(Anadolu photo)

MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a special military operation early Thursday in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

In a televised address, Putin said the people of Donbas turned to Russia for help, according to Russian news agency TASS.

“In this regard...I decided to conduct a special military operation,” he added.

Putin said the aim of the operation “is to protect people who for eight years have been suffering persecution and genocide by the Kyiv regime.”

“We will strive for the cleansing of Ukraine from Nazism and militarism, as well as bringing to justice those who committed a large number of bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation” he added.

Following Putin’s announcement, large explosions were reported in Ukraine's capital Kyiv and the city of Kramatorsk.

Earlier, separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine had sought Putin’s help in repelling aggression from the Ukrainian army, the Kremlin announced late Wednesday.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the leaders of Ukraine's breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk wrote a letter to Putin asking for assistance.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had said he believed that Russia could launch an invasion of Ukraine before the night is over.

Putin announced Monday that Moscow was recognizing the two eastern Ukrainian breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as “independent” states, followed quickly by sending forces to “maintain peace” there.

The announcement drew widespread global condemnation as violations of the UN Charter and international law, with Western countries announcing new sanctions on Russia.

In 2014, after invading Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, Moscow began to support separatist forces in eastern Ukraine against the central government, a policy that it has maintained since then. The conflict has taken more than 13,000 lives, according to the UN.

Putin's latest moves follow Russia’s amassing of 100,000 troops and heavy equipment in and around its neighbor, with the US and other Western countries accusing it of setting the stage for an invasion.

Russia denied that it was preparing for an invasion and instead claimed that the West has undermined its security through NATO’s expansion toward its borders. (Anadolu)