The advance, part of a multipronged Russian assault against Ukraine, risked damaging the cement-encased nuclear reactor that melted down in 1986.

On Day 1 of the first major land war in Europe in decades, the Russian military plunged into Ukraine by land, sea and air, killing dozens of Ukrainian soldiers, and ominously touching off a pitched battle at the highly radioactive Chernobyl exclusion zone that risked damaging the cement-encased nuclear reactor that melted down in 1986, the New York Times reports.

The day began before sunrise with the terrifying thud of artillery strikes on airports and military installations all over Ukraine. And by sunset, Russian special forces and airborne troops were pushing into the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv. While the ultimate goal of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and his generals remained unclear, American officials assessed that the end game was likely the decapitation of Ukraine’s government and the replacement of its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, with a Russian-controlled puppet regime.

As of early evening Thursday, Mr. Zelensky remained in place as commander in chief, and Ukrainian forces, which officials said shot down several Russian jets and a helicopter, were engaged in fierce battles all along a broad front line to maintain control over their country.

It was in the toxic marshes of the Chernobyl exclusion zone in northern Ukraine that one of the most dangerous battles was playing out.

“National Guard troops responsible for protecting the storage unit for dangerous radioactive waste are putting up fierce resistance,” said Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to the interior minister. Should an artillery shell hit the storage unit, Mr. Herashchenko said, “radioactive dust could cover the territory of Ukraine, Belarus and the countries of the European Union.”

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