June 20, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Helen Regan, Andrew Raine, Amy Woodyatt, Sana Noor Haq and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 12:00 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022
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7:27 a.m. ET, June 20, 2022

Kremlin says Lithuania's ban on sanctioned goods passing through Russian exclave is "illegal"

From CNN’s Anna Chernova

Anton Alikhanov, governor of the Kaliningrad region, at the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 17.
Anton Alikhanov, governor of the Kaliningrad region, at the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 17. (Gleb Schelkunov/Kommersant/Sipa USA/AP)

Lithuania's decision to ban the transit of sanctioned materials to Russia through the Kaliningrad region -- Russia’s exclave in the European Union -- is "unprecedented" and Russia considers it "illegal," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

This decision is truly unprecedented. This is a violation of everything,” Peskov told reporters during a regular conference call on Monday.

“We also consider it illegal," Peskov said, adding that the Kremlin will need to analyze the situation carefully. “It is part of a blockade, of course,” he said.

Lithuanian Railways, the state-owned railway company, had notified Russia that starting midnight on June 18, transit trains with goods subject to EU sanctions would no longer be allowed to pass through, the governor of the Kaliningrad region Anton Alikhanov said on his telegram channel Friday.

The list of the banned goods includes construction material, cement, metals and "a number of other goods important both for construction and for production," according to Alikhanov.

Some background: Lithuania's decision is the latest by an EU member state to sanction Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in February.

At the end of May, the European Union agreed to ban 90 percent of Russia oil imports by the end of the year, alongside other measures, European Council leaders said at the time.

“Agreement to ban export of Russian oil to the EU. This immediately covers more than 2/3 of oil imports from Russia, cutting a huge source of financing for its war machine,” Michel announced in a tweet.

Meanwhile in the United States, the White House announced another round of sanctions targeting Russian government officials and elites close to Russian President Vladimir Putin with a series of new financial and diplomatic sanctions at the start of June.

The White House said in a statement that the latest sanctions are designed “to crack down on evasion and tighten our sanctions to enhance enforcement and increase pressure on Putin and his enablers.”

CNN's Niamh Kennedy, Jeremy Diamond, Betsy Klein and Kate Sullivan contributed reporting to this post.

6:50 a.m. ET, June 20, 2022

Russian-born tennis player Natela Dzalamidze changes nationality to avoid Wimbledon ban

From CNN's Matias Grez in London

Natela Dzalamidze pictured during the semi-final match of the TEB BNP Paribas Tennis Championship Istanbul women's clay court tournament at the TTF Istanbul Tennis Center in Istanbul, Turkey, on April 23.
Natela Dzalamidze pictured during the semi-final match of the TEB BNP Paribas Tennis Championship Istanbul women's clay court tournament at the TTF Istanbul Tennis Center in Istanbul, Turkey, on April 23. (Onur Ãoban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Russian-born tennis player Natela Dzalamidze has changed her nationality to Georgian to avoid the ban Wimbledon imposed on all Russian players following the country's invasion of Ukraine.

The doubles specialist, ranked No. 43 in the world, is now officially listed as having Georgian nationality on the WTA website and is eligible to compete with doubles partner Aleksandra Krunić of Serbia when Wimbledon gets underway on June 27.

After Wimbledon announced the ban on all Russian and Belarusian athletes back in April, the ATP and WTA responded by removing all rankings points that players would have otherwise earned for their performance at the All England Club.

Some of tennis' biggest stars, including men's world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev and women's world No. 6 Aryna Sabalenka, will not be competing at SW19.

In a statement published by The Times, a Wimbledon spokesperson said they were unable to stop Dzalamidze, who competed under the neutral flag at the French Open, from changing her nationality.

Read the full story here.

6:22 a.m. ET, June 20, 2022

Western leaders say Ukraine needs continued support

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a press conference ahead of a NATO Defence ministers' meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on June 15.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a press conference ahead of a NATO Defence ministers' meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on June 15. (Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

As Russia's war in Ukraine rages on, Western leaders have made clear that the country, and the rest of the world, must brace itself for the long haul.

Who said what?

In separate comments published Sunday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated that Western governments must continue to support Ukraine to deter future aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Stoltenberg told the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag that nobody knew how long the conflict would last but "we need to prepare for the fact that it could take years."

"We must not cease to support Ukraine. Even if the costs are high, not only for military support, but also because of rising energy and food prices."

Johnson, writing in the Sunday Times after his second visit to Kyiv on Friday, said Western allies must "steel ourselves for a long war, as Putin resorts to a campaign of attrition, trying to grind down Ukraine by sheer brutality."

Volodymyr Zelensky and Boris Johnson walk on Mykhailivs'ka Square, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on June 17.
Volodymyr Zelensky and Boris Johnson walk on Mykhailivs'ka Square, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on June 17. (Ukrainian Presidency/ABACA/Reuters)

Both men stressed the need to avert future Russian aggression.

Stoltenberg said: "If Putin learns the lesson from this war that he can just carry on as he did after the Georgia war in 2008 and the occupation of Crimea in 2014, then we will pay a much higher price."

Johnson asked what would happen if President Putin was free to keep all the areas of Ukraine now controlled by Russian forces. "What if no one was willing to lift a finger as he annexed this conquered territory and its fearful people into a greater Russia? Would this bring peace?"

The British Prime Minister added that through firm long-term support for Ukraine, "we and our allies will be protecting our own security as much as Ukraine's and safeguarding the world from the lethal dreams of Putin and those who might seek to copy them."

Johnson wrote: "Time is the vital factor. Everything will depend on whether Ukraine can strengthen its ability to defend its soil faster than Russia can renew its capacity to attack. Our task is to enlist time on Ukraine's side."

Read the full story here.

9:22 a.m. ET, June 20, 2022

Russian blockade of Ukrainian grain is a "real war crime" says EU's foreign policy chief

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell talks to the press during a Foreign Affairs Council meeting at the EU Council building in Luxembourg on June 20.
High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell talks to the press during a Foreign Affairs Council meeting at the EU Council building in Luxembourg on June 20. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has called the Russian blockade of Ukrainian grain exports a "real war crime," adding that the bloc's sanctions on Russia have played no part in the global food crisis.

Speaking to journalists on his way to a EU Foreign Affairs Ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said that "it's not the European sanctions" that are "creating this crisis."

Some background: Russia's war in Ukraine could push up to 49 million people into famine or famine-like conditions because of its devastating impact on global food supply and prices, the United Nations has said. Countries are scrambling to find a way around the blockade, and the US National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby has said that Russian President Vladimir Putin “absolutely has weaponized food” by blockading grain exports out of Ukraine.

A Russian soldier guards a pier with the grain storage in the background at an area of the Mariupol Sea Port, eastern Ukraine, on June 12.
A Russian soldier guards a pier with the grain storage in the background at an area of the Mariupol Sea Port, eastern Ukraine, on June 12. (AP)

Borrell's remarks comes after Putin said that Russia's actions in Ukraine are not responsible for the global food crisis and accused the United States of driving up food prices in his speech to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on Friday.

“Famine in the poorest countries will be on the conscience of the US administration and the Eurocrats,” he said.

Minister hits back at Putin's remarks: Borrell countered these claims Monday, saying that the "the problem comes from the Russian blockade of Ukrainian grain." Countries who want to buy Russian fertilizers are free to so, Borrell said, reiterating that the bloc's sanctions do not target food or fertilizers.

One cannot imagine that millions of tons of wheat remain blocked in Ukraine while in the rest of the world people are suffering hunger. This is a real war crime," Borrell said.

He added that he didn't see the food crisis lasting "much longer," expressing his hope that the UN "reaches an agreement" with Russia soon to unblock Ukrainian grain exports.

7:15 a.m. ET, June 20, 2022

Shelling around Kharkiv increased overnight without incursions by Russian forces, Ukrainian officials say

From CNN's Denis Lapin in Kyiv, and Sarah Sirgany and Sam Kiley in Kharkiv

A Russian ballistic missile is reported to have hit the Saltiv streetcar depot in Kharkiv, northern Ukraine, on June 18.
A Russian ballistic missile is reported to have hit the Saltiv streetcar depot in Kharkiv, northern Ukraine, on June 18. (Vyacheslav Madiyevskyi/Ukrinform/ABACA/Reuters)

Russian forces have stepped up the shelling of areas on the outskirts of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, but its ground forces did not make any attempts at breaking the defensive lines, Ukranian officials said. 

Shelling intensified in the past 24 hours, "in particular in the northernmost regions," according to Oleg Sinegubov, the head of the Kharkiv regional military administration and the Ukrainian president's office.

No fatalities had been reported but some people had been injured, Sinegubov added.

"On the line of contact in the Kharkiv region, the enemy is mainly focused on defense," Sinegubov said. "Our defenders hold their positions firmly."

A CNN team in Kharkiv city heard several explosions Sunday night and Monday morning but noted it there was only a slight increase in the level of activity. 

Some background: As the battle for control of the northeastern city escalates, Amnesty International has accused Russia of war crimes in Kharkiv.

In a 40-page report published last week, the human rights group documented the alleged use of cluster munitions and other indiscriminate means of artillery.

The report came days after two American volunteers fighting for Ukraine -- who have since been taken into detention by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk -- went missing on June 9 during a battle north of Kharkiv.

US citizens Alexander John-Robert Drueke, 39, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, from Hartselle, Alabama, were interviewed by Russia's RT channel at an internment center in the so-called Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) on Friday after being captured last week, according to a report published by RT.

On Friday, short video clips surfaced on pro-Russian channels and social media appearing to show the men detained at an unknown location. At the time it was not clear who was holding them.

Separately, a more than 50-minute edited video was published on Saturday of Drueke and Huynh being interviewed by HelmCast, a pro-Russian Serbian nationalist YouTube channel.

The DPR did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the detention of Drueke and Huynh.

CNN is choosing not to broadcast the videos of US detainees because they show the men speaking under duress.

4:52 a.m. ET, June 20, 2022

Russia has taken town on outskirts of key city of Severodonetsk, Ukrainian officials say

From CNN's Denis Lapin in Kyiv

Russian forces have been able to seize the town of Metelkine, to the east of the strategic city of Severodonetsk, according to a regional official on Monday.

"Unfortunately, we do not currently control Metelkine near the regional center," said Serhiy Hayday, the head of the Luhansk Regional Military administration.

Russian forces have intensified their use of artillery and air strikes to target Ukrainian positions in and around Severodonetsk as the battle for the strategic city continues to drag on, Hayday added.

"They are working hard on the Severodonetsk industrial zone and the outskirts of the city," Hayday said. "The same is true in the Toshkivka and Ustynivka districts."

"(They) want to make a breakthrough there, and for this purpose they have gathered a large amount of equipment there," he added. "Fighting is taking place in many villages around Severodonetsk and Lysychansk."

Some background: Severodonetsk lies in the heart of Donbas, a large industrial region in eastern Ukraine that has been the site of sporadic fighting since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists took control of two territories there -- the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.

Last week, Hayday said that Russian forces control most of Severodonetsk, adding that the "situation remains difficult."

His remarks came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the fight for the city may determine the outcome of the war in the east of the country.

“Severodonetsk remains the epicenter of the confrontation in Donbas,” Zelensky said at the time.

“This is a very fierce battle, very difficult … Probably one of the most difficult throughout this war,” he added. “In many ways, the fate of our Donbas is being decided there.”

8:09 a.m. ET, June 20, 2022

Key things to know about Ukraine's bid to join the EU 

Analysis from CNN's Luke McGee

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives a press conference on the EU membership applications by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on June 17.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives a press conference on the EU membership applications by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on June 17. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

The European Union Commission said Friday that Ukraine should be considered a candidate state. It is now up to the 27 EU member states to decide whether or not they agree.

Here are key things to know about Ukraine's bid to join the EU:

What is the process for becoming a part of the EU? On paper, the process is relatively straightforward. A country applies and the commission gives a verdict on whether or not it should be considered for candidacy.

As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made clear on Friday, Ukraine will still have to meet a series of criteria before proper accession negotiations can begin, even if the EU 27 agree to accept its candidate status this week.

Then, when the leaders of the EU member states have agreed, it must then be ratified in the EU Parliament and by the legislative branches of each member state's government.

How do EU countries feel about Ukraine joining the EU? This is where it starts to get complicated. While the EU and its 27 members have broadly supported Ukraine in its war effort, having a country that's currently at war start the accession process raises all sorts of issues.

There are a number of candidate states that have been in the accession process for years, and have in some cases had their accession slowed down because of domestic political instability. One example of this is Turkey, whose application has been essentially frozen following fears over a backslide over the rule of law and human rights.

How long would it take? It really depends on what state Ukraine is in when the war ends. It seems highly unlikely that Ukraine will be anywhere near meeting the criteria to even start negotiations for a significant period of time after the end of the war. Aside from rebuilding, Ukraine will have to make the transition from a country operating under various degrees of martial law and curfews to a functioning democracy.

The average time for a country to join the EU is four years and 10 months, according to the London think tank UK in a Changing Europe.

Read more about Ukraine's bid here.

2:00 a.m. ET, June 20, 2022

It's 9 a.m. in Kyiv. Here's what you need to know

Two American volunteers fighting for Ukraine were taken into detention by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk after being captured last week, according to Russian state media.

Here are the latest headlines on the war in Ukraine:

  • Missing Americans in Donetsk: Alexander John-Robert Drueke and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh were interviewed by Russia’s RT channel at a detention center in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) on Friday, according to a report on RT. The location of their detention is a potentially concerning development. Russia has a moratorium on the death penalty, whereas Donetsk uses firing squads to execute condemned prisoners, according to Russian state media RIA Novosti.
  • Prepare for a long war: The West must prepare for a long war in Ukraine as Russia makes incremental gains in a furious battle to control the country's east, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have both said. Stoltenberg and Johnson reiterated that Western governments must continue to support Ukraine to deter future aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The NATO chief said no one knows how long the conflict will last but "we need to prepare for the fact that it could take years."
  • Zelensky: Russian hostility will intensify: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine should expect "greater hostile activity" from Russia as the European Union considers whether the country should be formally considered for candidate status in the wake of Russia’s invasion. Zelensky said Monday marks the start of a "truly historic week" as leaders of the EU's 27 member states will meet this week to discuss the process.
  • Destruction in Lyman: New video of the moment Russian forces took control of Lyman in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region last month surfaced on social media on Sunday. The bodycam video — filmed by a soldier called "Rusak" on May 25 — shows the incredible devastation all around the city as Russian troops move past destroyed buildings and down empty streets. On May 30, the office of the President of Ukraine said in a statement that Lyman had been occupied.
  • Azov Regiment commanders transferred: The deputy commander of Ukraine's Azov Regiment, Svyatoslav Palamar (nicknamed Kalina) and the commander of the 36th Marine Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Serhiy Volynsky (nicknamed Volyna) were transferred to Russian territory for so called "investigative actions," Russia’s state-run news agency TASS reported, citing a source in Russian law enforcement. The commanders, who surrendered during the battle for Mariupol, are in the Lefortovo pre-trial detention center in Moscow, TASS said.
  • UK offers 'major training program': The United Kingdom has offered Ukrainian military forces to take part in a “major training program” that would “fundamentally change the equation of the war,” Downing Street announced Friday in a statement amid Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to Kyiv. According to Downing Street, the program has the potential to train up to 10,000 soldiers every 120 days.

2:35 a.m. ET, June 20, 2022

Captured American fighters purportedly held by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk, one says he was beaten

From CNN's Jonny Hallam

Captured US citizens Alexander John-Robert Drueke, 39, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, were interviewed by Russia's RT channel at a detention center in the so-called Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) on Friday, June 17, according to a report published on RT.
Captured US citizens Alexander John-Robert Drueke, 39, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, were interviewed by Russia's RT channel at a detention center in the so-called Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) on Friday, June 17, according to a report published on RT. (Bunny Drueke/Joy Black)

Two American volunteer fighters for Ukraine were taken into detention by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk after being captured by Russian forces last week, according to Russian state media.

US citizens Alexander John-Robert Drueke, 39, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, from Hartselle, Alabama, were interviewed by Russia's RT channel at a detention center in the so-called Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) on Friday, according to a report published on RT.

Missing near Kharkiv: The two Americans went missing on June 9 during a battle north of Kharkiv and it was feared that they may have been captured by Russian forces, according to their families and a fellow fighter. 

Video appearances: On Friday, short video clips surfaced on pro-Russian channels and social media appearing to show the men detained at an unknown location. At the time it was not clear who was holding them.

A State Department spokesperson told CNN Friday they "have seen the photos and videos of these two US citizens reportedly captured by Russia’s military forces in Ukraine." 

"We are closely monitoring the situation and our hearts go out to their families during this difficult time," they said.
"We are in contact with Ukrainian authorities, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and with the families themselves...Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment on these cases."

Separately, a more than 50-minute edited video was published on Saturday of Drueke and Huynh being interviewed by HelmCast, a pro-Russian Serbian nationalist YouTube channel.​

Donetsk: In the interview, a man can be heard behind the camera revealing the location of their interview when he says "here in Donetsk" during a question to Drueke. 

Beaten while in detention: Drueke is also asked in the interview if he has any objections to how he has been treated since his capture and he reveals that he has been beaten a few times.  

Why their location is significant: The location of Drueke and Huynh's detention is a potentially concerning development. Russia has a moratorium on the death penalty, whereas Donetsk uses firing squads to execute condemned prisoners, according to Russian state media RIA Novosti.

Foreign fighters: On June 9, a court in DPR sentenced foreign fighters, two British citizens and a Moroccan national to death after accusing them of being “mercenaries” for Ukraine. The internationally unrecognized court in DPR said the men had a month to appeal. 

Prisoner swap dashed: Hopes that a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatists could free any foreign fighters detained in Donetsk were dashed after Denis Pushilin, the self-proclaimed head of DPR, said such exchanges were out of the question.

"The exchange of the British men sentenced to death in the DPR is not under discussion, there are no grounds for pardoning them," Pushilin told independent Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta on Thursday.

The Donetsk People's Republic did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the detention of Drueke and Huynh.

CNN is choosing not to broadcast the videos of US detainees because they show the men speaking under duress.