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Leaders, in their own words, recall first hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Fears about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions had been mounting for months, and by the day before the war began, alarms were sounding loudly in Kyiv and Western capitals.” class=”wpds-c-hcZlgz wpds-c-hcZlgz-bkfjoi-font-georgia wpds-c-hcZlgz-jDmrXh-width-mdCenter wpds-c-hcZlgz-iPJLV-css mw-md font–article-body font-copy ma-auto pl-sm pr-sm pb-lg”>Fears about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions had been mounting for months, and by the day before the war began, alarms were sounding loudly in Kyiv and Western capitals.

To report this story

Most of the interviews were conducted in the last month, but some, including with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, occurred over the summer. President Biden talked about the first day of the war during his visit to Kyiv. Multiple Russian military officials and lawmakers declined to be interviewed or did not respond to requests for interviews.

Interviews were conducted by Isabelle Khurshudyan and David L. Stern in Kyiv, Karen DeYoung, Shane Harris and Michael Birnbaum in Washington, Greg Miller in London, Emily Rauhala in Brussels and Souad Mekhennet in Berlin.

Kaja Kallas, prime minister of Estonia

Kaja Kallas, prime minister of Estonia

I said to my ministers, ‘Please keep your phones on, because we’re going to have a government meeting, because the war is going to start.’ And I was going to bed and hoping that I will not get this call, I will not get this message.

Boris Johnson, former British prime minister

Boris Johnson, former British prime minister

The chatter had been building up on the intelligence for a long time, and it had reached a crescendo on the last couple of days before the invasion, and we could literally hear the Russian units moving into position. We could tell … It’s a mixture of kind of incredulity really but also fatalism. There was just something about Putin’s tone the last time I’d talked to him … He’d already made up his mind.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general

That evening, we knew what was going to happen. The only uncertainty was the exact hour. I had a dinner with some of my staff in my residence. We discussed and went through the last preparations. And then, actually, I went to bed. But it was a short night.

Antony Blinken, secretary of state

Antony Blinken, secretary of state

As the invasion began, Putin appeared on Russian television to announce the beginning of what he called a “special military operation.” Johnson was awakened by a call from one of his advisers. The British prime minister responded with an obscenity directed at Putin: “That f—ing c—.”” class=”wpds-c-hcZlgz wpds-c-hcZlgz-bkfjoi-font-georgia wpds-c-hcZlgz-jDmrXh-width-mdCenter wpds-c-hcZlgz-iPJLV-css mw-md font–article-body font-copy ma-auto pl-sm pr-sm pb-lg”>As the invasion began, Putin appeared on Russian television to announce the beginning of what he called a “special military operation.” Johnson was awakened by a call from one of his advisers. The British prime minister responded with an obscenity directed at Putin: “That f—ing c—.”

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

I was disgusted by Putin. I was disgusted by what he was doing. I was nauseated by his language, by his lies, by his aggression, by his condescension toward Ukraine. I thought the whole thing was repellent, arrogant, chauvinistic, wrong.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations

In the middle of the meeting, people started looking at their cellphones and pointing. I got a text message from the Ukrainian ambassador, who was on the other side of the room, and he told me the attack had started. I looked around the room, I saw everybody on their phones. I think [Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya] only knew when he was shown a phone message by one of his staff. The room was kind of stunned. I use the word ‘electrified’ sometimes, but that’s not right. The room was stunned.