June 21, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Helen Regan, Jeevan Ravindran, Hafsa Khalil, Ed Upright, Adrienne Vogt and Aditi Sangal, CNN

Updated 2:31 a.m. ET, June 22, 2022
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7:01 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

The Kremlin says Geneva Convention doesn't apply to American detainees

From CNN's Anna Chernova

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Geneva Convention -- the charter which sets out how soldiers and civilians are treated in wartime -- does not apply to two detained US citizens.

Two American volunteers fighting for Ukraine -- Alexander John-Robert Drueke, 39, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, from Hartselle, Alabama -- were taken into detention by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk after being captured last week, according to Russian state media.

Peskov, during a regular call with journalists Tuesday, said the Geneva Convenction does not apply to the two US citizens. Peskov said the death penalty cannot be ruled out but this is a decision for a court. The Kremlin -- Peskov said -- does not have a right to interfere.

6:45 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

Ukrainian farmland sown about 25% less than last year, with corn and sunflowers sharply down

From CNN's Tim Lister

A farmer uses an agricultural machine in a wheat farm in Odesa, Ukraine, on June 17.
A farmer uses an agricultural machine in a wheat farm in Odesa, Ukraine, on June 17. (Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Ukrainian farmers have sown about 25% less land than was in cultivation in 2021, according to officials and independent estimates.

According to Markiyan Dmytrasevych, deputy minister of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine, a total of 13.5 million hectares had been sown with a variety of crops -- 80% of the territory that was sown last year.

Obviously we couldn't sow in Luhansk, Donetsk regions, partially in Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy regions," Dmytrasevych said.

In addition, rich agricultural land in southern Ukraine is now under Russian control. This area also produced much of Ukraine's vegetables.

Another senior official at the Agrarian Policy Ministry, Taras Vysotskyi, said more spring wheat had been sown this year that last, but there had been sharp declines in in the sowing of corn and sunflowers.

As for the expected harvest, Vysotskyi said "there may be about 48-50 million tons of grain. It is less than previous years, when it reached 85 million." Dmytrasevych gave a similar forecast, saying "We hope to harvest approximately 60 million tons of grain and oilseed crops -- a little over a half of what we harvested last year."

Separately, Maxar Technologies examined satellite imagery of agricultural areas in Ukraine and concluded that Ukrainian farmers planted 30% less spring acreage in 2022.

Maxar predicted that 2022 production of corn will be down 54% and production of sunflowers down 40%��when compared with the 2021 growing season.

The conflict has destroyed dozens of grain storage facilities at ports and in rural areas, with around 10 million tonnes now under Russian control while others have been destroyed in missile and artillery attacks. In May, multiple sources also told CNN Russian forces were stealing farm equipment and thousands of tons of grain from Ukrainian farmers in areas they had occupied.

Some Ukrainian officials say that storage difficulties have led farmers to switch crops.  Marchuk additionally cautioned that shortages of fuel could hamper the harvest. And he said farmers faced a financial crisis, with interest on loans rising by up to 35%.

"A compromise needs to be reached to reduce the interest rate. In conditions when there are no exports, when there is no working capital, it is very difficult to repay credit with very high interest, as opposed to the rates that existed before."

Exporting grain and oilseed crops has been complicated by the blockade of Odessa and other Black Sea ports.

Dmytrasevych said that since the Russian invasion, Ukraine had exported 4 million tons of grain and oilseed crops, compared to a pre-war forecast of between 5 and 6 million tons. Various options for road and rail transport have been developed, with grain traveling by rail to the Romanian port of Constanta, and across the land border into Poland. But the alternatives are more cumbersome than shipping to world markets through the Black Sea.

6:02 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

Ukrainian refugees find help in a Russian priest

From CNN's Zahra Ullah and Frederik Pleitgen

Vladimir Shishkin and Victoria Shishkina.
Vladimir Shishkin and Victoria Shishkina. (Claudia Otto/CNN)

Four months ago, Viktoria Shishkina and her husband Vladimir were preparing for the birth of their first child. Now, they sit in an unassuming apartment turned hostel in the center of St. Petersburg, Russia, where they are refugees. They escaped from Mariupol, the Black Sea port city now under Russian control, but are permanently scarred by all they have lost.

When Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Shishkina was in a maternity hospital in Mariupol, resting. She remembers being in a ward full of women approaching their due dates when the bomb struck the hospital.

On March 9, Mariupol’s Maternity Hospital No. 3 was bombed killing four and wounded scores more. For Shishkina, everything changed.

"Whoever caused that explosion, I took a direct hit in the belly -- right to my baby -- and they weren't able to save him," she told CNN, keeping her voice strong even as tears welled in her eyes.

Vladimir had been injured the day before the hospital bombing, and was being treated nearly 70 miles away (112 km) in the separatist-run city of Donetsk.

It was there that Shishkina finally caught up with him and where help came from Reverend Mikhnov-Vaytenko, Archbishop of the Apostolic Orthodox Church, in St. Petersburg, who arranged their passage to St. Petersburg and paid for their shelter, medical care and needs.

Mikhnov-Vaytenko estimates he and his network of volunteers have helped thousands of Ukrainian refugees since the conflict began, from paying for travel and housing for refugees to medical care or information about where they can go and what they are entitled to in Russia, all often with a kind word or prayer.

Read the full story here.

6:14 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

The Kremlin says it doesn't know where the detained American fighters are being held

From CNN’s Fred Pleitgen in Moscow

Alexander John-Robert Drueke, left, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huyn, right.
Alexander John-Robert Drueke, left, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huyn, right. (CNN)

Russia does not know where the two American volunteers fighting for Ukraine are being held or who will be judging on their case, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN on Tuesday.

“I don’t know where they are being held and who is going to judge them. But the only thing that goes without saying is that they are going to be prosecuted and they will be able to stand in court,” Peskov said in a voice message.

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

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 June 17, according to a report published on RT.

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.

5:19 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

Explosions in southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv

From CNN's Tim Lister and Olga Voitovych

There have been several explosions in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, according to the regional administration. Details on casualties and locations have not been released.

Witnesses reported hearing three large blasts and images from the city showed at least one large column of black smoke.

The explosions follow missile attacks on the area around Mykolaiv on Monday.

The area along Mykolaiv's border with the Kherson region continues to see shelling by Russian forces defending the territory they have seized, according to the Ukrainian military. 

The regional administration said the town of Shyroke, 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of Mykolaiv, was shelled Monday night and Tuesday morning.

"According to preliminary information, there are no victims," it said.

The front lines in the Mykolaiv-Kherson regions have changed little in the past month, although Ukrainian forces made some modest gains in a counter-offensive that began early in June.

2:41 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

Intense combat in Luhansk as Ukraine resists Russian offensives, Ukrainian military says

From CNN's Tim Lister and Olga Voitovych

In the Luhansk region, the Ukrainian General Staff said Russian units were focused on preventing Ukrainian attacks against "the rear of the Russian group of troops operating in the Sloviansk direction," and were using artillery against civilian infrastructure in the area. 

Izium: This area, to the west and southwest of Izium, has seen more intense combat in recent days as Ukrainian troops try to carry out a counter-attack against Russian supply lines. 

Sloviansk: Ukrainian forces along the Siverskyi Donets river, north of Sloviansk, continue to resist Russian efforts to break through (around Bohorodychne and Dolyna), according to the General Staff.

Bakhmut: The Ukrainian military also reported Russian offensive operations in several areas south of the town of Bakhmut, a critical supply node for Ukrainian defenses. The Russians appear to have made incremental gains south of Bakhmut recently.

Kherson: In southern Ukraine, the General Staff said Russian units were trying to contain Ukrainian forces that have gone on the offensive along the border of the Kherson region, and had carried out numerous artillery and rocket attacks on settlements behind the front lines.

2:38 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

Ukrainian forces under constant fire in Luhansk but hold positions, military says

From CNN's Tim Lister and Olga Voitovych

Ukrainian troops are resisting a heavy Russian offensive in and around the city of Severodonetsk in the Luhansk region, despite continued shelling from several directions, according to the Ukrainian military. 

The General Staff said on Tuesday that "shelling of units of our troops from artillery of various calibers continues."  

Russia aiming for full control: The Russians were also carrying out airstrikes in several areas south of Severodonesk, and "the enemy does not stop the assault in order to establish full control over the city," the General Staff said.

Location of fighting: Ukrainian resistance in Severodonetsk is mainly from the large Azot chemical plant on the western edge of the city, where several hundred civilians are also sheltering. 

"Fierce fighting continues in the Severodonetsk industrial zone. The Russians hit the building of the First Entrance of Azot, fired on the territory of the brick factory, and opened fire near three bridges," said Serhii Hayday, head of the Luhansk regional military administration.

Russian reports have suggested that resistance is ebbing at the Azot plant. CNN cannot independently verify the situation in the area. 

Heavy shelling: Hayday said on Ukrainian television that Russian forces had tried to carry out offensive operations on Monday under cover of heavy shelling.

"There is no electricity, no water, no gas [in Severodonetsk]," he said. "Doctors remained in one of the buildings of the medical campus ... We cannot carry out the delivery of humanitarian cargoes, because there are military operations in the active phase."

Civilians at Azot: Hayday said there are about 568 people at Azot, "who flatly refused to evacuate."

"We even made videos, talked to people on video — they refuse to leave. Basically, these are employees of the enterprise and their families — a little more than 100 employees with their families. They still have water, food, and the simplest medical supplies ...They have supplies for several weeks."

In neighboring Lysychansk: A short distance to the south, the Ukrainian General Staff said, "Our soldiers are successfully resisting the assaults in the areas of Syrotyne and Bila Hora," two settlements near Lysychansk.

The Russians are trying to close in on Lysychansk and cut off remaining Ukrainian forces in Severodonetsk to complete the seizure of Luhansk.

Hayday said Tuesday that Lysychansk was being heavily shelled. "More than 10 high-rise buildings, private houses and a police station building were destroyed," he said.

2:04 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

Analysis: Two months on, Russia is still struggling to capture Severodonetsk

Analysis from CNN's Tim Lister

A bridge that travels from Lysychansk to Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine is seen nearly destroyed on June 19.
A bridge that travels from Lysychansk to Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine is seen nearly destroyed on June 19. (Madeleine Kelly/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

It's been nearly two months since Russian forces began their assault on the city of Severodonetsk. But despite overwhelming firepower, they still can't dislodge determined Ukrainian resistance — nor cut the supply lines that provide the city's remaining defenders with a drip-feed of weapons and ammunition.

The fierce Ukrainian defense of Severodonetsk, despite heavy losses, has forced the Russians to concentrate firepower on a relatively small area and held up their efforts to seize the 10% of Luhansk region they still do not control.

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the seizure of Ukraine's eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions as one of the objectives of Moscow's special military operation that began in February. For now, that operation is largely stalled; a large part of Donetsk remains beyond the Russians' reach.

Russian forces are making modest gains — the Russian Defense Ministry said Sunday that the town of Metelkino just southeast of Severodonetsk had been taken. But the Russians' goal of encircling the Ukrainian troops defending the twin cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk still appears some way off.

In a campaign lacking agility and imagination, the Russians have resorted to one principal tactic: overwhelming indirect fire against any and all Ukrainian positions, regardless of the collateral destruction.

The aim is to leave nothing standing that can be defended. The use of troops on the ground to take and hold urban areas has been less frequent and less successful.

In a video of Ukrainian special forces in the area released at the weekend, one unidentified Ukrainian soldier says: "They are throwing everything they have, all the munitions they have. It doesn't matter for them if it's our positions or civilian areas, they wipe everything from the face of earth and then they use artillery and then they start moving forward little by little."

Read the full analysis here.

1:32 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

Zelensky: Ukraine "doing everything" to deserve EU candidacy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during his Monday evening video address.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during his Monday evening video address. (Office of President of Ukraine)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address on Monday that Ukraine is moving along the path to becoming part of the European Union.

"Step by step, we are moving through this crucial week and doing everything daily, so no one doubts that Ukraine deserves candidacy. We are proving daily that we are already a part of the European Union," Zelensky said.

The President previously said Ukraine should expect "greater hostile activity" from Russia as the EU considers this week whether the country should be formally considered for candidate status. Leaders of the EU's 27 member states are meeting to discuss the process.