Russian President Vladimir Putin authorised a military operation in eastern Ukraine on Thursday in what appeared to be the start of war in Europe over Russia’s demands for an end to NATO’s eastward expansion. Shortly after Putin spoke in a special televised address on Russian state TV, explosions could be heard in the pre-dawn quiet of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Gunfire rattled near the capital’s main airport, the Interfax news agency said. Explosions also rocked the breakaway eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk and civilian aircraft were warned away as the United States said a major attack by Russia on its neighbour was imminent. Putin said he had authorised a special military operation in breakaway areas of eastern Ukraine and clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces were only a matter of time. Hours earlier, pro-Russian separatists issued a plea to Moscow for help to stop alleged Ukrainian aggression – claims the United States dismissed as Russian propaganda. Putin said he had ordered Russian forces to protect the people and demanded Ukrainian forces lay down their arms. “All responsibility for bloodshed will be on the conscience of the ruling regime in Ukraine,” Putin said.