September 20, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Sana Noor Haq, Adrienne Vogt, Aditi Sangal and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 9:51 p.m. ET, September 20, 2022
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8:15 a.m. ET, September 20, 2022

Self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics decide to hold referendums this week on joining Russia

From CNN's Anna Chernova and Tim Lister

Russian news agency TASS reported that the People's Council in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic has agreed to hold a "referendum on the entry of the DPR into the Russian Federation" starting later this week. 

The leader of the DPR, Denis Pushilin, said that the voting will be in "a mixed format - face-to-face and remote - taking into account security issues. One day will be allotted for in-person voting," he said, according to TASS.

The council is an unelected body. 

The leader of the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic, Leonid Pasechnik, also signed a law on a referendum "on the entry of the Republic into the Russian Federation," according to the Luhansk Media Center.

Pasechnik's move was announced by the chair of the People's Council of the LPR, Denis Miroshnichenko, soon after the council unanimously proposed the referendum. 

"The head of the LPR has signed the law on a referendum on the issue of joining the Russian Federation as a constituent entity of the Russian Federation," Miroshnichenko said.

Miroshnichenko said the referendum would be held from Sept. 23 to Sept. 27, according to the local media portal Lug-Info. It quoted him as saying the question on the ballot would be: "Are you in favor of the LPR joining the Russian Federation as a constituent entity of the Russian Federation?"

Lug-Info said that according to the text of the law, "the Central Election Commission of the LPR will determine the results of the referendum on the Republic's entry into the LPR no later than five days after the last voting day."

This week has seen sudden moves in Donetsk, Luhansk and occupied parts of Kherson to hold referendums on joining Russia. Those moves have received swift support from Russian politicians. 

7:25 a.m. ET, September 20, 2022

An unelected council in Luhansk approves proposal for referendum on joining Russia

From CNN's Tim Lister

The People's Council of the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic has unanimously supported a proposal for a referendum on joining Russia.

According to the Telegram account of the LPR, members of the People's Council passed the law approving "the referendum of the Luhansk People's Republic on the issue of joining the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation." 

Forty-two deputies participating in the meeting supported the law unanimously, it said.

The council is an unelected body. 

It's unclear when the vote might take place. Ukraine holds a small part of Luhansk region, and fighting continues around the city of Lysychansk. 

7:28 a.m. ET, September 20, 2022

It's mid-afternoon in Kyiv. Here's what you need to know

Several Kremlin-backed authorities in Ukraine have requested referenda on joining Russia, weeks after top US officials warned of such strategies by Moscow officials to "falsely claim that the Ukrainian people want to join Russia."

The Ukrainian military confirmed strikes on Russian positions in the eastern Luhansk region, amid Kyiv’s rolling offensive to recapture occupied territories.

Here are the latest developments:

  • Russian leaders call for referenda: The leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic called on his fellow separatist leader of the Luhansk region to "synchronize" efforts aimed at preparing a referendum on joining Russia, a move that was publicly endorsed by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Further south, the Kremlin-backed administration in Kherson is scheduled to hold a referendum on joining the region to the Russian Federation, according to a top official.
  • Fighting ramps up in the east: The Ukrainian military said it is striking areas of Luhansk region where Russian forces are redeploying after their recent retreat from neighboring Kharkiv, confirming Russian losses in a strike on the town of Novoaidar. Russia’s offensive around the city of Bakhmut, which Moscow has been trying to capture for three months, has stepped up with a recent airstrike, according to a military official in Donetsk.
  • US one step closer to sending Ukraine more aid: Republican senators signaled tentative support for additional Ukraine aid that the Biden administration has requested following a classified briefing on Monday night. The deliberations come as Kyiv gathers momentum in the war, which US officials broadly view as evidence that the types of weapons and intelligence that the West has been providing to Ukraine in recent months have been effective.
  • Germany replenishes gas reserves before winter: Gas reserves in Germany are filled at 90.07% capacity, the European Storage provider GIE AGSI+ said on its website. In an attempt to wean itself off Russian energy supplies, Europe’s biggest economy is currently receiving gas from pipelines from the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway. Robert Habeck, Germany’s minister for economic affairs and climate action, said that the country could "get through winter well" without Russian gas, but warned of "really empty" supply levels in the time period after winter.
  • Mass graves shed light on war atrocities: More bodies of mostly civilians, including two children, were found in Izium, officials said on Monday. In the city in eastern Ukraine, 146 bodies of mostly civilians were exhumed from a mass burial site, according to Oleh Synehubov, head of the Kharkiv region civil-military administration. Separately, two more bodies were discovered in Bucha, the town on the outskirts of Kyiv that was the scene of mass atrocities at the start of the war, authorities said.
6:44 a.m. ET, September 20, 2022

Resistance to Ukrainian forces continues around Lyman, Donetsk leader says

From Josh Pennington and CNN’s Tim Lister

Black smoke is seen over the city of Lyman on June 14.
Black smoke is seen over the city of Lyman on June 14. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukrainian forces have suffered "substantial losses" in their attempt to advance on a pocket of Russian-held territory in Donetsk, according to the leader of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic (DPR).

The area surrounding the town of Lyman has become nearly encircled by Ukrainian forces since their rapid progress through the northeastern Kharkiv region earlier this month.

The territory is now surrounded on three sides, while its defenders are mainly from the so-called Donetsk People's Militia.

The Ukrainian military tried to move toward Lyman from the north "with the help of two assault battalions from the 95th Brigade," although "the attack was beaten back, leaving the enemy with quite substantial losses," Denis Pushilin said.

He told Russian television that Kyiv’s efforts to advance on Lyman from the south had also been repelled.

Ukrainian forces have been trying to mop up continuing resistance in the area as they try to consolidate their hold on areas along the borders of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

8:51 a.m. ET, September 20, 2022

Kremlin-backed council in Kherson to hold vote on joining Russia

From Olga Voitovych and CNN's Tim Lister

The Kremlin-backed administration in Kherson is scheduled to hold a referendum on joining the southern region to the Russian Federation, according to a top official.

"I am sure that the leadership of the Russian Federation will accept the results of the referendum and the Kherson region will become part of Russia, becoming a full-fledged subject of a single state," the head of the administration, Vladimir Saldo, said on his Telegram channel.

Saldo gave no details on when such a vote might take place, but said it was also necessary for Kherson to form volunteer battalions to support Russian forces.

Saldo’s announcement came after the Public Council in Kherson urged local authorities to hold a referendum "immediately," in another sign that local Kremlin-backed officials in occupied Ukraine are trying to push integration with Russia.

The council said in a statement quoted by the Russian news agency TASS that it was "sure that the residents of the Kherson region will fully support the initiative to join Russia."

"We consider it more timely than ever to make a strong-willed decision on the immediate holding of a referendum on joining of the Kherson region the Russian Federation," the council’s chairman, Vladimir Ovcharenko, said in the statement.

"We are sure that the initiative will be fully supported by the residents of the Kherson region, and joining Russia will not only be a triumph of historical justice, but will also secure the territory of the region, open new opportunities on the way to the revival and restoration of the power of our land and the return to a full-fledged peaceful life."

Some context: Previous plans for such a vote have been delayed. Ukrainian forces have retaken some parts of Kherson in their current offensive, but the major population centers are still under Russian control. The council's statement follows similar moves by the leadership of the self-declared republics in the eastern Donbas region.

Last month, top US officials cited such strategies by Russian officials as "sham referenda."

"We expect Russia to manipulate the results of these referenda in order to falsely claim that the Ukrainian people want to join Russia," US State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said at the time.

6:07 a.m. ET, September 20, 2022

Germany’s gas reserves filled at more than 90% capacity, amid attempts to wean country off Russian energy supplies

From CNN’s Stephanie Halasz

Robert Habeck, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, speaks at a press conference on September 19.
Robert Habeck, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, speaks at a press conference on September 19. (Stefan Sauer/Getty Images)

Gas reserves in Germany are replenished at 90.07% capacity, the European Storage provider GIE AGSI+ said on its website.

Europe’s biggest economy is particularly reliant on Russia’s gas exports to power its homes and heavy industry.

In an effort to wean itself off Russian energy supplies, the country is currently receiving gas from pipelines from the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway.

Robert Habeck, Germany’s minister for economic affairs and climate action, said that the country could "get through winter well" without Russian gas, but voiced concern about supply levels in the time period after winter.

Habeck’s warning that gas reserves would be "really empty" after the cold season because the economy would "have used the gas" was quoted on German public radio Deutschlandfunk.

Some background: Earlier this year, Germany's regulatory office for gas and electricity said it was unlikely the country would reach a storage level of 95% by November "without additional measures."

The comments in July came after Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom announced further reductions to gas flow through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, a vital artery linking Russia's vast gas reserves to Europe via Germany.

5:30 a.m. ET, September 20, 2022

Former Russian President Medvedev backs referendum efforts in self-declared Donbas republics

From Josh Pennington and CNN’s Sophie Jeong

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during a meeting in Moscow, Russia, on September 11.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during a meeting in Moscow, Russia, on September 11. (Contributor/Getty Images)

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has publicly endorsed referenda in the self-declared Donbas republics on joining Russia.

"Referenda in the Donbas have huge significance not only for the systemic protection of the residents of the LPR (Luhansk People’s Republic) and DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and other liberated territories, but also for the restoration of historical justice," Medvedev, who is vice-chairman of Russia's National Security Council, said on his Telegram channel.

He added that once the republics were integrated into the Russian Federation "not one future leader of Russia, not one official will be able to reverse these decisions."

Medvedev’s comments came after the leader of the self-declared DPR called on his fellow separatist leader of the Luhansk region to integrate efforts aimed at preparing a referendum on joining Russia.

"(Let us) join our forces, the administrations of the heads of the republics, the parliaments, so that they can develop some kind of algorithm of action that will allow us to move forward with the referendum," Denis Pushilin told the head of the self-declared LPR Leonid Pasechnik during a phone call.

"What matters is that our actions be synchronized,” Pushilin told Pasechnik, as shown in a video posted on social media on Monday.

Some context: Pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions declared two independent states from Ukraine in 2014, which no country accepted until February 21, 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees recognizing them and guaranteeing their security with Russian troops.

4:50 a.m. ET, September 20, 2022

Ukrainian military confirms attacks on Russian positions in Luhansk

From Olga Voitovych and CNN's Tim Lister

The Ukrainian military says it is striking areas of Luhansk region where Russian forces are redeploying after their recent retreat from neighboring Kharkiv.

Commenting on two recent strikes, the military's General Staff said it had confirmed Russian losses in a strike on the town of Novoaidar in Luhansk, claiming "about 50 units of military equipment were destroyed and damaged, and ammunition was destroyed."

"In addition, near ​​the settlement of Svatove, units of the Defense Forces hit the area where the enemy's manpower was concentrated. It is known that 70% of the personnel who were at the specified facility died."

The General Staff also claimed that Russian manpower issues were a growing problem. 

It said that "previously issued documents postponing the mobilization for about 500 employees of the Yenakiieve Metallurgical Plant have been cancelled. In addition, a ban was introduced on the departure of men from the territory of the temporarily occupied Crimea without the permission of the military commissariats."

CNN is unable to verify the claims.

The General Staff also said that Russian forces were trying to reorganize after recent losses. It claimed that new battalions were being formed by Russia's 29th Combined Arms Army in the Eastern Military District (Siberia), using teachers from the district's Military Command School. 

On the battlefield, the General Staff confirmed fresh shelling by Russian forces in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia.

4:45 a.m. ET, September 20, 2022

Heavy fighting in Bakhmut continues as Russians press offensive in parts of Donetsk

From Olga Voitovych

Drone footage shows heavy shelling from the Russian army in Bakhmut. In recent weeks, Russian forces have advanced to the outskirts of Bakhmut from both the east and the south.
Drone footage shows heavy shelling from the Russian army in Bakhmut. In recent weeks, Russian forces have advanced to the outskirts of Bakhmut from both the east and the south. (Ukraine Armed Forces/Eyepress/Reuters)

Intense fighting continues around the city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, which Russian forces have been trying to capture for three months.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of Donetsk region military administration, said that Russian forces carried out an airstrike on Bakhmut overnight and hit a high-rise building.

"Three entrances of the building collapsed. Two people may be under the rubble," he said.

Despite the fighting, some civilians have remained in Bakhmut.

Kyrylenko said there had also been shelling in other parts of Donetsk in Siversk, Vuhledar and Avdiivka.

While Ukrainian forces are on the offensive in parts of Donetsk — especially to the east of Sloviansk —  Russian shelling and airstrikes continue in other areas in the region.