Leaders, in their very own phrases, recall first hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Shortly after 4 a.m. native time on Feb. 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. This oral historical past describes the primary day of the battle as recalled by Ukrainian, American and European leaders and senior political, navy and intelligence officers.
Fears about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions had been mounting for months, and by the day earlier than the battle started, alarms had been sounding loudly in Kyiv and Western capitals.
To report this story
Most of the interviews had been carried out within the final month, however some, together with with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, occurred over the summer season. President Biden talked in regards to the first day of the battle throughout his go to to Kyiv. Multiple Russian navy officers and lawmakers declined to be interviewed or didn’t reply to requests for interviews.
Interviews had been carried out by Isabelle Khurshudyan and David L. Stern in Kyiv, Karen DeYoung, Shane Harris and Michael Birnbaum in Washington, Greg Miller in London, Emily Rauhala in Brussels and Souad Mekhennet in Berlin.
Kaja Kallas, prime minister of Estonia
I stated to my ministers, ‘Please keep your phones on, because we’re going to have a authorities assembly, as a result of the battle goes to start out.’ And I used to be going to mattress and hoping that I cannot get this name, I cannot get this message.
Boris Johnson, former British prime minister
The chatter had been build up on the intelligence for a very long time, and it had reached a crescendo on the final couple of days earlier than the invasion, and we may actually hear the Russian items transferring into place. We may inform … It’s a mix of form of incredulity actually but additionally fatalism. There was simply one thing about Putin’s tone the final time I’d talked to him … He’d already made up his thoughts.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary normal
That night, we knew what was going to occur. The solely uncertainty was the precise hour. I had a dinner with a few of my workers in my residence. We mentioned and went by the final preparations. And then, really, I went to mattress. But it was a brief evening.
Antony Blinken, secretary of state
We had had a prolonged assembly within the Oval [Office] with the president that morning [on Ukraine]. In the class of strolling and chewing gum on the similar time, we really had a [national security] principals assembly that afternoon on Iran. [Later,] we had a video gathering with senior nationwide safety officers … By that point, we had been extraordinarily assured it was taking place then, in a matter of hours.
As the invasion started, Putin appeared on Russian tv to announce the start of what he known as a “special military operation.” Johnson was woke up by a name from one in all his advisers. The British prime minister responded with an obscenity directed at Putin: “That f—ing c—.”
I used to be disgusted by Putin. I used to be disgusted by what he was doing. I used to be nauseated by his language, by his lies, by his aggression, by his condescension towards Ukraine. I assumed the entire thing was repellent, smug, chauvinistic, flawed.
In New York, the place it was nonetheless the night of Feb. 23, an emergency assembly of the U.N. Security Council, requested by Ukraine, had begun at the same time as Putin was making ready to talk.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations
In the center of the assembly, individuals began their cellphones and pointing. I acquired a textual content message from the Ukrainian ambassador, who was on the opposite facet of the room, and he instructed me the assault had began. I regarded across the room, I noticed all people on their telephones. I feel [Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya] solely knew when he was proven a cellphone message by one in all his workers. The room was form of surprised. I take advantage of the phrase ‘electrified’ typically, however that’s not proper. The room was surprised.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
We had been all within the workplace [at the Pentagon], everybody was on pins and needles … the system is all cued up on the balls of its toes … Then in fact the invasion occurred. We choose up Russian forces with pre-assault fires, airborne troops, artillery and missile assaults. We choose up airstrikes, all of the mixed arms Russian navy forces that begin assaulting throughout the border on a number of axes.
In Ukraine, Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky woke as much as the ringing of his cellphone. The nation’s border guard chief instructed him that Russian forces had been swarming throughout the border within the northeast in an obvious drive to succeed in Kyiv. Monastyrsky known as President Volodymyr Zelensky and stated, “It has started.”
Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine
What I understood in that second, after I was getting dressed, I assumed in regards to the rockets flying over my kids, over all of our youngsters. This implies that there might be an enormous variety of deaths. It was clear.
David Arakhamia, member of the Ukrainian parliament and Zelensky adviser
To be trustworthy, I hadn’t believed within the invasion state of affairs. … [Zelensky chief of staff Andriy] Yermak calls me someday after 4 a.m. I used to be a bit out of it at that hour. He simply says, ‘It’s began. Get to the workplace.’ I didn’t even perceive what had began … We had earlier give you a response plan within the occasion of this. So that was activated after which we had been moved all the way down to this shelter. And that’s how I acquired caught down there. I most likely left that bunker for the primary time a month later.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council
All the mandatory choices had been promptly taken. Monastyrsky was the primary to be on the president’s workplace. I used to be the second to come back at 5:11 a.m. It was in a peaceful mode … I used to be solely shocked by the president’s white costume shirt.
Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s nationwide safety adviser
Normally in a disaster like this, there are a whole lot of hours spent simply attempting to come back to grips with a disaster … attempting to determine what you’re going to do about it. In this case, it was all carried out prematurely … We really had developed a written guidelines of parts we might work by … the primary 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours, 96 hours.
Mark A. Milley
Here’s what it wasn’t. It wasn’t chaotic. We’re the navy, that is what we do once we’re in fight, in crises. We have procedures we comply with … We had made choices within the days and weeks main as much as the invasion … When they really attacked, these plans went into motion.
I used to be at dwelling, it should have been one thing like 10:30 … and my deputy chief of workers, Tom Sullivan, known as to say that Russia had launched its preliminary salvo of missiles … Most of us have every little thing we want at dwelling to speak. I’ve a safe room at dwelling, cellphone, video hyperlinks to everybody else … I talked to the nationwide safety adviser [Sullivan] in some unspecified time in the future … My principal dialog was with the secretary of protection and our joint dialog with the NATO secretary normal.
Lloyd Austin, secretary of protection
Later on, I overlook how lengthy it was, Blinken, the chairman, the nationwide safety adviser and I are on the cellphone with the president, giving him a rundown of what’s transpired.
Johnson was among the many first to talk with Zelensky.
What Zelensky is actually saying to me is that the scenario is totally appalling. Tanks are swarming towards Kyiv from a number of instructions. He’s speaking about the best way the Ukrainians are combating. The bravery they’re exhibiting … His message is, ‘Give me help.’ His message is, ‘Give me the kit now.’ He has a goal. His goal isn’t just to say, ‘Oh, my God, I’m being attacked.’ His goal is to say, ‘Johnson, we need military help now. Help us organize it.’
Zelensky additionally spoke with President Biden. During a dialog between Andriy Yermak, head of the workplace of Ukrainian president, and Sullivan, Yermak requested Sullivan if he may put Zelensky on the road to talk with Biden. Biden described the decision throughout his go to to Kyiv to mark the first anniversary of the battle.
It was very late at evening in Washington. … Russian planes had been within the air. … And the world was about to alter. I bear in mind it vividly … I requested [Zelensky], ‘What is there, Mr. President? What can I do for you? How can I be of help?’ … [He] stated, and I quote, ‘Gather the leaders of the world. Ask them to support Ukraine.’ … That darkish evening, one 12 months in the past, the world was actually … bracing for the autumn of Kyiv … even perhaps the tip of Ukraine.
I’m struck by [Zelensky’s] full, his type of chic indifference to the suggestion that he may need to transfer his cupboard or his authorities to Lviv [in western Ukraine]. I’m saying to him no matter you do, don’t get taken out by the Russians. You are the resistance. Ukraine’s battle must coalesce round you. Is there something we are able to do [to assist in his protection or relocation], and he stated, ‘We’re wonderful, we simply want weapons.’
In Kyiv, Bruno Kahl, the top of Germany’s intelligence service, was in a downtown lodge. He’d recognized the chance of battle beginning when he flew to the Ukrainian capital the day past, he stated, so he had despatched his airplane again to Germany as quickly as he’d landed so it couldn’t be destroyed or seized by Russian forces.
Bruno Kahl, head of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND)
It wasn’t prefer it was a steady bombardment, so to talk, however a couple of bombs had gone off through the evening, a couple of bombs had fallen and in any other case it was comparatively quiet … And all of it appeared very, very calm, very collected. And I can nonetheless bear in mind the climate. It was a chilly, clear morning. I appear to do not forget that within the morning in Kyiv, I nonetheless had the impression that it smelled a bit like East Berlin simply earlier than reunification.
We realized that this is able to change Europe, that this was one of many darkest days in Europe’s fashionable historical past and would trigger a whole lot of struggling and demise … Just the sheer measurement of the invasion made it apparent that this was going to trigger a whole lot of struggling, demise, injury. So it was anger, but additionally disappointment — these are the 2 emotions that describe what I felt that morning.
William J. Burns, CIA director
You’re additionally seized with the human penalties of this, too. And the devastation that was being wrought by the Russians in Ukraine … I feel all of us understood that that is more likely to be a slog given Putin’s fixation on controlling Ukraine.
Mateusz Morawiecki, prime minister of Poland
I bear in mind very properly one second after I spoke to one in all my colleagues from the European Council, one of many different prime ministers with whom I spoke many occasions … He was very skeptical, not believing actually, that Russia could make a full-scale invasion. And I requested him, ‘Do you believe me now?’ and he answered, ‘Yes, fully.’ … So at the present time was a turning level within the historical past of the world, within the historical past of Europe, for positive. So there have been these hopes of, you understand, awakening from the geopolitical slumber.
Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian overseas minister, discovered the battle had began throughout a flight from New York to Istanbul after visiting Washington and the United Nations. Ukrainian airspace was closed, and he then flew from Istanbul to Warsaw so he may get again dwelling over land from Poland.
Dmytro Kuleba, Ukrainian overseas minister
There was a lady from Kyiv who was touring together with her husband … And in the course of the flight, she approached me … She sat down and stated, ‘Listen, we have three children with a babysitter in [Kyiv]. Me and my husband, we’re getting back from a enterprise journey in Turkey. Please give us some recommendation. Do we keep in Warsaw and organize for our youngsters and babysitter to get to Poland? Or will we go to Kyiv?’ And that was a second while you bear a whole lot of accountability in your shoulder as a minister. … When she left, it abruptly struck me how that is only a drop, what I skilled. It could be lower than a drop of the ache, struggling and tough choices that tens of millions of Ukrainians are going to undergo on this battle.
Kahl and a contingent of BND personnel left Kyiv and drove to the Polish border.
You seen the hardship individuals had been in, particularly … simply earlier than the border. That was probably the most emotionally intense half, the final 20 kilometers earlier than the border, the place you seen that folks had been afraid, all of them wished to get out, and nobody felt protected anymore. And individuals put up with nice materials disadvantages. They merely left their automobiles together with the highway and walked with the naked requirements. So that was very, very, very miserable.
We had been working all through the remainder of the night in getting the [U.N.] decision [condemning Russia] into closing type … We do all our work on WhatsApp … I used to be sending WhatsApp messages just about all by the night to varied members of the council, to my workers, to Washington and to the others as we began the method of placing the ultimate touches on this draft. We did get the draft carried out and we had been capable of get 82 international locations to co-sponsor … understanding, in fact, that the Russians had been going to veto it. We weren’t good with that … however what we wished to do was show that they had been remoted.
Washington continued to work into the evening.
I consider I went dwelling about 3 within the morning, through the day Ukraine time, principally to take a bathe, change and are available again.
I don’t suppose I slept very a lot … the joint workers, my workers is looking to present me frequent updates … We have a number of the greatest info, one of the best situational consciousness, and sharing info with allies and reassuring them is essential.
William J. Burns
Eventually [I slept]. It was extra the following morning than that evening.
At some level that first day, the president gathered us all collectively. There had been a whole lot of us in that bunker — possibly 120 individuals together with the safety guards. He stated, ‘Look, we’re staying. From tomorrow, it might be that we don’t have an opportunity to go away. Everyone has their very own life and must decide for themselves. Choose to both keep or go someplace safer.’ … The entire scenario felt like a dream, so I went to a different room and known as my spouse. I stated that we are able to make a selection proper now. … She answered me very clearly — possibly with some humor — that she’d fairly inform our youngsters that I used to be a hero as soon as than a deserter many occasions.
We had individuals mendacity within the corridors — there have been individuals in every single place, snipers, completely different individuals. We principally lived right here. We had no electrical energy, we walked with flashlights. And with these flashlights, we labored.
Vitali Klitschko, mayor of Kyiv
We had been making ready for road combating in Kyiv. Here [in city hall], we laid sandbags in opposition to the entire home windows. … There had been molotov cocktails protecting the yard.
Hanna Maliar, Ukrainian deputy protection minister
There was no espresso or something to assist hold us alert as a result of everybody was on this spirit of constructing fast choices. And they had been certainly taking place in a short time. No one slept … Those first hours, we requested what info to present individuals and [Lt. Gen. Yevhen] Moisiuk instructed me to inform everybody, ‘Kill the occupiers!’ And that was it.
I had an extended dialog with [Zelensky that day] … I drew him my imaginative and prescient of how the occasions would unfold. I instructed him … that nobody would assist us now. Because they don’t have any understanding of who we’re. And our process is to outlive the primary two or three weeks, to not break down and to repulse the enemy. Then there might be gradual assist. Then this assistance will improve, after which we could have companions with whom we’ll get an excellent victory. He listened to me very fastidiously and requested, ‘Do you think it will happen?’ I stated, ‘Volodymyr Oleksandrovych, there is no other way.’
Early that morning Washington time, Biden and his nationwide safety crew met within the White House Situation Room for a navy briefing.
It appears prefer it’s what we predicted. The principal effort pointing towards Kyiv. There’s one other giant scale effort that’s south of that … headed to the north and west, and in addition appears prefer it may wind up within the Kyiv space. That’s unfolding about like we thought it will. We’re simply attempting to get a really feel for the way a lot the Ukrainians have left when it comes to command and management; is the management in cost?
William J. Burns
We shortly started to see the tenaciousness of the Ukrainian resistance and the success they had been having … and the best way the Russian navy was starting to stumble … We started to see some issues that shocked us a bit bit.
Mark A. Milley
There had been so many conferences, and the ambiance and the atmospherics had been very comparable … It’s intense. Hectic just isn’t a phrase I’d use. It implies chaos and confusion, an absence of readability. I might say it’s very intense. The seriousness of the second was superior anyway … the most important land battle in Europe since 1945.
After the briefing, Biden met by video hyperlink with the Group of Seven and Stoltenberg.
It’s Joe [Biden] who is actually determinative. I do my shtick. I make my arguments that Putin should fail and Ukraine should succeed … Joe picks that up and makes use of the phrase or one thing prefer it. He genuinely noticed it very, very clearly. Putin had principally forfeited all proper to be handled as someone you would negotiate with. It was over and it was binary.
European Union leaders held an emergency assembly in Brussels. Zelensky spoke to them by video hyperlink.
I may see across the room that there have been individuals who had been so genuinely shocked, with their bodily being, that they couldn’t utter a phrase. And they had been like, ‘We were naive. We should have listened to you,’ all these issues … [Zelensky] was saying that ‘I’m on this room, and I don’t know if I’m going to be alive by this night.’ And he was like, saying goodbye and that ‘We are being bombed, are being hunted. They want to kill me. Probably they’ll get to me.’ And that was so, that was very, what’s the proper phrase. Touching is possibly too tender. That was actually going to your bones. … The connection was misplaced. And then it was like, ‘Is this it?’ I imply, very, very creepy.
There had been moments throughout at the present time, and specifically within the night, after I was very a lot anxious and afraid of Ukraine surrendering in a short time. I’ve to confess that I had these ideas in my thoughts whereas going to mattress … So I used to be stuffed with these darkish ideas … And I didn’t sleep very properly that evening.
Honestly, I’m pondering the entire thing is utter tragedy. I’m pondering what may we’ve got carried out to avert it. Is there one thing we missed, one thing we must always have carried out with Putin. I’m pondering again over all of the conversations I had with him. Did we present an excessive amount of weak point. But I’m additionally pondering principally that he’s completely misinterpret this and he’s made a large mistake. I feel just about from the get-go, even when he captures Kyiv, he’s not going to beat the spirit of the Ukrainians. And in the long run they’ll get him. That’s what I’m actually pondering. Kyiv remains to be standing. Zelensky remains to be there.