Exclusive: Russia Bombers Poised to Take Off, Special Forces in Ukraine, Sources Say

Russian strategic bombers loaded with weapons have been readied for flight from within Russia and Russian special forces have entered Ukraine as Kyiv braced for what it feared to be the first wave of a full-scale invasion, U.S. intelligence officials told Newsweek.

One U.S. intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Russian Tupolev Tu-95-model bombers active on high-frequency communications were being armed and readied to take off immediately. While the U.S. intelligence official said the pilots were operating on 8.131 Kz, the exact airfield could not be determined.

A second U.S. intelligence official said that Russian Spetsnaz special forces units were operational in the country.

Newsweek received the information just as Russian President Vladimir Putin announced late Wednesday, early Thursday local time, a "special military operation" to "demilitarize" Ukraine, which he has accused of seeking nuclear weapons both of its own and of the U.S.-led NATO military alliance that Kyiv has set out to join in spite of Moscow's protests.

While Putin said Russia's "plans do not include the occupation of Ukrainian territories and that he was "not going to impose anything on anyone by force," he also called on Ukrainian troops to lay down their arms and disobey orders from Kyiv in order to avoid the conflict. He warned foreign powers from intervening as well.

"Whoever tries to interfere with us, and even more so to create threats for our country, for our people, should know that Russia's response will be immediate and will lead to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history," Putin warned. "We are ready for any development of events, all the necessary decisions in this regard have been made. I hope that I will be heard."

Ukraine has repeatedly denied that it poses any threat to Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Wednesday he attempted to call his Russian counterpart in a final bid to avoid conflict but received no response.

Shortly after Newsweek's report, reports emerged of explosions heard in Ukraine's capital of Kyiv, the Black Sea city of Odesa and the northeastern city of Kharkiv.

"Putin has just launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted. "Peaceful Ukrainian cities are under strikes. This is a war of aggression. Ukraine will defend itself and will win. The world can and must stop Putin. The time to act is now."

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry also braced for a Russian invasion.

"The invasion of Russian troops into the territory of Ukraine has begun!" the ministry said in a statement. "Missiles have just struck at the center of the military administration, airfields, military depots, in Kyiv, Kharkiv and the Dnieper. There is artillery shelling of the border. Protect your land!"

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry also later issued an assessment of the situation in greater detail.

"The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation began intense shelling of our units in the east, and also launched rocket and bomb attacks on airfields in Boryspil, Ozernoye, Kulbakin, Chuguev, Kramatorsk, Chornobayevka, as well as on military facilities of Ukraine," the statement said. "At the same time, the aggressor began artillery shelling of the territory and settlements of Ukraine along the state border."

"The Air Force of the Armed Forces of Ukraine is repelling an air attack by the invader.

"The state defense forces are in full combat readiness, have taken and are holding defensive positions," it added. "The situation is under control."

Russia, strategic, bomber
A Russian long-range Tu-95MS strategic bomber conducts a flight on February 21. Russian Ministry of Defense

The latest developments came after the Russian leader offered recognition Monday to the separatist self-proclaimed People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, which declared independence after a 2014 uprising in Kyiv that brought to power a pro-West government. Earlier Wednesday, the two breakaway states appealed to Moscow for military support, to which Putin has agreed.

U.S. officials have long warned that Russia may conduct military operations against Ukraine at any time amid an unprecedented military buildup near Ukraine's borders.

The latest developments followed Newsweek's reporting earlier Wednesday of a U.S. warning to Zelenskyy that a full-scale Russian invasion was expected within the next 48 hours, involving the likely use of airstrikes, cruise missiles, ground forces and cyber attacks, which already began to bring key Ukrainian state institutions offline on Wednesday.

U.S. President Joe Biden issued a statement as reports of hostilities emerged.

"The prayers of the entire world are with the people of Ukraine tonight as they suffer an unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces," Biden said.

"President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering," he added. "Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its Allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way. The world will hold Russia accountable."

Biden said he would "be monitoring the situation from the White House this evening and will continue to get regular updates from my national security team." He also said he would meet Thursday with counterparts of the G7, which also includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom, and would deliver a speech outlining "further consequences the United States and our Allies and partners will impose on Russia for this needless act of aggression against Ukraine and global peace and security."

"We will also coordinate with our NATO Allies to ensure a strong, united response that deters any aggression against the Alliance," Biden added. "Tonight, Jill and I are praying for the brave and proud people of Ukraine."

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki had reiterated during a press conference earlier Wednesday that "the president has no intention of sending U.S. military or U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine" but the Biden administration has vowed "swift and severe" sanctions against Moscow, some of which were already unveiled against officials, businessmen and their families after Putin ordered the deployment of soldiers he termed "peacekeepers" to Donbas.

This is a developing news story. More information will be added as it becomes available.