Across Europe, Ukrainian expatriates looked on in horror at the scenes of destruction back home, and expressed feelings of hopelessness.
LONDON — Ukrainians living across Europe watched in horror and disbelief from afar on Thursday as Russia’s invasion of their home country began with shelling and rocket attacks in several cities.
Many shared feelings of helplessness as they received frantic calls from loved ones back home describing attacks nearby, instructing them what to do if they were killed in the conflict, or sending requests to empty bank accounts.
At protests in London on Thursday, some wept. Some fingered prayer beads. And many said they were determined to raise their voices and demand greater action by the world to end Russian aggression.
Yulia Tomashckuk, 29, wore sunglasses to shield her tears as she clutched a small Ukrainian flag. A village that neighbors her hometown in western Ukraine had been attacked, she said, news that her mother relayed to her by phone before dawn Thursday.
“I just felt I was useless sitting at home watching the news — here at least I can show there are people who support Ukraine, who are against war and who want Putin to be shown his place,” she said. “He needs to be stopped now.”
The Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, was the focus of much of the outrage.
Chants of “Putin, hands off Ukraine” and “U.K. support Ukraine” echoed from the crowd of hundreds that gathered outside Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office at 10 Downing Street on Thursday.
Even before Russian strikes on Ukraine began, Britain and the European Union earlier this week announced targeted sanctions against Moscow. On Thursday, Mr. Johnson announced new actions from Britain and its allies that included asset freezes on major banks and individuals, a ban on the Russian airline Aeroflot, and a ban on many technology exports to Russia.
Those who gathered near his office waved Ukrainian flags and demanded more stringent sanctions and broader actions from the West in response to Russian military action.
“I’m shocked, probably like everyone, because my family is still in Ukraine,” said Mariya Tymchyshyn, 30, who took time off work to join the protests. “We were panicked as well: We don’t know what to do. No one can be ready for this.”
Ms. Tymchyshyn’s family lives in the western part of Ukraine, away from the most fierce attacks, but she was worried for her grandparents, who as survivors of World War II have already lived through intense fighting in Ukraine.
“It’s probably the hardest part for us,” she said. “I was trying to calm down my grandmother, but she remembers being a child at that time and a bomb killed her mother. I want peace for all of us.”
Inna Tereshchuk, 26, who has lived in Britain for eight years, said her family members “are all scared for their lives.”
She is trying to remain strong for them.
“We don’t know how long they will be alive, what Putin has on his mind,” she said. “The whole world knows about it, and no one is doing anything.”
She was joined at the protest by her friend Alina Clarke, 25, whose family lives near Kyiv. Ms. Clarke spoke with her father, who vowed to stand his ground, telling her that he was not going anywhere and planned “to stay until the end.”
“I hope that in every city and town all over the world Ukrainians are going to come out and show that we are not afraid of Putin, and we want him to take his hands off our country,” Ms. Clarke said. “Ukraine has every right to exist.”
A small group also gathered at the Russian Embassy in northwest London, where a number of protests have been held in recent days, but by Thursday morning they had taken on a more somber tone. Among the handful who stood outside the embassy were a number of Russians denouncing their government’s actions.
Tatiana Rudayak, 46, a Russian-British woman who held a blue sign with the words “Stop the War” painted on in bright yellow paint, was keen to have her voice heard.
“I am here because my country has started a war, and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t protest that,” she said. “I was fluctuating between despair and fury and this is the only thing I can do.”
Denis Zihiltsov, 34, who said he had not slept the night before, came to the embassy holding a sign in Russian that read, “I’m Russian and I demand you stop killing our brothers. Glory to Ukraine.”
“Its heartbreaking,” he said. “It’s killing people for nothing.”
The Belarus Free Theatre, one of Europe’s most acclaimed theater troupes, was rehearsing a play in an east London studio on Thursday, but all of its members were continually checking their phones for updates on the conflict.
Several of its members are Ukrainian and everyone knew someone trapped in the country.
Marichka Marczyk, at the rehearsals in London, said in a telephone interview that she’d just had a text exchange with her brother in Kyiv about what to do if he was killed in the conflict. “My will is simple,” he replied. “Burn my body/scatter the ashes,” adding: “All my riches to my kid.” Those riches include his honey bees.
Similar scenes played out in cities across Europe, where Ukrainian expatriates were grappling with the troubling news from their homeland. In Berlin’s Pariser Platz, hundreds of somber protesters wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags.
What is at the root of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has grown unnerved at Ukraine’s closeness with the West and the prospect that the country might join NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
Are these tensions just starting now? Antagonism between the two nations has been simmering since 2014, when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory, after an uprising in Ukraine replaced their Russia-friendly president with a pro-Western government. Then, Russia annexed Crimea and inspired a separatist movement in the east. A cease-fire was negotiated in 2015, but fighting has continued.
How did this invasion unfold? After amassing a military presence near the Ukrainian border for months, on Feb. 21, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia signed decrees recognizing two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. On Feb. 23, he declared the start of a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Several attacks on cities around the country have since unfolded.
What has Mr. Putin said about the attacks? Mr. Putin said he was acting after receiving a plea for assistance from the leaders of the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, citing the false accusation that Ukrainian forces had been carrying out ethnic cleansing there and arguing that the very idea of Ukrainian statehood was a fiction.
How has Ukraine responded? On Feb. 23, Ukraine declared a 30-day state of emergency as cyberattacks knocked out government institutions. Following the beginning of the attacks, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, declared martial law. The foreign minister called the attacks “a full-scale invasion” and called on the world to “stop Putin.”
How has the rest of the world reacted? The United States, the European Union and others have condemned Russia’s aggression and begun issuing economic sanctions against Russia. Germany announced on Feb. 23 that it would halt certification of a gas pipeline linking it with Russia. China refused to call the attack an “invasion,” but did call for dialogue.
How could this affect the economy? Russia controls vast global resources — natural gas, oil, wheat, palladium and nickel in particular — so the conflict could have far-reaching consequences, prompting spikes in energy and food prices and spooking investors. Global banks are also bracing for the effects of sanctions.
Lyudmyla Mlosch, 70, who runs an association for Ukrainians in Berlin, had been up since 5:30 a.m., trying to organize temporary shelter for friends, family and others who manage to leave the country. Her son and his family live in northwestern Ukraine and her grandson is studying at the university in Kyiv.
“My heart is broken in two,” Ms. Mlosch said.
She said: “I just feel helpless. When Putin says Ukraine belongs to Russia, I don’t understand how he could do such a thing to his brother and his sister.”
In Madrid, a small group of protesters, some in tears, gathered outside the Russian Embassy to demand an end to the invasion. They waved Ukrainian flags and shouted “terrorists.”
Nadiya Pshenychniak, a cleaner who has lived in Madrid for 20 years, said she was extremely worried for her family in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, including one daughter who recently had a kidney transplant. “This is, sadly, not such a big surprise,” she said, “because Russia has always wanted Ukraine and has a long history of doing horrible things to our people.”
Ms. Pshenychniak, 69, had plans to visit her family in the summer, but she now fears it may be some time before she sees them again.
Near the Russian Embassy in Rome, which was blocked off by the police, hundreds rallied.
“Only together can we win — we have to remain united,” said Oles Horodetskyy, the president of the Christian Association of Ukrainians in Italy, who helped organize the protest.
Mr. Horodetskyy said Ukrainian associations in Italy were organizing to “give as much help as possible,” and hoped to create a humanitarian corridor to send clothing and food to Ukraine. The details remain to be worked out.
“It’s only the first day,” Mr. Horodetskyy said with a sigh. “It’s complicated.”
Hundreds of Ukrainian expatriates living in France also protested in front of the massive, Soviet-style Russian Embassy in Paris, waving Ukrainian flags and singing patriotic songs.
“There’s so much emotion,” said Valeria Skubrii, a 25-year-old sommelier in Paris, as the crowd behind her burst into the Ukrainian national anthem.
Ms. Skubrii said her parents called at 4 a.m. from Odessa, where they live, and where Russian troops landed earlier in the day.
“My father this morning went to get some medicine — a blast near him was so strong that it threw him to the ground,” she said.
Oleksandra Chevtchenko, a member of a feminist protest group who fled Ukraine in 2013, said in a telephone interview from Paris that the invasion was “unbelievable.”
“My mind is kind of frozen,” she said. “I don’t know what to do, what to feel.”
Reporting was contributed by Raphael Minder from Madrid, Alex Marshall from London, Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome, Gaia Pianigiani in Siena, Italy, Christopher F. Schuetze from Frankfurt and Constant Méheut from Paris.