After weeks of rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine over Moscow’s build-up of military forces along its western border with its neighbour, war has finally returned to Europe.
Russian president Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” in a televised address to his citizens in the early hours of Thursday 24 February, drawing a line under the West’s diplomatic efforts to avert calamity and restore the peace.
Explosions were reported soon afterwards on the outskirts of the cities of Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, Mariupol, as well as the capital Kyiv, prompting many Ukrainians to form queues at supermarkets, ATMs and petrol stations in preparation for weathering the siege or attempting to flee.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said his government has introduced martial law in all territories of the state and urged citizens to stay at home as much as possible.
Meanwhile the country’s airports have been shut down temporarily and secured against potential Russian aircraft landings while Russia has closed its own airspace around the border to civilian access for the next four months.
In the opening skirmishes, Ukraine’s military has said it has destroyed four Russian tanks on a road near the eastern city of Kharkiv, killed 50 troops near a town in Luhansk region and downed a sixth Russian aircraft, also in the country’s east.
According to Mr Zelensky, 137 Ukrainian civilians and soldiers were ultimately killed on the first day of fighting and another 316 injured as he appealed to the international community to do more to help. He pledged to remain in Kyiv as Russian missile strikes began to target the city in the early hours of Friday morning.
Tensions in Eastern Europe have rumbled on since December when Russia stationed an estimated 130,000 soldiers along its western border and then another 30,000 in Belarus, consistently denying it had any attention of making incursions into Ukraine.
Frantic diplomatic negotiations were pursued by the likes of US secretary of state Antony Blinken, French president Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor Olaf Scholz and UK foreign secretary Liz Truss in the hope of averting calamity but ultimately appear to have come to nothing.
Then the situation escalated drastically on Monday when Mr Putin formally recognized two eastern Ukrainian regions held by pro-Russian separatist groups as independent states.
Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik, leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) respectively, made a direct appeal to the Kremlin and asked for military and financial aid as the situation in those regions became increasingly critical .
The Russian leader duly informed his security council that it was necessary that their appeals be considered seriously.
Mr Putin was told by his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy chairman of the council, that he believes a majority of Russians would support the two regions’ independence claims, adding that around 800,000 Russian citizens live in the DPR and LPR.
Recognition of their status as independent states swiftly followed, giving Mr Putin a pretext to send troops across the border while arguing that he was doing so to protect the breakaway regions as fellow allies against Kyiv.
The international community immediately hit out at the decision, with the United Nations Security Council expressing “great concern”.
Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the UN, insisted there would be no “new bloodbath” in eastern Ukraine but warned the West to “think twice” before making matters worse.
US president Joe Biden, UK prime minister Boris Johnson and UN secretary general Antonio Guterres have since joined other global powers in condemning Moscow’s “unprovoked and unjustified” attack of Thursday 24 February and promised to hold it “accountable”.
The sanctions so far unveiled by the West, including steps taken to hinder Russian banks and wealthy plutocrats from doing business abroad and the blocking of regulatory approval for the lucrative Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, have been criticized as inadequate and senior Russia officials like Mr Medvedev and Sergey Lavrov have shrugged them off with a smirk.
Mr Lavrov was particularly dimissive, declaring: “Our European, American, British colleagues will not stop and will not calm down until they have exhausted all their possibilities for the so-called ‘punishment of Russia’. They are already threatening us with all manner of sanctions or, as they say now, ‘the mother of all sanctions’.
“Well, we’re used to it. We know that sanctions will be imposed anyway, in any case. With or without reason.”
Both the DPR and LPR declared their independence on 12 May 2014 after Mr Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula in response to his preferred pro-Moscow presidential candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, having been driven from power by mass protests.
An estimated 14,000 people have been killed in the ongoing conflict in the region over the last eight years, with Nato and Ukraine accusing Russia of arming the separatist rebels, at the expense of the Kremlin denies.
The DPR and LPR are officially considered terrorist organizations by Kyiv, although that is not a designation agreed upon by the US, EU or other international bodies.
Their previous leaders, Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, were signatories to the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015, which were forged in the hope of ending the violence but which were never enacted because of differing interpretations of the accords.
Russia insisted that it was not a party to the conflict and that the agreement therefore did not apply to it, arguing that it could not remove armed forces and military hardware from Donetsk and Luhansk because the combatants were part of a separatist insurgency and not its own .
Both sides continued to disagree, with Ukraine viewing the Minsk accords as a means by which it could re-establish control over its border while Russia saw them as a chance to grant autonomy to the rebel territories, effectively giving it a voice in Ukrainian foreign policy by proxy.
The prospect of elections in the Donbas industrial heartland that houses the DPR and LPR was also controversial given that they raised the possibility of former separatist warlords sitting in parliament or winning high office within the police, an outcome regarded as intolerable by many Ukrainians.