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September 21, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

Video: Putin's threats and military escalation explained

What we covered here

  • President Vladimir Putin announced an immediate partial mobilization of Russian citizens, marking the biggest escalation since the start of his war in Ukraine.
  • President Joe Biden told the UN the invasion was a violation of global order, while Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky told delegates that Russia needed to be punished.
  • 10 people, including two Americans and five British citizens, were released as part of a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine that was brokered by Saudi Arabia.
  • Hundreds of people have been detained across Russia in a crackdown on anti-war protests, according to an independent monitoring group. 
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Our coverage for the day has ended. Follow the latest Ukraine news here or read through the updates below.

"It’s kind of indescribable." Fiancée of freed American stunned by call that he was coming home

Alexander John-Robert Drueke, left, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, right.

Joy Black was sitting with a friend during her break at work Wednesday when she received an unexpected call from Saudi Arabia — to tell her that fiancé Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh was coming home.

“It’s kind of indescribable. I was still kind of in shock so I was like ‘How do I know it’s really you?’ and he said this inside joke we have between each other and instantly I was like, ‘It’s him! It’s really him,’” Black told CNN’s Erin Burnett. 

It was her first conversation with Huynh since June 8. “It was just so amazing to finally get to hear his voice again and speak to him,” she said.

Huynh and another American, Alexander John-Robert Drueke, were captured in June while fighting in Ukraine. They were released, along with eight others, in a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine that was spearheaded by the government of Saudi Arabia.

“It’s just so good to know that they are OK and that they’re going to come home,” Black said.

Huynh could be back as early as Friday, she said, adding he has a special request for his homecoming in Alabama: spaghetti with meat, which he’d been craving while in Ukraine.

Blinken welcomes prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday welcomed the prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia that led to the release of 10 people, including two Americans.

“The United States is appreciative of Ukraine including all prisoners of war, regardless of nationality, in its negotiations, and we look forward to these U.S. citizens being reunited with their families,” Blinken said in a statement.  

He also thanked Saudi Arabia for spearheading the initiative. “I conveyed my gratitude to Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan in a call this morning,” Blinken said.

Family members of Americans Alexander John-Robert Drueke and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh — captured in June while fighting for Ukraine north of Kharkiv — confirmed to CNN earlier Wednesday that they had been freed.

Five Britons were also released, the British government said. Additionally, three others — Moroccan, Swedish and Croatian nationals — were freed in the swap, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

 In his statement, Blinken reiterated that US citizens should not travel to Ukraine.

“Americans who travel to Ukraine to participate in the fighting there face significant risks and the United States cannot guarantee their safety,” he said. “We encourage U.S. citizens to devote their energies towards the many other opportunities that exist to help the country of Ukraine and its people.”

North Korea says it never sold weaponry to Russia, according to state media

North Korea says it never exported weapons or ammunition to Russia, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. 

Earlier this month, a US official told CNN that Russia is purchasing millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea for use in Ukraine. The New York Times first reported the purchases.

North Korea condemned the US “for thoughtlessly circulating the rumor against the DPRK to pursue its base political and military aim” and said the US should keep its mouth shut, according to KCNA.

DPRK stands for the Democratic Republic of Korea, the formal name for North Korea.

The state media cited a press statement from the Vice Director General of the General Bureau of Equipment of the Ministry of National Defense but did not provide a name for the Vice Director General.

North Korea said the “development, production, possession of military equipment, but also their export and import are the lawful right peculiar to a sovereign state, and nobody is entitled to criticize it.”

However, the statement said:

“We have never exported weapons or ammunition to Russia before and we will not plan to export them.”

It added that the rumors about exports to Russia were aimed at tarnishing North Korea’s image.

Zelensky claims Russia is afraid of peace talks in Ukraine

Russia is afraid of real peace negotiations in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday during his address to the UN General Assembly.

Instead, Russia lies to everyone, the president said. It “talks about the talks but announces a military mobilization.”

Zelensky, in his pre-recorded remarks, added:

Zelensky ended his address by saying, “We are ready for peace. But true, honest and fair peace. That’s why the world is on our side.”

US doesn't see any evidence of a heightened nuclear threat after Putin's speech, official says

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt at “playing the nuclear card” in his national address earlier Wednesday along with his order for a partial mobilization was an act of weakness, a senior US administration official said Wednesday.

“Declaring a mobilization, and then refining the declaration of mobilization to try to have it both ways — on the one hand, indicating you’re calling a bunch of people up, and on the other hand, saying we’re not calling too many people up — that also indicates a very pressurized environment in Russia,” the official said. “And the fact that he has to resort to something he clearly didn’t want to do is a reflection of the fact that his campaign in Ukraine is failing.”

The official said the US does not see any signs that indicate a heightened nuclear threat from Russia, despite Putin’s rhetoric.

“We have heard him before, wave around the nuclear card, and we heard it again in his speech today, and in fact, the language and formula he used today is quite similar to how he’s spoken before,” the official said.

Still, President Biden and other US officials remain on alert for potential escalation as the conflict in Ukraine grinds ahead.

“We are watching carefully to see for any signs of potential escalation, and we are sending very clear and strong messages to Russia about the consequences of escalation,” the official said.

Zelensky spoke to the UN. Here are the main points he made

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the UN General Assembly on Wednesday in a pre-recorded speech that focused on the Russian war launched on Feb. 24. 

He outlined five preconditions for peace during his speech:

  • Punishment for aggression 
  • Protection of life 
  • Restoration of security and territorial integrity 
  • Security guarantees 
  • Determination to defend oneself 

Here are the key lines from Zelensky’s remarks:

  • The Ukrainian president called for Russia to be punished: “A crime has been committed against Ukraine and we demand just punishment. The crime was committed against our state borders. The crime was committed against the lives of our people,” Zelensky said. “Ukraine demands punishment for trying to steal our territory” and for the murder of thousands of people.
  • Zelensky said the entire world wants peace, with the exception of Russia: “Ukraine wants peace, Europe wants peace, the world wants peace, and we have seen who is the only one who wants war,” he said, alluding to President Vladimir Putin, without mentioning his name. “There is only one entity among all UN member states, who would say now, if he could interrupt my speech that he’s happy with this war, with his war.” Zelensky said.
  • Zelensky said he believed Ukrainian territories will be liberated over time: “We can return the Ukraine flag to our entire territory. We can do it with the force of arms, but we need time.”
  • Russia should lose UN veto power: Zelensky called for Russia, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, to lose its veto power. “So long as the aggressor is party to decision making in the international organization you must be insulated from them, at least until aggression stops.”
  • Special tribunal to punish Russia: Zelensky called for the creation of a special tribunal to punish Russia. “This will become a signal to all would-be aggressors, that they must value peace or be brought to responsibility by the world.”

Zelensky received a standing ovation from most delegates after his speech. The Russian delegation remained seated and did not applaud.

IAEA chief met with Russian and Ukrainian ministers to discuss safety zone around Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi said he met the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Wednesday in an effort to establish a safety and security protection zone around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

Grossi had meetings with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The issue needs to be resolved quickly, Grossi said.

“Getting an agreement today would have been nice, but you can imagine that these are very complex issues that require perhaps a bit more than one meeting. But we are already working on the very concrete aspects that would be required to having the zone be established,” he said.

Grossi added that beyond the differences, “there is the conviction that the establishment of this zone is indispensable. Let’s be clear. This nuclear power plant is being shelled now. And so we need to protect it in some way.”

Shelling damages cables providing power to Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor, UN watchdog says

A number of cables providing electricity to one of Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant’s reactors were damaged by shelling on Wednesday, the UN nuclear watchdog said in a statement.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said the shelling had temporarily forced reactor number six “to rely on emergency diesel generators for the power it needs for essential safety functions.”

The five other reactors were not affected and continued ” to receive power directly from the plant’s off-site power line that was restored last week,” IAEA added.

The plant in southern Ukraine, with six reactors, is the largest nuclear power station in Europe. It was mostly built in the Soviet era and became Ukrainian property after its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

“Work is underway to repair the damaged cables,” the IAEA’s statement said.

“This once again demonstrates the urgent necessity to establish such a zone around the ZNPP. Until yesterday, there seemed to be less shelling at or near the plant, but this latest episode shows that the danger remains very real, It hasn’t gone away, and we can’t afford to lose any more time,” IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said.

Zelensky calls for the UN to deprive Russia of its veto power in the Security Council

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday called for Russia to be deprived of its veto power. 

Russia is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Zelensky said:

 “So long as the aggressor is party to decision making in the international organization you must be insulated from them, at least until aggression stops.”  

Zelensky calls for the creation of a special tribunal to punish Russia

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday called for the creation of a special tribunal to punish Russia for invading Ukraine.

“A special tribunal should be created to punish Russia,” Zelensky said during his pre-recorded speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

Zelensky said: “This will become a signal to all would-be aggressors, that they must value peace or be brought to responsibility by the world.”

Zelensky says he held 88 rounds of talks with Russia to prevent the war  

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he held 88 rounds of talks with Russia to prevent war since the start of his presidency.

“88 rounds of talks in various formats to prevent these wars just from the beginning of my presidency until Feb. 24 of this year,” Zelensky said during his pre-recorded address to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday.

Russia launched its war in Ukraine on Feb. 24.

He added, “but Russia, instead of stopping the crime of aggression,” it’s started a full-scale invasion. 

Ukraine can recapture its territory but it will take time, Zelensky says

President Volodymyr Zelensky said he believes Ukraine will continue to liberate territory as the military mounts its counteroffensive against Russian aggression.

“We can return the Ukraine flag to our entire territory. We can do it with the force of arms, but we need time,” he told the UN General Assembly in a pre-recorded address.

He said Ukraine tried ending the war at the negotiating table, but concluded, “This is a war for life.”

Zelensky reiterated his country needed support in the form of weapons and military assistance in order to be successful on the battlefield.

“How can we allow the Russian army somewhere on Ukraine soil knowing that they’re committing such mass murders everywhere? We cannot,” he said.

Zelensky demands punishment for Russia over crimes committed in Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky demanded “just punishment” for the crimes Russia has committed since the invasion of Ukraine.

“A crime has been committed against Ukraine and we demand just punishment. The crime was committed against our state borders. The crime was committed against the lives of our people,” Zelensky told the UN General Assembly in his pre-recorded address.

Ukraine wanted Russia punished for trying to steal territory and for the murder of thousands of people, he said.

In addition:

“Punishment for tortures and humiliation of women and men. Punishment for the catastrophic turbulence that Russia provoked with its illegal war and not only for us, Ukrainians, but for the whole world.”

The entire world, with the exception of Russia, wants peace in Ukraine, Zelensky tells UN

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday that the entire world wanted peace in his country, with the exception of Russia.

“Ukraine wants peace. Europe wants peace. The world wants peace,” he said in a pre-recorded speech.

There is “only one entity” among all UN member states that was happy with “his” war, Zelensky said, alluding to Russian President Vladimir Putin without saying his name, adding, “We will not let this entity” prevail over us.

The president said Ukraine had shown strength on the battlefield by using its right to self-defense.

Lithuania FM says Putin's saber-rattling is a bluff

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said Wednesday that Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization announcement is “a sign of desperation,” but downplayed the Russian President’s nuclear saber-rattling.

“They are losing, the front has been breached by the successful consequences from Ukraine and this is Putin’s answer: more escalation,” Landsbergis told CNN on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. “I think it has to be met with, first of all, with calm and resolve. He expects us to be afraid, but we have to be prepared.”

In remarks overnight, Putin threatened to use “all means” at his disposal to respond to the West, saying, “I’d like to remind them that our country has also various similar weapons and in some cases more modern weapons than NATO. In order to protect our people and in order to protect Russia, we will definitely use all means.”

Landsbergis said he believes the Russian leader is bluffing.

“I’m more worried about the people who are worried about this than about actual saber-rattling,” he said.

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Putin is an aggressive actor, that Russia is an aggressive country. We should not have expected him just to have a limited conflict with Ukraine, limited war,” Landsbergis added.

Sweden and Croatia confirm their citizens captured by Russian-backed forces were released

The Swedish and Croatian governments confirmed Wednesday their citizens were among the 10 foreign prisoners of war held by Russian-backed forces released as part of the prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine that was brokered by Saudi Arabia.

“The Swedish citizen detained in Donetsk has now been exchanged and is well,” Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said in a tweet, without disclosing the person’s name. 

Linde said she had worked closely with her Ukrainian counterpart, to whom she extended her “deepest gratitude.” 

“A warm thank you also goes to Saudi Arabia,” the foreign minister added. 

Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said he spoke on the phone with the released Croatian prisoner Vjekoslav Prebeg. 

Prebeg would be returning to Croatia on Thursday, the prime minister said. 

The Croatian leader also thanked authorities in Ukraine and Saudi Arabia for their cooperation and help that led to Prebeg’s release.  

Ukraine's deputy prime minister urges people in occupied areas to not take part in referendums

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk has urged people in occupied areas not to participate in the referendums planned by pro-Russian authorities.

“Please tell your friends and relatives who remain on the temporarily occupied territories: not to take the passports, not to take part in any pseudo-referenda, and definitely not to collaborate with the occupiers,” Vereshchuk said on Ukrainian television.

She also outlined who would face criminal charges:

  • Those who took Russian passports in order to get a position in the occupation authorities
  • Those who encouraged others to change their passport
  • Those who deprived people without a Russian passport of humanitarian aid or services.

“For example, we know of cases when people were refused treatment or necessary medications where they did not carry a Russian passport,” she said.

Vereshchuk said those who organized and conducted a referendum would face penalties — but not those who had provided their personal data in order to receive pensions or humanitarian aid.

“In any case, every effort should be made not to participate in the so-called referendum. In any case, you should not be among those who organize or conduct the so-called referendum, that is, the supervisory commission or anything else of a kind.”

Moroccan citizen held by Russian-backed forces in Ukraine released and flown to Saudi Arabia

Moroccan citizen Brahim Saadoun, who had been held by Russian-backed forces for months, has been released as part of the prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine that was brokered by Saudi Arabia, his sister Imane Saadoune tells CNN. 

Imane Saadoune says her family has still not been contacted by Moroccan or Saudi officials regarding her brother’s release, but she identified her brother in a picture and video released by the Saudi Press Agency showing him in Saudi Arabia. 

Hundreds have been detained across Russia in a crackdown on anti-war protests

Police officers detain a person in Moscow on Wednesday, September 21.

At least 1,045 people have been detained across Russia in a crackdown on anti-war protests across two dozen cities in Russia, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info on Wednesday.

More background: Photos released on OVD-Info’s Telegram channel showed police in Saint Petersburg using batons against protestors. Videos show police attempting to contain behind barriers a crowd gathering at Isakiivskiy Cathedral, amid chants of “no mobilization.”

Videos from Moscow show several protestors being carried away by the police at a demonstration in the center of the city.

CNN’s Tim Lister Gianluca Mezzofiore and Anastasia Graham-Yooll contributed to this report.

European Commission head: Putin's latest move calls for new round of EU sanctions against Russia

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told CNN on Wednesday that she believes the latest move from Russian President Vladimir Putin calls for a new round of European Union sanctions against Russia. 

“President Putin is showing his weakness now because what you see is that he tries to mobilize personnel that is less trained, less experience, less motivated and he wants to start sham referenda on Ukrainian sovereign soil. So I think this calls for sanctions from our part again,” von der Leyen told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview.  

Earlier in the day, Putin announced an immediate partial mobilization of Russian citizens, marking the biggest escalation since the start of his war in Ukraine. 

After the interview, von der Leyen gave the Amanpour program this statement, confirming her commitment to fresh sanctions against Moscow: 

“We stand ready to impose further economic costs on Russia and on individuals and entities inside and outside of Russia who support, politically or economically. Plus we will propose additional export controls on civilian technology as Russia moves to a full war economy.” 

During the interview, the EU leader hailed the effect of sanctions so far, saying they are “really biting.” 

When Amanpour asked about the Russian leader’s nuclear rhetoric in his recent address, von der Leyen said “Putin has nuclear weapons, that’s a fact, but will never bow to blackmail.” 

There's a sharp rise in demand for flights out of Moscow right now

Flight sales websites in Russia indicate that all direct flights to countries that do not require Russian visas are sold out through Friday at least.

Direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul, Yerevan in Armenia and Baku in Azerbaijan are among those that are full, according to ticket aggregator sites.

The term “leaving Russia” saw a sharp spike in searches among Russians over the past 24 hours, according to Google Trends.

Google Trends also shows there has been a sharp rise in people searching “Aviasales,” which is a leading Russian flight sales engine. The number has quadrupled in the last 24 hours.

According to Aviasales, a ticket aggregator, one-way tickets on Friday out of Moscow to Istanbul are starting at $2,715 per ticket. Before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization announcement, the tickets cost about $350.

A survey of one-way fares in coming days to Belgrade, Tel Aviv and Istanbul shows a doubling and tripling of prices. 

Russian state carrier Aeroflot’s website showed that only business-class tickets were available for flights to Armenia Wednesday. According to the Aviasales website late Wednesday, one-way tickets from Moscow to the Armenian capital of Yerevan were available Thursday for $4,241, with multiple stops. All economy-class tickets to Armenia are sold out until Sept. 28. 

“Due to inquiries from passengers and the media, we would like to inform you that Aeroflot Group airlines are operating as usual. There are no restrictions on ticket sales,” Aeroflot said in a statement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier announced the immediate partial mobilization of Russian citizens.

EU foreign ministers to hold emergency meeting on Ukraine, bloc's top diplomat says 

Foreign ministers of European Union member states, currently in New York attending the United Nations General Assembly, will hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday night to discuss the recent developments related to Russia’s war in Ukraine, the EU’s top diplomat announced at a press briefing. 

High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said the meeting was called after a speech from Russian President Vladimir Putin, which Borrell described as the Russian leader’s implicit threat to use nuclear weapons. 

“Tonight, immediately after knowing the words of Mr. Putin, I am convening an extraordinary and ad hoc informal meting of the EU foreign ministers with the purpose to agree on a common line. And the common line I’m sure can be summarized as saying, ‘We will not be intimidated and will continue full support for Ukraine’s sovereignty,’” he said.