Attacks by Russian forces in several key cities in Ukraine have reportedly killed dozens of Ukrainian military personnel, the largest attack by one European country against another since World War II.
Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, said that at least 40 Ukrainian soldiers were killed Thursday and told ABC News that dozens of others were wounded. Meanwhile, Ukraine's military command said its forces killed around 50 Russian troops.
Explosions and missile strikes were reported in the capital Kyiv, the Black Sea port city of Odesa, as well as the eastern cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol.
At least 18 people were reportedly killed in an airstrike on a military base near Odesa, the Odesa regional administration said in a statement shared by AFP. The statement added that officials are “still digging through the rubble.”
A Ukrainian military plane was reportedly shot down with 14 people on board south of Kyiv. AFP reports that at least five people died, but the Ukrainian emergency service is still determining exactly how many were killed.
A Ukrainian government spokesperson told CBS News that "cruise and ballistic missile strikes" targeted military control centers in Kyiv. Russian helicopters also reportedly attacked a military airport near Kyiv.
Ukraine’s military claims that in addition to killing 50 Russian “occupiers” in Kharkiv, it also destroyed four tanks and six Russian aircraft in the Luhansk region, according to Reuters.
“President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering,” Biden said in a written statement. “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.”
The attacks drew condemnation from other European countries, including the United Kingdom and France. Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo tweeted that the attacks marked “Europe’s darkest hour since the Second World War."
In a video uploaded to Telegram, President Zelenskiy declared that the “people of Ukraine want peace.” However, he vowed that Ukraine would defend itself “if someone attempts to take away our land, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children.”
In a statement, the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations called the attacks "unprovoked" and argued that the "truth and the international community are on the Ukrainian side."
The council represents 15 churches, religious organizations and one interchurch organization spanning Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and evangelical traditions. The interdenominational body seeks the "spiritual revival of Ukraine."
"We believe that good will prevail with God's help," the statement reads. "We support the Armed Forces of Ukraine and all our defenders, we bless them in their defense of Ukraine from the aggressor, and offer our prayers for them."
On Wednesday, the council issued a plea for Putin to "stop the growing fire of war," adding that "the Ukrainian people do not seek war."
The Orthodox Public Affairs Committee called for peace in a statement Thursday, stressing that "the peoples of Ukraine and Russia are of the same family."
"Their mothers and grandmothers are of one common spiritual ancestry," the statement reads. "Do the mothers and grandmothers of Russia truly desire their sons and daughters to spill the blood of their spiritual brothers and sisters? This is a war without cause and the imperialistic aspirations of one man can never justify this destructive fratricide."
In the early hours of Thursday morning, Putin announced the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine that he said would demilitarize the neighboring country. He claimed that the attacks were part of the “de-Nazification of Ukraine."
Ukrainian President Zelensky, who is Jewish, responded to the claim on Twitter.
“Russia treacherously attacked our state in the morning, as Nazi Germany did in #2WW years,” he tweeted. “As of today, our countries are on different sides of world history. [Russia] has embarked on a path of evil, but [Ukraine] is defending itself & won't give up its freedom no matter what Moscow thinks.”
Earlier this week, Putin recognized the independence of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine with sizable pro-Russian populations — Donetsk and Luhansk.
Putin has also claimed a so-called “genocide” of ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, which has been echoed by Russian officials and state media. However, the international community has rejected such a claim since Russian-backed separatists have clashed with security forces for years since Russia annexed the southern Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Reuters notes that separatists in Ukraine had asked Moscow for assistance in repelling “aggression” on Wednesday.
Earlier this week, as intelligence showed that an attack on Ukraine was imminent, U.S. President Joe Biden announced sanctions designed to cut off Russia’s Western financing. He vowed to enact stricter sanctions far beyond those imposed in 2014 if Russia escalated the conflict. Biden is scheduled to give an address Thursday afternoon.