had ordered Russian forces to protect the people and demanded Ukrainian forces lay down their arms.

He repeated his position that NATO expansion to include Ukraine was unacceptable. Mr. Putin warned other countries that any attempt to interfere with the Russian action would lead to “consequences they have never seen.”

At the UN Security Council, the United States said shortly before Mr. Putin’s announcement that an invasion was imminent.

“We are here tonight because we believe, along with Ukraine, that a full-scale, further invasion into Ukraine by Russia is imminent,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told an emergency meeting.

“Tonight we’re seeing the Russians close airspace, move troops into Donbas, and move forces into combat-ready positions. This is a perilous moment.”

On Wednesday, Ukraine declared a state of emergency and reservists began reporting to their units as President Volodymyr Zelensky braced this country for a Russian assault.

By early Thursday morning, the main airports in Eastern Ukraine were closed after warnings were issued to pilots to avoid the airspace. In a video address, Mr. Zelensky said he had tried to call Russian President Vladimir Putin, but the Kremlin had not answered.

“The Ukrainian people want peace,” Mr. Zelensky said after midnight in Kyiv. He spoke in his native Russian, but acknowledged that it was unlikely most Russians would hear his message via the Kremlin-controlled media. “Any spark,” he warned, “could burn everything down. You are told that this flame will liberate the people of Ukraine, but the Ukrainian people are free.”

After weeks of questioning Western intelligence reports that suggested Mr. Putin was planning a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky and his officials have shifted in recent days to preparing for war.

The 30-day state of emergency will see additional police deployed into the streets and around critical infrastructure, as well as giving them powers to stop people and demand to see their documents. The measures were approved by parliament, which is controlled by Mr. Zelensky’s party, and are expected to come into force Thursday.

“These are preventive issues so that the country remains calm and the economy works,” said Oleksiy Danilov, head of the country’s National Security and Defence Council, in a statement. He said Russia was seeking “to achieve [its] goal through internal destabilization.”

Russia’s goal, Mr. Putin has made clear, is to destroy or at least fundamentally alter the Ukrainian state. Earlier this week, he recognized the independence of two breakaway regions of southeastern Ukraine – and sent columns of Russian troops into those areas – while questioning whether Ukraine should exist as an entity separate from Russia.

A recruiter from Svyatoshinskyi Recuitment Center awaits for reservists in Kyiv, Ukraine.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

U.S. officials estimate Russia has amassed between 170,000 and 190,000 troops – backed by large numbers of tanks, artillery, rocket launchers and warplanes – on three sides of Ukraine.

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Former Ukrainian defence minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk told The Globe and Mail that he didn’t yet see Russian units in attack formations, a critical step that would suggest a large-scale assault was about to begin.

He said the Russian troops, some of whom began deploying to the border area in November, were still “just sitting quiet,” camped in tents in the late February frost. It’s a posture, he said, that no military can maintain indefinitely without starting to lose combat effectiveness.

“They need to make a decision within days – and we’ll see it quite quickly,” said Mr. Zagorodnyuk, who served under Mr. Zelensky from 2019 to 2020. “If they stay for more than [another] week or two, their battle readiness will be deteriorated completely.”

While the land forces did not appear combat ready, he said they could still launch air and missile attacks or special-forces operations at any time. “That could start in one hour – or five minutes.”

Mr. Zagorodnyuk said “hybrid warfare” against Ukraine had already begun, including a series of false flag operations in the Donbas region that Russia has blamed on Ukraine and which Mr. Putin used as part of his justification for sending troops across the border. On Wednesday, key government and banking websites – including those of the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Security Service of Ukraine – were targeted by a massive direct denial-of-service attack for the second time in two weeks. Ukraine accused Russia of being behind last week’s attack.

Ukraine on Wednesday warned its citizens to leave Russia amid the rising tensions. Russia, meanwhile, said it was evacuating all diplomatic staff from Ukraine, and the flag at the Russian embassy in Kyiv was taken down.

Despite the flurry of moves by both governments, Kyiv remained outwardly calm.

Dmytro Shatrovsky, a 32-year-old first-demand reservist, near a recruitment centre in Kyiv, Ukraine.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Though the order calling up some reservists was issued Tuesday night, Dmytro Shatrovsky was the only one who had responded to the call at the Svyatoshinsky region recruitment centre, in western Kyiv, when The Globe visited Wednesday morning. Mr. Shatrovsky, a veteran of the war in Donbas, made a video of himself standing alone outside the recruiting office to “troll” his friends who had not yet responded.

“It’s a little funny, because the guys who hid in 2014, they’re still not coming to war,” said the 32-year-old, who said he fought for three years in the Azov Battalion, a group of volunteers notorious for wearing far-right insignia. “Where are the guys who sit in bars and drink margaritas all these years?”

But Mr. Shatrovsky, who said he spent US$10,000 of his own money to buy two sniper rifles this week (he was also waiting for a drone to arrive via Amazon that had been purchased by friends in the U.S.), said Ukrainians are more ready to fight than they appear. “If the Russians come, there will be shooting from each window.”

Darii Olexandrivna, a 42-year-old communications professional, stands in line to pay for 400 rubber bullets.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Business was indeed brisk at two gun shops in Kyiv that The Globe visited Wednesday, with small lineups to purchase assault rifles, shotguns and ammunition. Several shoppers said they had started taking shooting lessons in recent months, after Russia first started amassing troops and equipment near Ukraine’s border last April.

“When the situation became hot in the news half a year ago, I realized I would have to improve my shooting skills,” said Zhenya Nedashkivsky, the 38-year-old director of a roofing company who was buying a US$750 Turkish-made shotgun. He said he was more worried about looting, after people flee their homes, than an attack on Kyiv, which he said he believes is improbable.

Darii Olexandrivna is one of those who plans to leave Kyiv if and when a Russian attack starts. The 42-year-old said she and her husband had loaded up their car with food, water, a first-aid kit and extra clothing – but were hoping they’d be able to take their two children to long-booked dental appointments next week before they are forced to flee.

On Wednesday, she was buying 400 rubber bullets for her pistol, just in case. (It is illegal in Ukraine to carry a concealed weapon loaded with lethal ammunition.) She said she started taking shooting lessons once a week for her own protection, even before the Russian military buildup began. “Now I’m glad I did.”

With reports from Reuters

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