September 21, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Andrew Raine, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 9:41 p.m. ET, September 21, 2022
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2:52 a.m. ET, September 21, 2022

US Ambassador to Kyiv says partial mobilization “a sign of failure”

From Andrew Carey in Kyiv

The US Ambassador in Kyiv has dismissed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement Wednesday morning as a sign of failure and vowed the United States would continue to support Ukraine’s resistance towards Russian aggression.

“Sham referenda and mobilization are signs of weakness, of Russian failure,” Ambassador Bridget A. Brink tweeted, just minutes after the broadcast of the Russian leader’s speech had begun.

“The United States will never recognize Russia's claim to purportedly annexed Ukrainian territory, and we will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes,” Brink added.

3:34 a.m. ET, September 21, 2022

Russian partial mobilization comes amid move to amend law on military service

From CNN's Simone McCarthy

Russian military vehicles on their way to Red Square during the rehearsal of Victory Day military parade at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on May 7.
Russian military vehicles on their way to Red Square during the rehearsal of Victory Day military parade at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on May 7. (Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilization follows moves Tuesday by Moscow's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, to amend the law on military service, toughening the punishment for violation of military service duties — such as desertion and evasion from service — according to state news agency TASS.

The bill sets a jail term of up to 15 years for resistance related to military service or coercion to violate an official military order, involving violence or the threat of it, during the period of mobilization or martial law.

State Duma deputies and senators have also prepared amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, proposing to introduce liability of up to five years of jail time for the destruction or negligent damage of weapons and military equipment during wartime, state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

Deputies in the State Duma have introduced concepts of “mobilization,” “martial law,” “wartime,” and “armed conflict” into the Criminal Code of Russia, which will now be regarded as aggravating factors in criminal sentencing.

Though Putin’s announcement Wednesday stops short of a full large-scale draft, as some had predicted, it marks a significant movement in the conflict and provides Russia with broad powers to conscript its citizens with previous military experience.

It's not clear how many people with this background have already been mobilized.

Some context: Analysts have said Russia's military faces significant shortages of manpower.

In July, CNN reported that the call had gone out across Russia for more than 30,000 volunteers to join the war effort in Ukraine. The lure was big cash bonuses and no experience was necessary.

7:27 a.m. ET, September 21, 2022

Putin announces immediate partial mobilization of Russian citizens in an escalation of conflict with Ukraine

From Josh Pennington and Anna Chernova

In this image made from video released by the Russian Presidential Press Service, Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in Moscow, Russia, on September 21.
In this image made from video released by the Russian Presidential Press Service, Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in Moscow, Russia, on September 21. (Russian Presidential Press Service/AP)

Russia is launching a partial mobilization of its citizens, President Vladimir Putin announced during a highly anticipated speech to the nation on Wednesday morning.

“In order to protect our homeland, its sovereignty and territorial integrity, to ensure the security of our people and people in the liberated territories, I consider it necessary to support the proposal of the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff to conduct partial mobilization in the Russian Federation,” he said.

Efforts to begin partial mobilization will begin today, on Wednesday, Putin announced. He said that a decree on partial mobilization has already been signed.

"I repeat, we are talking only about partial mobilization. That is, only those citizens who are in the reserve and, above all, those who served in the armed forces, have certain military specialties and relevant experience, will be subject to conscription."

“After the Kyiv regime actually publicly refused a peaceful solution to the Donbas problem today and, moreover, announced its claim to nuclear weapons, it became absolutely clear that a new next large-scale offensive in the Donbas, as it had already happened twice before, was inevitable.”

It is unclear what Putin is referring to with his mention of nuclear weapons.

2:33 a.m. ET, September 21, 2022

In televised speech, Putin says West’s goal is to ‘destroy our country’

From Josh Pennington

In this image made from video released by the Russian Presidential Press Service, Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in Moscow, Russia, on September 21.
In this image made from video released by the Russian Presidential Press Service, Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the nation in Moscow, Russia, on September 21. (Russian Presidential Press Service/AP)

At the start of a highly anticipated speech to the nation, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday morning said that Western countries are seeking to destroy Russia.

“The goal of the West is to weaken, divide and ultimately destroy our country,” Putin said. “They are already saying directly that they were able to split the Soviet Union in 1991 and now the time has come for Russia to break up into a multitude of regions and areas which are fatally hostile to each other.”
2:25 a.m. ET, September 21, 2022

Occupied Ukrainian regions plan 'vote' on joining Russia, raising threat of military escalation

From CNN's Simone McCarthy

Multiple Kremlin-backed authorities in occupied areas of eastern and southern Ukraine have announced they will hold referendums on formally joining Russia this week, in a move that threatens to redefine the parameters of the conflict.

The referendums could pave the way for Russian annexation of the areas, allowing Moscow to frame the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive there as an attack on Russia itself, thereby providing Moscow with a pretext to escalate its military response. 

The latest developments follow a significant shift in Russia's position after a sudden and successful Ukrainian offensive through most of occupied Kharkiv this month, which has galvanized Ukraine's Western backers and led to recriminations in Moscow

In what appeared to be a coordinated announcement, Russian-appointed leaders in the occupied regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic and Donetsk People's Republic all said they planned to hold "votes" beginning on September 23. 

Together the four regions that have announced their referendum plans make up around 18% of Ukraine's territory. Russia does not control any of the four in their entirety. 

Ukraine has dismissed the announcement of referendums in the occupied regions as a "sham" stemming from the "fear of defeat," while the the country's Western supporters signaled they would not alter their support for Ukraine. 

US condemns: US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield condemned the expected referendums during a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Tuesday, and reiterated the US would not recognize any attempt by Russia to "claim annexation of Ukraine's sovereign territory."

The Pentagon said on Tuesday that the referendums would have no credibility and would not impact US support for Ukraine.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, left, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, pose for a picture before the start of their meeting at the U.S. Mission in New York, on September 20.
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, left, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, pose for a picture before the start of their meeting at the U.S. Mission in New York, on September 20. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Russians support: The potential referendums have not been fully endorsed by the Kremlin, but the announcements have received swift support from Russian politicians. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has publicly endorsed referendums in the self-declared Donbas republics, saying this would have "huge significance" for "systemic protection" of the residents.

Medvedev, who is vice-chairman of Russia's National Security Council, said on his Telegram channel 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."

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12:12 a.m. ET, September 21, 2022

Kremlin-backed authorities in occupied Ukraine have announced referendums on joining Russia. Here's what you need to know

Multiple Kremlin-backed authorities in eastern and southern Ukraine have announced referendums on joining Russia will be held this week.

While previous plans for such a vote have been delayed, there was a flurry of announcements Tuesday from Russian-backed officials in occupied regions in Ukraine — all set on voting from Sept. 23 to Sept. 27.

Kherson: Russian-backed head of the Kherson administration, Vladimir Saldo, said he "signed a decree" for the referendum, which also established the procedure for organizing voting and "measures of administrative and criminal liability for violation of these rules." Parts of Kherson are on the front lines between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

Luhansk People's Republic: The leader of the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic, Leonid Pasechnik, also signed a law on a referendum. According to the text, "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," according to local media portal Lug-Info.

Donetsk People's Republic: The self-declared DPR agreed to hold a referendum and the head said he wrote a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking him for the rapid accession of the republic to the Russian Federation once a referendum is held.

Zaporizhzhia: The so-called National Congress of Citizens of the Zaporizhzhia Region has approved a referendum, said Vladimir Rogov, a senior pro-Russian official in occupied Zaporizhzhia. “Technically, we are ready. Security of polling stations is ensured. Our borders are reliably protected by the Russian military," said Yevgeniy Balitskiy, the Russian-appointed head of the Zaporizhzhia regional administration

Ukrainian response: Ukrainian officials condemned these announcements. The Foreign Ministry said the “fake plebiscites” will not change the “administrative-territorial structure and internationally recognized borders of Ukraine.” The ministry called the vote “forced citizenship” of residents and said it is “another attempt of Russia to legitimize the consequences of its aggressive war against Ukraine.” 

Russian response: The announcements have received swift support from Russian politicians. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has publicly endorsed referenda in the self-declared Donbas republics, saying it will have "huge significance" for "systemic protection" of the residents. "Not one future leader of Russia, not one official will be able to reverse these decisions," he added.

US response: The Pentagon said that announcements are "simply an information operation that’s meant to distract from the difficult state that the Russian military currently finds itself in.” US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield also condemned the moves on Tuesday.

12:12 a.m. ET, September 21, 2022

UN Secretary-General meets Ukraine's Prime Minister, discusses efforts to avoid global food crisis

Ukraine's Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, left, Ukraine's First Lady Olena Zelenska, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters on September 20.
Ukraine's Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, left, Ukraine's First Lady Olena Zelenska, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters on September 20. (Bebeto Matthews/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and the First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska in New York Tuesday.

According to a readout of their meeting, the Secretary-General and the Prime Minister discussed the war in Ukraine and efforts to avoid a global food crisis, including the implementation of the Black Sea Grain initiative.

With Zelenska, they also discussed the importance of protecting Ukrainian women and children affected by the war.

According to the readout, the Secretary-General reiterated the UN’s full support for continuing to provide humanitarian assistance.

12:10 a.m. ET, September 21, 2022

Russian mercenaries bombard Bakhmut as Moscow searches for a win

From CNN's Nick Paton Walsh, Natalie Gallón, Brice Lâiné and Konstantin Gak

The city of Bakhmut, Ukraine is seen following a battle that has heated up recently.
The city of Bakhmut, Ukraine is seen following a battle that has heated up recently. (CNN)

In the ruins of an apartment block tarred with soot and clouded in dust amid constant shelling, a small group of Ukrainian soldiers are face to face with a new type of Russian enemy: mercenaries, some of whom may be convicts sent to the front line.

The battle is as heated as it is crucial around the city of Bakhmut. Russian positions are within 200 meters of the Ukrainian military unit that CNN has joined. The unit is caught in a gruesome artillery duel, sheltering in basements, and using commercially purchased drones as the best line of defense and intelligence.

Through broken windows, from inside rooms littered with rubble, Ukrainian soldiers look across the neighboring field, pockmarked with countless blackened craters from artillery impacts.

"They can see us here," said one Ukrainian soldier, pointing into the distance.

This is a new type of fighter on the front line. Moscow's manpower has dwindled after as many as 80,000 casualties, according to US officials, leading Moscow to turn to the country's sprawling private sector of mercenaries, namely the Wagner group.

The Wagner group is allegedly run by the man known as "Putin's Chef", Yevgeny Prigozhin. A man matching Prigozhin's appearance recently appeared in a video in a Russian prison yard, extolling to prisoners the virtues of joining his Wagner group and fighting on the front line.

A Ukrainian drone operator is seen in the city of Bakhmut, Ukraine following a battle that has heated up recently.
A Ukrainian drone operator is seen in the city of Bakhmut, Ukraine following a battle that has heated up recently. (CNN)

Here in Bakhmut is where that system is put into ruthless action. This city has been the focus of Russian forces in the past weeks, even as they abandon positions around Kharkiv and appear to struggle to hold ground elsewhere. Wagner mercenaries have been deployed to that fight, according to multiple reports from Russian media, and have been making gains around the eastern edges of the city. 

The mercenaries' attacks are often devastatingly callous: the Ukrainians tell CNN that the Wagner fighters rush at them with small arms attacks, causing the Ukrainians to fire at them to protect their positions. The gunfire then gives away where the Ukrainians are, allowing the Russian artillery to target with greater accuracy.

The attacks are regular, and the shelling is almost constant.

Read more

1:40 a.m. ET, September 21, 2022

UN must take action on Russian war crimes, German chancellor says

From CNN's Mitchell McCluskey

Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz holds up a copy of the United Nations Charter as he addresses the 77th session of the U.N. General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters on Tuesday, Sept. 20.
Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz holds up a copy of the United Nations Charter as he addresses the 77th session of the U.N. General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters on Tuesday, Sept. 20. (Jason DeCrow/AP)

Members of the United Nations must act over war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in an address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday. 

“We must pay heed and take action when Russia commits war crimes in Mariupol, Bucha and Irpin,” Scholz said, “We will bring the murderers to justice.”

Scholz urged UN member states not to concede to Russia in peace negotiations. 

“Putin will only give up his war and his imperialist ambitions if he realizes that he cannot win,” Scholz said. “This is why we will not accept a peace dictated by Russia – and we will not accept any sham referendums either.”

The German leader also highlighted his country's support for Ukraine. 

“We’re supporting Ukraine with all our might – financially, economically, with humanitarian assistance, and also with weapons,” he said. 

“Together with our partners around the world, we have imposed tough economic sanctions on the Russian leadership and Russia’s economy,” Scholz added.

Scholz also denied that the sanctions had caused the delay of any grain shipments to Ukraine.

“Not one sack of grain has been held back on account of these sanctions,” he said, “Russia alone has prevented Ukrainian grain ships from putting out to sea, bombing ports and destroying agricultural enterprises.”

Scholz also addressed the issue of climate change, calling it the biggest challenge of his generation. 

“We, the industrialized countries and major emitters of greenhouse gases, have a very special responsibility here,” he said.

“We stand by our pledges to support emerging economies and developing countries in their efforts to reduce emissions and to adapt to climate change – with new, just energy transition partnerships, for example,” Scholz said.