Kyiv: The Russian troops are in the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital Kiev, though their exact number and location is not known.
The troops arrived from the north-west, having wrested control of Chernobyl late Thursday. More troops and armour are advancing on the capital from the east, having bypassed a pocket of heavy Ukrainian resistance.
Once Kyiv is surrounded, US intelligence believes the plan will be to move in and seize an airport which would then be used to fly in a much larger force of up to 10,000 paratroopers who would assault the capital.
The paratroopers would flush out the Ukrainian President, his ministers, and parliamentarians, before forcing them to sign a peace deal handing control of the country back to Russia or a Moscow-backed puppet regime. This would effectively end the war without Putin's ground forces needing to complete the difficult and bloody task of seizing and occupying the whole country.
The Ukrainian officials have asked residents to stay indoors and “prepare Molotov cocktails” to defend against advancing forces. Rifles were also handed out to civilians as sound of explosions and gunfire was reported in several areas.
Ukraine's desperate president, meanwhile, pleaded for international help to fend off the attack that could topple his democratically elected government and cause massive casualties.
Elsewhere in the capital, soldiers established defensive positions at bridges, and armoured vehicles rolled down the streets, while many residents stood uneasily in doorways of their apartment buildings.
The assault, anticipated for weeks by the US and Western allies, amounts to the largest ground war in Europe since World War II.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose grasp on power was increasingly tenuous, appealed to global leaders for even more severe sanctions. “If you don't help us now, if you fail to offer a powerful assistance to Ukraine, tomorrow the war will knock on your door,” said the leader.
Zelenskyy said he's the No. 1 target of the invading Russians but that he planned to remain in Kyiv. Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said early Friday that the Ukrainian attended a meeting of European Union leaders via video link from what appeared to be some sort of bunker.
As air raids sirens sounded in the capital early Friday, guests of a hotel in the city centre were directed to a makeshift basement shelter, lined with piles of mattresses and bottles of water. Workers, all local university students, served tea and cookies to the guests. Some people ducked out to a courtyard to smoke or get fresh air.
“We're all scared and worried. We don't know what's going to happen in a few days,” said one of the workers, Lucy Vashaka, 20.
Zelenskyy said that 137 “heroes,” including 10 military officers, had been killed, and one of his advisers said about 400 Russian forces had died. Moscow has given no casualty count. Neither claim could be independently verified.
Fearing a Russian attack on the capital city, thousands of people went deep underground as night fell, jamming Kyiv's subway stations.
At times it felt almost cheerful. Families ate dinner. Children played. Adults chatted. People brought sleeping bags or dogs or crossword puzzles — anything to alleviate the waiting and the long night ahead.
“Nobody believed that this war would start and that they would take Kyiv directly,” said Anton Mironov, waiting out the night in one of the old Soviet metro stations. “I feel mostly fatigue. None of it feels real.”
Many, who spent the night in makeshift bunkers, emerged in the early hours of Friday to a relatively quiet city. Some traffic and cars moved along highways, along with columns of military. The lines at fuel stations the day before had evaporated.
With social media amplifying a torrent of military claims and counter-claims, it was difficult to determine exactly what was happening on the ground.
Russia said it was not targeting cities, but journalists saw destruction in many civilian areas and Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko said a rocket hit a multi-story apartment building in the city on Friday, starting a fire. Meanwhile, the mayor of the city in the rebel-controlled east said Ukrainian shelling had hit a school building.
“The hardest day will be today. The enemy's plan is to break through with tank columns from the side of Ivankiv and Chernihiv to Kyiv,” Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko said on Telegram.