Russia intends to decapitate Ukrainian government, says senior US defense official

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The Pentagon is warning that the Russian invasion is aimed at decapitating the Ukrainian government in Kiev, according to a senior US defense official.

Russian forces are in the initial phase of their invasion of Ukraine and were attacking through three corridors, the official said in a report released Thursday by the Defense Ministry.

There was fighting within 20 miles of the center of the Ukrainian capital Kiev and fighting around Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city near the border with Russia to the east.

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Explosions could be heard in Kyiv early Friday local time as reports indicated Russian troops were closing in on the city.

Russian forces also attacked from the Black Sea peninsula in Crimea, southern Ukraine, which Russia illegally seized in 2014. The Pentagon report said these three “axes” were designed to take key population centers.

A woman walks past debris following Russian shelling, in Mariupol, Ukraine, Thursday, February 24, 2022.
((AP Photo/Evgeny Maloletka))

“It is our assessment that [Russian forces] have every intention of decapitating the government and installing their own method of governance, which would explain these first steps towards Kyiv,” the official said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Friday morning that Russia had designated him “target number one” and that his family was number two in its continued attack on the country.

The invasion of Russia – from sea, air and land – began with a missile barrage of around 100 intermediate-range, short-range and cruise missiles, the official said.

Russia used around 75 fixed-wing, heavy and medium bombers in its assault which mainly targeted military bases and air defense nodes. After these attacks, Russian ground forces entered Ukraine.

The official had no casualty estimate, but Zelenskyy said in a video address Thursday that at least 137 Ukrainians were killed and over 300 were injured during the first day of the invasion. Among the dead were all the border guards on the island of Zmiinyi, located in the Black Sea, which the Russians took control of.

In these images from February 24, 2022, videos, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks in Moscow and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks in Kyiv.

In these images from February 24, 2022, videos, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks in Moscow and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks in Kyiv.
((Russian Presidential Press Service and Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP))

Russian forces also took control of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant after a fierce battle, presidential adviser Myhailo Podolyak told The Associated Press.

But Ukrainian forces continue to resist the invasion and are fighting back against superior Russian firepower, the official said, without giving details. During his address, an emotional Zelenskyy said that the fate of Ukraine depended “entirely on our army, our security forces, all our defenders”.

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Fearing an attack in the capital Kiev, thousands went into hiding and blocked metro stations.

People rest in the Kiev metro, using it as a bomb shelter in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, February 24, 2022.

People rest in the Kiev metro, using it as a bomb shelter in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, February 24, 2022.
((AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti))

Other Ukrainians fled their homeland, and the official said there were increasing numbers of people crossing Ukraine’s borders into Western countries.

Traffic jams are seen as people leave the city of Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, February 24, 2022.

Traffic jams are seen as people leave the city of Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, February 24, 2022.
((AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti))

According to the Pentagon report, the official also gave details of US forces being moved to NATO’s eastern flank to “reassure frontline states.”

The official said six F-35 Lightning 2 Joint Strike Fighters will arrive in Estonia, Lithuania and Romania today. Apache helicopters deployed from Germany and Greece to the Baltic republics and Poland were expected to arrive shortly after encountering weather-related problems.

On Friday, Biden said the United States and its NATO allies would meet to “plan” how they will counter Moscow.

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As for Putin, the official said the Russian president decided to invade Ukraine despite having other diplomatic options. Putin also bears responsibility for the unprovoked attack and the deaths resulting from his actions, the official added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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