Ukraine’s government claimed on Thursday to have retaken an airport on the outskirts of Kyiv that Russian airborne troops had earlier seized, as President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered compulsory enlistment and banned all men aged 18-60 from leaving the country.
Ukraine’s Armed Forces in an update at 8pm local time (1pm ET) said they believe more than 60 Russian battalion tactical groups – the equivalent of between 30,000 to 60,000 troops – have been deployed on Ukrainian territory.
It said the ‘enemy has an extremely low morale’.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, sent in his forces early on Thursday in what he termed a ‘special military operation’.
Prior to the invasion, analysts and intelligence experts believed Putin had up to 190,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders at various locations.
A column of army trucks passes a police post in the town of Armyansk, northern Crimea, early on Thursday morning on its way into Ukraine
A Russian tank is seen in Ukraine on Thursday, apparently captured by Ukrainian forces
Before dawn broke, Russian forces were attacking from the south, through Crimea; from the east, with the city of Kharkiv coming under intense pressure; and from the north, with troops from both Russia and Belarus rolling across the Belorussian border in tanks.
Loud explosions were heard in the vicinity of the capital, Kyiv, in the early hours of Thursday, and U.S. officials said they expect the city to fall by the end of the weekend.
General George Joulwan, who commanded NATO during the Balkan war, said on Thursday night he expects Kiev to fall within 24-36 hours.
As night fell on Thursday, residents were seeking shelter in the city’s deep subway system, knowing that an overnight barrage was likely.
Smoke was seen billowing above the city in afternoon, and one strike believed to have hit near a railway bridge in central Kyiv.
A local man stands before a house damaged by shellfire in Gorlovka, in Donetsk, on Thursday
Russian airborne troops are seen at Antonov Airport in Hostomel, 20 miles from Kyiv
The Russian troops were fighting on Thursday to maintain control of the airport, which they captured earlier in the day
The battle for control of the airport was captured in astonishing footage obtained by CNN, when their reporter, Matthew Chance, drove to the town of Hostomel – 20 miles from the center of Kyiv.
Hostomel, home to the Antonov Airport, is seen as a vital staging point for Russian invaders due to its proximity to the capital.
Chance spoke to some of the soldiers there, assuming they were Ukrainian, and was shocked when they told him they were Russian airborne troops.
The airborne units are considered elite forces, specially selected for their skill and ability to parachute in during the initial attack.
Yet by Thursday evening, Ukraine’s government said that they had retaken control of the airport.
Deputy Interior Minister Anton Herashchenko made the announcement, The Kyiv Independent reported.
Ukraine’s National Guard tweeted a photo of three young soldiers holding up a bullet-ridden Ukrainian flag.
They captioned the photo: ‘Guardsmen with their flag, torn to pieces after today’s battle.
‘Congratulations to all of you and say that we will win!’
Ukraine’s National Guard shared a photo of soldiers they said had repelled the Russian airborne troops at the airport
A spokesman for the Ukrainian government said on Thursday night that the Russians had been forced from the airport
Zelensky was on Thursday night in a bunker in a secret location, and said in a video posted to social media that he had been informed that he was ‘target number one’ for Russian assassins.
He said at least 137 Ukrainians are dead, 10 of them military officers, and 300 injured.
In a bid to thwart the imminent capture of the city, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Vladimir Putin on Thursday night, who gave the French leader an ‘exhaustive’ explanation of his justification for war.
The Kremlin said the call took place at Macron’s initiative, and he and Putin agreed to stay in contact.
They spoke after Russian forces seized control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant following a ‘fierce’ battle, with the condition of nuclear storage facilities ‘unknown’.
The seizure of the site, sparking fears of a radiation leak that could cause fallout in Europe.
The Chernobyl disaster in then-Soviet Ukraine sent clouds of nuclear material across much of Europe in 1986, and the site has remained closed since – although it has been open in recent years to tourists.
Some Russian military massed in the Chernobyl ‘exclusion zone’ before crossing into Ukraine early on Thursday, a Russian security source told Reuters.
Russia wants to control the Chernobyl nuclear reactor to signal NATO not to interfere militarily, the source said.
‘Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated,’ Zelensky tweeted shortly before the power plant was captured.
‘This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe.’