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Looking back at the chaos of the 1st day of Russia's war on Ukraine

One year of war in Ukraine
A year of war in Ukraine: Revisiting day one of Russia's invasion 03:30

Kyiv — The war raging in Ukraine began when Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion exactly one year ago tonight, U.S. time. It's believed that Russia's political and military leaders — along with many international observers — expected the war to end within weeks, possibly even days.

Instead, Ukraine held on and fought back.

But that morning on the far eastern edge of democratic Europe, the lives of millions of Ukrainians changed forever. We were on the balcony of our safehouse in Kyiv at about 5 a.m. local time when Putin announced the start of what he still refuses to call anything but a "special military operation."

Moments later, thunderous explosions echoed throughout the capital and other cities across Ukraine. The biggest military invasion seen in Europe since World War II was underway.

Russia launches attacks on eastern Ukraine as invasion begins 01:35

Despite repeated warnings from the West that Putin was massing hundreds of thousands of forces near his western borders for exactly such an assault, a full-scale invasion was unthinkable at the time for the average Ukrainian.

The Mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, recalled setting his alarm for 3 a.m. the night before. He told CBS News that Ukrainian officials had information suggesting the invasion would start an hour after that.

"I received a call from military forces, from my friends," he recalled. "The invasion started."

Smoke rises from near the Ukrainian Defense Ministry's intelligence unit, after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched military strikes across Ukraine, in Kyiv, February 24, 2022. VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS

Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, knew it was coming, too.

"I left the office for home, because I understood it was going to start soon," he told us. "We couldn't tell anyone. My wife was very upset at me for not warning her that the war was about to start."

He showed us official government data charting the first wave of the invasion; the Russians were launching airstrikes across the country, and ground offensives on multiple fronts.

As Russian paratroopers landed at the Hostomel Air Field on the outskirts of Kyiv, U.S. intelligence officials predicted the capital itself would fall within 96 hours.

Civilians flee eastern Ukraine amid concerns Russia is preparing new offensive 03:11

The main offensive was expected to come from the east, right across Russia's border with Ukraine and through the industrial heartland of the Donbas region. But the assault was less focused than that – less well orchestrated by Russia, according to Ukraine's defense chief.

"We understood that it would be a battle for the Donbas," Minister of Defense Oleksii Resnikov told CBS News. "But they started everywhere, without striking formation. That's why they lose."
Ukrainians have criticized their government leaders for not warning the public that the invasion was imminent. Reznikov said it wasn't an oversight, but a defense strategy.

"We were prepared. But we tried to stop the panic in our streets," he said. If Ukraine's population knew that hundreds of thousands of Russian troops were about to pour over their borders, in other words, they might have tried to flee across those borders themselves, and that could have presented an "obstacle for our armed forces to move quickly."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is seen on a street in Kyiv, Ukraine, soon after the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of his country, March 8, 2022. Ukrainian Presidency/Handout

On the streets of Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made it clear he was staying put, going for a defiant walk — with cameras rolling — with members of his cabinet in the heart of the capital.

Rather than flee, he urged Ukrainian citizens to take up arms to defend their country. And they did, by the thousands.

Ukraine's government raced to distribute weapons to civilians who barely knew how to use them. Hastily erected barricades and checkpoints sprung up everywhere, manned by jittery volunteers with guns drawn.

Volunteers, one holding an AK-47 rifle, protect a main road leading into Kyiv on February 25, 2022. DANIEL LEAL/AFP/Getty

It was a chaotic beginning of a war that still rages.

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