June 23, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

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

Updated 2:43 a.m. ET, June 24, 2022
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2:34 a.m. ET, June 23, 2022

2 more Luhansk settlements fall to Russia as pressure builds on Lysychansk

From CNN's Tim Lister and Olga Voitivych

Russian forces have taken control of two more settlements near the strategic city of Lysychansk in their offensive to capture the remainder of Luhansk region, according to Ukrainian officials.

Shrinking territory: It appears the pocket of territory defended by Ukrainian forces where the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk meet has shrunk further as Russian attacks persist from three sides. 

Since yesterday Loskutivka and Rai-Oleksandrivka were occupied by the enemy," Serhiy Hayday, head of the Luhansk region military administration, said on Thursday.

Both villages lie to the southwest of Lysychansk and are within 8 kilometers (5 miles) of the main highway linking Lysychansk with the west.

Russian offensive: In its operational update for Thursday, the General Staff indicated that the Russian focus was now on seizing the highway.

The Russians were "trying to seize the dominant heights in the area of ​​Berestove in order to establish control over the Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway" and had brought in an additional tactical battalion group," it said.

In neighboring Severodonetsk: Hayday said Ukraine continues to "deter the Russians" but "the occupiers are destroying industrial facilities."

"The Russian Army is 'liberating' Severodonetsk from life and jobs," he said.

Missiles and shelling: Lysychansk was shelled several times on Wednesday, with several settlements around the two cities suffering air and missile strikes, Hayday said. Despite the shelling, some civilians had been evacuated from Lysychansk and humanitarian supplies were being brought in to the city.

Aiming for full control: The Ukrainian military said on Thursday that "the enemy is concentrating its main efforts on establishing full control over the city of Severodonetsk, conducting offensive operations to surround our troops near the city of Lysychansk, and blocking the main logistics routes."

It said the Russians were also preparing to bridge the Siverskiy Donets river.

2:40 a.m. ET, June 23, 2022

Russian state media says 2 Britons and Moroccan are preparing death sentence appeals in Ukraine

From CNN’s Irene Nasser and Josh Pennington 

Two British citizens Aiden Aslin, left, and Shaun Pinner, right, and Moroccan Brahim Saadoune, center, sit behind bars in a courtroom in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on June 9.
Two British citizens Aiden Aslin, left, and Shaun Pinner, right, and Moroccan Brahim Saadoune, center, sit behind bars in a courtroom in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on June 9. (AP)

Two British nationals and a Moroccan held in the pro-Russian, self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) are preparing their death sentence appeals, according to Russian state news agency TASS. 

British citizens Sean Pinner and Aiden Aslin, and Moroccan national Brahim Saadoune were sentenced to death earlier this month after being accused of being “mercenaries” for Ukraine.

DPR authorities said the three men were foreign fighters who had been apprehended by Russian forces in the southern city of Mariupol in April. Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti reported that Pinner, Aslin, and Saadoune will be shot.

Pinner’s lawyer told TASS her team is preparing documents to file an appeal, adding that if it’s rejected, a petition for clemency will be filed. 

Read more on their case here.

1:00 a.m. ET, June 23, 2022

It's 8 a.m. in Kyiv. Here's what you need to know

A crucial two-day summit kicks off in Brussels on Thursday with European Union leaders meeting to decide whether to grant EU candidate status to Ukraine.

Here are the latest headlines on Russia's war on Ukraine.

  • The EU question: The 27 leaders of EU countries are expected to support granting  candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova but it could be a "long process," according to EU officials. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he spoke with 11 European leaders on Wednesday, asking for their support on the eve of the summit.
  • Donetsk destruction: Ukraine's forces control less than half of the country's eastern Donetsk region, a regional military chief said Wednesday, adding that more than a hundred cities and villages within these areas had no gas or electricity. Some 55% of the region, which is under occupying forces, is "completely destroyed," said Pavlo Kyrylenk, head of the Donetsk regional military administration.
  • Putin at BRICS: Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared via video link to the virtual BRICS Summit hosted by Beijing, saying Russia is rerouting trade to "reliable international partners" such as Brazil, India, China and South Africa as the West attempts to sever economic ties. The summit is Putin's first international forum with the heads of other major economies since he ordered the invasion in Ukraine in late February.
  • Kaliningrad tensions: Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said Russian claims of a rail blockade of its territorial outpost in Kaliningrad are a "lie." Lithuania, she said, "is complying with the sanctions imposed by the [European Union] on Russia," adding that necessary goods like food and medicine are still being transported to the exclave.
  • Missiles hit Mykolaiv: The southern city was struck by seven missiles on Wednesday, killing one person and injuring two, according to city and regional officials. A school, a five-story building and private businesses with "fuel and lubricant materials" present were affected. "The whole city is covered with black smoke," the city’s mayor said.
  • Kharkiv casualties: In the northeast, 10 people were killed and 10 others wounded in Russian strikes on Ukraine's second-largest city, according to Oleh Syniehubov, head of the Kharkiv regional military administration.
  • Battle for Lysychansk: Russian forces have captured ground around Lysychansk, the last city in eastern Luhansk still controlled by Ukraine, as they step up their bombardment of the region. The Institute for the Study of War, in its latest daily analysis of the battlefield, said the Russian breakthrough from the south means they "may be able to threaten Lysychansk in the coming days while avoiding a difficult opposed crossing of the Siverskyi Donets River."
10:14 p.m. ET, June 22, 2022

Fiancée of American fighter missing in Ukraine says she "just wants him back"

The fiancée of an American fighter missing in Ukraine says she is still waiting on "concrete evidence" of his whereabouts, adding the US State Department has told her his case is a "top priority."

Joy Black got engaged to volunteer fighter Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh shortly before he left for Ukraine. She hasn't spoken to him for two weeks.

"He's always been so full of love and compassion. We have such a close bond. He's always been so kind to me," she said.
"Anytime I would feel down or self-conscious he would bring me back up. Whenever we would get ready to go out and I would be feeling bad about myself, he would tell me I'm beautiful to him. He was always the best. I just want him back."

Huynh, 27, from Hartselle, Alabama and fellow US fighter Alexander John-Robert Drueke, 39, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama were taken into detention by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk after being captured last week, according to Russian state media.

Russia's reaction: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously said the Geneva Convention — the charter which sets out how soldiers and civilians are treated in wartime — does not apply to the two detained US citizens and the death penalty could not be ruled out.

However, the Biden administration disagrees "vigorously" with that assertion, according to a a senior State Department official. 

“We obviously disagree vigorously. And we have made our position clear to the Russian government,” the official said. “We have made our position clear recently to the Russian Foreign Ministry that we expect the Russian government to treat any American detained in Ukraine consistent with the Geneva Conventions and their obligations.”

Black said it was "good that they made that clear."

She said the State Department told her they are contact with the Russians but, "I just have to put my faith in and trust in the process with our government. So that's what I'm doing to try to stay positive."

2:31 a.m. ET, June 23, 2022

Ukrainian military says it controls about 45% of Donetsk region

From CNN’s Mariya Knight in Atlanta

Ukrainian servicemen ride BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, on June 14.
Ukrainian servicemen ride BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, on June 14. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

Ukraine's forces control less than half of the country's eastern Donetsk region, a regional military chief said on Wednesday, adding that more than a hundred cities and villages within the Ukrainian-controlled areas had no gas or electricity supply.

"The Armed Forces of Ukraine control about 45% of the Donetsk region, where hostilities are currently taking place," the head of the Donetsk regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, told Radio Svoboda.
"Accordingly, 55% that is completely destroyed, is under the control of illegal armed groups, under the control of the occupier I mean, including the half-destroyed Mariupol and Volnovakha."

A man stands outside a damaged residential building following recent shelling in Donetsk, Ukraine, on June 20.
A man stands outside a damaged residential building following recent shelling in Donetsk, Ukraine, on June 20. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

When asked about the situation in the Ukrainian-controlled areas of Donetsk, Kyrylenko called it “very difficult.” 

"One hundred and twelve cities and villages are without electricity at the moment and gas supply is absent from the month of April," he said.
"Those who do not leave Donetsk are usually staying in shelters along the front line. People receive humanitarian aid and food. But it is also extremely dangerous. Because the enemy uses extremely heavy artillery, aircraft. The enemy uses all kinds of weapons on the front line. People are constantly told to leave.
"In the destroyed city of Avdiivka, for example, there hasn't been a building spared from shelling. About 2,000 civilians still remain in the city right now." 

According to Kyrylenko, Russian forces killed four civilians in the Donetsk region on Wednesday. Another five people were injured, he added. 

2:21 a.m. ET, June 23, 2022

Zelensky canvasses European leaders ahead of Ukraine EU candidacy decision

From CNN’s Mariya Knight and Jonny Hallam

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky address the nation from his office in Kyiv, Ukraine, on June 22.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky address the nation from his office in Kyiv, Ukraine, on June 22. (President of Ukraine)

In his nightly address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke of the conversations he held with 11 European leaders on Wednesday, asking for their support on the eve of an EU summit where a decision will be made on Ukraine's candidate status with the bloc.

The question of Ukraine's candidacy for the European Union will be decided at the European Council summit taking place on Thursday and Friday. 

“Tomorrow I will continue this marathon —  we must provide maximum support to our state,” Zelensky said.

At a separate event earlier Wednesday, Zelensky told an audience in Canada that he believed all European Union members would back a proposal to grant Ukraine EU candidate status.

Russian missile strikes: The President also gave an update on the Russian missile strike at Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine, earlier on Wednesday. CNN reported earlier that Mykolaiv was struck with seven missiles and suffered damage to infrastructure. "Fortunately, no one was killed and five were injured," Zelensky said.

According to Zelensky, casualties were reported following a strike on Kharkiv on Wednesday. Oleh Syniehubov, head of the Kharkiv regional military administration, confirmed this in his Telegram post Wednesday. He reported 10 people dead and 10 wounded as the result of the strike.

“In Donbas — massive air and artillery strikes. The goal of the occupiers in this direction remains the same — they want to destroy the whole Donbas step by step. All. Lysychansk, Sloviansk, Kramatorsk — they need to make any city like Mariupol. Completely broken,” Zelensky said. 

War crimes: Zelensky also thanked the United States "for its assistance in investigating war crimes in Ukraine," and called it "one of the greatest contributions to the protection of international law and order today."

The US attorney general announced a war crimes accountability team during a trip to Ukraine Tuesday that will work to identify and prosecute anyone who committed war crimes in the country.

8:58 p.m. ET, June 22, 2022

Lithuania accuses Russia of lying about rail "blockade"

From CNN’s Arnaud Siad

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte has said Russian claims of a rail blockade of its territorial outpost in Kaliningrad are a “lie.”

“Any talk of a blockade of Kaliningrad is a lie. Lithuania is complying with the sanctions imposed by the [European Union] on Russia for its aggression and war against [Ukraine],” she tweeted. “The sanctions were agreed by all the EU member states on March 15.
“All the other goods necessary for people living in the Kaliningrad Oblast – food, pharmaceuticals, etc. – are being transported.”

Some context: Russia has reacted furiously after Lithuania prohibited the passage of sanctioned goods across its territory into the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad last week. Peskov said the move was "unprecedented" on Monday. “We also consider it illegal," he said, adding the Kremlin will need to analyze the situation carefully. “It is part of a blockade, of course,” he said.

8:31 p.m. ET, June 22, 2022

Zelensky will address G7 and NATO summits

From CNN's Donald Judd and Kevin Liptak

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will virtually address the G7 and NATO summits that are occurring over the coming week, senior US administration officials said, as he works to reinforce Western support amid Russia's grinding invasion of his country.

The Ukraine war will loom over President Joe Biden's trip to Germany and Spain, where he will confer with a dozens of leaders.

At the G7, the officials said, Biden will unveil steps alongside other leaders to increase pressure on Russia for its invasion. And at NATO, the US will announce measures to "strengthen European security, alongside expected major new contributions from allies," one official said.

Officials declined to detail what, if any, new sanctions the administration, in concert with G7 allies, would announce against Russia.

However, they acknowledged officials "expect Ukraine to be at the very front of conversations, and expect to roll out a concrete set of proposals to increase the pressure on Russia to support Ukraine during the course of the summit," while touting what they called already "unprecedented actions to our sanctions and export controls on Russia for its unjustified war against Ukraine," from G7 nations.

Read the full story here.

8:52 p.m. ET, June 22, 2022

European leaders expected to back Ukraine's bid as EU candidate, but officials caution "long process"

From CNN’s James Frater in Brussels

The 27 leaders of the European Union countries are expected to support granting EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova at a two-day summit being held in Brussels Thursday and Friday, according to a senior EU official.

Speaking to journalists in Brussels Wednesday, the EU official said, “I have not seen a problem on granting candidate status to Ukraine,” and lauded the work of European Council President Charles Michel.

But the senior official added: “I would like to tell you that ‘it's a done deal’ and ‘it's easy,’” but after years of working inside the EU, institutions didn’t want to be drawn on a definitive answer."

“So I'm confident, but I'm cautious too,” the official said.

Separately, a senior diplomat from an EU country said that "Ukraine and the Commission have done a great job” in preparing for Ukraine’s bid to start the long process of joining the EU, and the diplomat's country was “happy with the report on the table.”

The diplomat tamped down expectations, saying that granting Ukraine candidate country status “doesn't mean that we can advance, side-tracking everything which is normally on the table. That is not the case, and I think is not fair.”

When asked about a timetable for Ukraine becoming a full EU member state, the diplomat said: “I think the only one who can set a timetable is Ukraine, because Ukraine has to adapt, to transform, reform, and under the present circumstances, we understand that priorities lie elsewhere.”