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September 23, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

'He's in trouble and I think he knows it': Clapper weighs in on Putin's current mindset
01:33

What we covered

  • Four Russian-occupied areas began voting in referendums on joining Russia, according to their separatist leaders. The referendums are illegal under international law and dismissed as “a sham” by Western governments and Kyiv.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “partial mobilization” orders were followed by protests, tearful goodbyes and long lines of traffic trying to leave the country.
  • 436 bodies were exhumed from a mass burial site in Izium, with most showing signs of violent death and at least 30 with traces of torture, a local official said as the work was completed Friday.
  • At least 1,300 anti-war protesters were detained across Russia earlier this week, with some directly conscripted into the military, according to a 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.

436 bodies exhumed from a mass burial site in Izium and most showed signs of violent death, official says

Unidentified makeshift graves are seen at the Pishanske cemetery in Izium, on Friday.

A total of 436 bodies have been exhumed from a mass burial site in Izium, according to Oleh Syniehubov, head of the Kharkiv region military administration, who said the work was completed Friday.

Most of the bodies showed signs of violent death, and 30 had traces of torture, Syiehubov said in a post on Telegram.

“There are bodies with a rope around the neck, with hands tied, with broken limbs and with gunshot wounds. Several men had their genitals amputated. All this is evidence of the terrible torture to which the occupiers subjected the residents of Izium. Most of the bodies are civilians, 21 are military,” the post said.

Syniehubov vowed to find out the circumstances of each of the deaths “so that their relatives and friends know the truth and the killers are punished.”

He thanked the 200 people — forensic experts, police officers, and employees of the State Emergency Service — who had been working at the site in the Kharkiv region, which had been recently recaptured from Russian forces.

Syniehubov added that there were at least three more mass burial sites in other liberated areas of the Kharkiv region.

“All crimes of the occupiers will be documented, and the perpetrators will pay for what they have done,” Syniehubov said.

Some background: Izium was subject to intense Russian artillery attacks in April. The city, which sits near the border between the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, became an important hub for the invading military during five months of occupation. Ukrainian forces took back control of the city on Sept. 10, delivering a strategic blow to Russia’s military assault in the east.

Top US general spoke with Ukraine's commander-in-chief on Thursday and Friday

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley spoke with the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Gen. Valery Zaluzhny on Thursday and Friday, according to a US official. 

The information provided in a readout by Joint Staff spokesperson Col. Dave Butler did not go into any detail about the discussions, other than that they talked about the “unprovoked and ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and exchanged perspectives and assessments.”

“The Chairman reaffirmed unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the readout said. 

Some background: Earlier this month, CNN reported the Pentagon is working out how to support Ukraine’s military in the medium and long term, including after the war with Russia has ended. The efforts are being led by Milley and would build on the billions of dollars in military aid the US has given to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February.

Zelensky urges people in Russian-controlled areas to help weaken the occupation

A service member of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) casts his vote during a referendum on joining LPR to Russia, at a military unit in Luhansk, on Friday.

The ongoing referendums in the Russian-occupied regions and Russian mobilization in those areas are crimes, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a nightly address on Friday.

They “are not just crimes against international law and the law of Ukraine. These are crimes against specific people, against the nation,” he said.

Four Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine began voting in referendums on joining Russia, according to their separatist leaders, in a move that raises the stakes of Moscow’s invasion seven months after fighting began.

“The world will react absolutely fairly to the pseudo-referenda — they will be unequivocally condemned, as well as to the criminal mobilization that the occupiers are trying to carry out in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine that they still control,” Zelensky added.

Ukraine’s president urged people in the Russian-run areas to help to weaken the occupation.

“If you do get into the Russian army, then sabotage any enemy activity, interfere with any Russian operations, pass us all important information about the occupiers — their bases, headquarters, ammunition depots. And at the first opportunity, join our positions. Do everything to save lives and help liberate Ukraine,” he added.

Counteroffensive: Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces have recaptured about 9,000 square kilometers of territory (3,500 square miles) “since the beginning of active actions in the east of our country,” Zelensky said.

“Nearly 400 settlements have been liberated. This tangible result has been achieved due to the fact that our people in the temporarily occupied territory help us. Please do everything to increase such assistance,” Zelensky added.

It's nighttime in Kyiv. Catch up here on the latest headlines

If you’re just joining us, here’s what you need to know about Friday’s developments in the war in Ukraine.

  • Ukraine and its allies dismiss referendums: Russian-backed leaders in four Ukrainian regions organized referendums on joining Russia Friday, violating international law. Ukrainian officials claimed some residents ignored the voting, but acknowledged that some were forced to participate. Western leaders, including US President Joe Biden, said the results will never be recognized.
  • UN experts report disturbing war crimes evidence: A UN panel of experts said it found evidence of war crimes committed during Russia’s invasion, including cases of rape and torture of children. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday the international justice probe was “undoubtedly a put-up job.”
  • Captured Americans back on US soil: Two Americans who went to fight for Ukraine were back on US soil Friday after being held by Russian-backed forces for more than three months. Alexander John-Robert Drueke and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh arrived in New York City after they were released in a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine that was brokered by Saudi Arabia. 
  • Evidence of Russians trying to flee mobilization: Social media video from Russia’s land borders with several countries shows long lines of traffic trying to leave the country on the day after President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization.” There were queues at border crossings into Kazakhstan, Georgia and Mongolia.
  • This map shows the latest frontlines in the conflict:

Biden says US will never recognize Russia’s referendums in Ukraine

President Joe Biden said the United States will never recognize Russia’s referendums in occupied parts of Ukraine. 

“The United States will never recognize Ukrainian territory as anything other than part of Ukraine. Russia’s referenda are a sham — a false pretext to try to annex parts of Ukraine by force in flagrant violation of international law, including the United Nations Charter,” Biden said in a statement.

The President said the US will continue to work with allies to “impose additional swift and severe economic costs on Russia.

“The United States stands with our partners around the world — and with every nation that respects the core tenets of the UN charter — in rejecting whatever fabricated outcomes Russia will announce,” the statement said.

Some background: Four Russian-occupied areas began voting Friday in referendums on joining Russia, according to their separatist leaders, in a move that raises the stakes of Moscow’s invasion.

The referendums, which are illegal under international law and dismissed as a sham by Western governments and Kyiv, could pave the way for Russian annexation of the areas, allowing Moscow to frame the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive as an attack on Russia itself.

Ukraine removes accreditation of Iranian diplomat after military says Iranian-made drones were used in Odesa

Ukraine has withdrawn the accreditation of the senior Iranian diplomat in Kyiv, citing the supply of Iranian-made weapons to Russia.

The move follows a spate of attacks by Russian forces using Iranian-made drones, according to the Ukrainian military. Several of the drones were used in an attack on Odesa Friday in which one person was killed.

In a statement, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said that following the attacks, the Iranian charge d’affaires was summoned to the ministry.

The charge d’affaires was told that the supply of Iranian weapons to Russia and their use against civilians “contradicts the publicly declared position of neutrality, respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

The statement added:

“In response to this unfriendly act, the Ukrainian side decided to deprive the Ambassador of Iran to Ukraine of accreditation, as well as to significantly reduce the number of diplomatic staff of the Iranian Embassy in Kyiv,” it said.

A statement from President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said that “samples collected on the battlefield confirmed that Russia is using Iranian-made weapons in Ukraine.”

“Such actions of Iran are considered as a step against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, as well as against the life and health of Ukrainian citizens,” a spokesman for Zelensky said.

European Council president says Russia should be suspended from UN Security Council

European Council President Charles Michel speaks during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, on Friday, September 23.

European Council President Charles Michel called out the United Nations Security Council Friday for allowing Russia to continue participating despite its invasion of Ukraine.

“When a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council starts an unprovoked and unjustifiable war, a war condemned by the UN General Assembly, its suspension from the Security Council should be automatic,” Michel said during his address to the UN General Assembly on Friday, adding that the Kremlin is trying to “mobilize the entire world against an imaginary enemy.”

“We are here in the United Nations, the house that brings the people of the world together. And we all know that a robust multilateral system requires mutual trust. … The use of the veto should be the exception, but it is becoming the rule,” he said.

Michel urged reform, which he said is “necessary and urgent.”

2 Americans captured by Russian-backed forces are back in the US after prisoner swap

Americans Alexander John-Robert Drueke, right, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, left, after arriving back in the US after being freed from Russian captivity.

Two Americans who had been held by Russian-backed forces in Ukraine for more than three months were back on US soil on Friday.  

Alexander John-Robert Drueke and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh arrived in New York City after they were released earlier this week in a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine that was brokered by Saudi Arabia. 

CNN obtained a selfie of the two men. Their families said they believe they are in good health.

“We know that they are speaking, they are breathing, they are ambulatory, and they sound like themselves,” said Darla Black, the mother of Huynh’s fiancée Joy Black, told CNN on Friday.

The Americans were captured in June while fighting for Ukraine in a battle near Kharkiv. Their pro-Russian captors, the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, have governed a breakaway portion of Ukraine’s Donetsk region since 2014.

Even after being captured, their families said the men told them they have no regrets about going over to fight with the Ukrainians.

“Alex told me emphatically ‘no, no regret,’” his aunt, Dianna Shaw, told CNN. “They really want people to understand that Ukraine needs our support. They need the support of all democratic nations. They need democracies to come together and push Putin back.”

Ukraine releases dramatic images of a soldier from before and after his time in Russian captivity

Ukrainian soldier Mykhailo Dianov before and after his time in Russian captivity. CNN is unable to independently verify the authenticity of these images.

The Ukrainian defense ministry tweeted pictures Friday of a soldier Mykhailo Dianov, one which showed him before he was captured by Russia and one after his release from captivity.

He looks visibly weaker in the latter image.

“Ukrainian soldier Mykhailo Dianov is among the fortunate ones” in comparison to some of his fellow prisoners of war, the ministry claimed on Twitter.

CNN is unable to independently verify the authenticity of these images.

More than 6,400 Russians traveled to Finland by land on Thursday, Finnish official says

Cars queue to enter Finland from Russia at Finland's most southern crossing point Vaalimaa, on Thursday.

More than 6,400 Russians traveled into Finland on Thursday by land — a number comparable to weekend traffic, Matti Pitkäniitty, the head of the International Affairs Unit at Finnish Border Guard, tweeted Friday. 

About 3,227 Russians exited Finland, he added.

Comparing this data with the numbers from August and September, Pitkäniitty said Finland saw around 6,000 Russians arriving in Finland on Saturdays.

Earlier on Friday, Finland’s Border Guard tweeted that vehicle queues at Vaalimaa and Nuijamaa — two border crossings in south east Finland — were longer than they were Thursday.

The queue for Vaalimaa border crossing was approximately 500 meters long at approximately 9 a.m. local time (2 a.m. ET).

Port of Odesa struck by Iranian-made drones, Ukrainian military says

The Ukrainian military said that Iranian-made attack drones have been used to strike the port of Odesa, the main outlet for the export of Ukrainian grain under an agreement reached in July. 

The Ukrainian military’s Operational Command South said on Telegram that “Odesa was attacked by kamikaze drones from the sea.”

US officials have previously said that Russia bought Iranian-made drones.

According to the military, “two drones destroyed the administrative building in the port area, rescue services are extinguishing a fire.”

Serhii Bratchuk, spokesperson of the Odesa region civil military administration, confirmed that two of the drones hit the administrative building near the port, killing at least one person.

Operational Command South said the blast damaged several surrounding buildings.

One Shahed-136 drone was shot down over the sea by air defense forces, according to the military.

In a second attack Friday, four Iranian-made drones approaching the city of Odesa were shot down, Operational Command South said.

The military also said air defenses had shot down a Russian Su-25 attack aircraft in the Beryslav district of the Kherson region.

Some background: CNN reported late last month that the United States assessed Russia was in possession of weapons-capable Iranian drones that they would likely deploy on the battlefield in Ukraine.

Russian operatives began training on the drones in Iran late in July. Russia then purchased and transferred the Mohajer-6 and Shahed-series drones — the Shahed-129 and Shahed-191— to Russia, according to US officials. 

Residents of occupied areas are ignoring referendums called by pro-Russian officials, Ukraine says

Vehicles drive past advertising boards, including panels displaying pro-Russian slogans, in a street in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Luhansk, Ukraine on September 20.

Ukrainian officials say residents of Russian-occupied areas are ignoring the referendums organized by local Kremlin-backed authorities, but they acknowledged that in some instances, residents are being forced to vote.

The referendums, called on Tuesday in four parts of Ukraine under Russian control, have been widely denounced by western governments as a sham and are being conducted with few or no international observers beyond delegations from Russia.

“There is no referendum as such. It is imitation. Local residents are ignoring it. Some people are simply forced to vote. There were buses of people brought it from Crimea to cast ballots,” Andriy Yusov, a Ukrainian Defense Intelligence official, told CNN.

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said it had uncovered documents showing that the Russian-backed separatist-held Donetsk People’s Republic planned to expand the electorate by involving teenagers younger than 18 in the vote.

In order to enhance control over the “turnout,” Donetsk officials decided that minors should be accompanied to the polling stations by their parents, guardians or representatives of so-called orphanages, SBU added.

Pro-Russian officials in the occupied areas have been enthusiastically pushing the referendums as a historic change.

“Today is a day that happens in history once every few centuries. I personally knew it would happen, always. I always felt I was part of a huge family called Russia. Dreams have come true,” Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-backed head of the Kherson region administration, said on his Telegram channel.

As he cast his ballot, Saldo said he was sure that as part of the Russian Federation, “our Kherson region and most importantly its people will be protected. Protected in every way.”

The leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, also cast his vote, saying, “I feel a sense of awe and confidence that what we have fought for so long is finally coming true. This is Homecoming. Return to the great Russia. History is being made today.”

The voting continues until Tuesday.

"The truth is the truth": ICC prosecutor vows to determine if war crimes are being committed in Ukraine

The bodies of civilians killed by russian soldiers were found near the village of Myrotske in Bucha, Ukraine on June 13.

International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan reiterated that the ICC will continue to investigate allegations of Russian war crimes, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov continued to dismiss images of atrocities in Ukraine at the United Nations this week.

“The truth is the truth. Parties can make their own statements but I’ve been to Bucha. … I saw those bodies in the body bags and they were real people. We have to investigate how did they die, if crimes were committed and if so, who is responsible,” Khan told CNN’s Kate Bolduan. 

He said he has written to Russia to have a meeting with Lavrov, but there has been no response.

“There’s counter-narratives and narratives, truth, disinformation mixed, and we have to separate it so we get distilled pure water from what could be a variety of information,” he added. 

Khan has been to Ukraine three times now, and he said he is “staggered” by both the destruction in the country and also the hope and determination of its people.

Being in Ukraine in the midst of war allows “access to evidence before it is interfered with,” he added.  

Priorities for the ICC includes allegations of crimes against children targeted in hospitals and schools, as well as allegations of children being transferred into Russia, he said.

“All of your viewers will know ‘never again’ that we’ve heard since the Holocaust, and yet we see — to our great chagrin — yet again, yet again, and yet again, these crimes are taking place. So this is the moment where I think we need to re-galvanize our efforts to show that the law can be active on the front lines. We’re trying to act more nimbly,” he said.

Ukraine says it's taken more territory in Donetsk and improved positions around Bakhmut

Ukraine has taken another settlement in the Donetsk region, the Ukranian military says as it continues the consolidation of an offensive in the “tri-border” area where Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk regions meet.

As a result of assault actions, the village of Yatskivka in Donetsk region was now in Ukrainian hands, said Oleksii Hromov, deputy head of the Operations Directorate of the General Staff.

Yatskivka is to the east of the Oskil river. Large areas west of the river, including the city of Izium, were captured by the Ukrainians in a sudden offensive earlier this month.

The situation further south around Bakhmut was “difficult but controlled,” Hromov said in a briefing in Kyiv on Friday, adding that Russia “continued offensive actions in order to expel our units” from their positions around Bakhmut and elsewhere along the front lines in Donetsk.

Ukrainian troops had improved their positions around Bakhmut, which has been under siege for several months, Hromov said.

“Thanks to the timely regrouping of units of one of the mechanized brigades and high-quality organization of the battle, we managed to restore the previously lost position and ensure control over the positions south to Bakhmut,” he said. 

Elsewhere in Donetsk, near Avdiivka and Novopavlivka, Russian forces were conducting offensive actions with the goal of taking the settlements of Nevirske and Novomykhailivka, Hromov said.

Russia could use "sham" referendums to escalate war, NATO's secretary general tells CNN

The world should prepare for Russia to use “sham” referendums in Ukraine to claim Russian territory is being attacked with NATO weaponry, according to the alliance’s chief.

“That’s exactly what we need to be prepared for, that Russia will use these sham votes to further escalate the war in Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN’s Julia Chatterley on Friday as Ukrainian officials allege citizens in partially occupied regions are coerced into voting in referendums on joining Russia.

“But these votes have no legitimacy, and of course don’t change anything,” he said, echoing several Western leaders.

“NATO’s answer is to step up support. The best way to end this war is to strengthen Ukrainians on the battlefield further, so they can at some stage sit down and reach a solution which is acceptable for Ukraine and preserves Ukraine as a sovereign independent nation in Europe” he added.

“I support the message from [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky that they [people] should not take part in these referendums,” Stoltenberg said. 

Russia knows there will be severe consequences if nuclear weapons are used in Ukraine, NATO chief says

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg looks on ahead of a meeting with US President Joe Biden during the NATO summit at the Ifema congress centre in Madrid, Spain, on June 29.

Russia knows there will be “severe consequences” if nuclear weapons are used in Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN’s Julia Chatterley on Friday.

“They know that there will be severe consequences. I will not elaborate exactly on how we will react, that depends on what kind of weapons of mass destruction they may use,” he said.

His comments come after Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of using nuclear weapons in a speech on Wednesday.

“We are sending these messages and we’re making it clear to prevent that from happening,” Stoltenberg said. 

“The thing is,” he continued, “the likelihood of any use of nuclear weapons is still low, but the potential consequences are so big, so therefore we have to take this seriously. And the rhetoric, the threats that President Putin [is] putting forward again and again increase tensions, are dangerous and are reckless.”

Germany says it's open to accepting Russians who want to flee their country 

German officials are indicating that the country is open to accepting Russians who are trying to flee the country. 

“Many Russians who are now being called up do not want to take part in this war either. This is a good sign,” the German Chancellor’s spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit told reporters during a regular news briefing. “A way must be left open for Russians to come to Europe and also to Germany.”

EU members states must find a “viable solution” on how to deal with Russian conscientious objectors to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “partial mobilization” orders, he added, saying motives of each such objector must be examined before asylum is granted.

On Thursday, Germany’s foreign and interior ministries indicated that citizens fleeing Russia could apply for asylum in Germany.

”Deserters threatened with serious repression can - as a rule - obtain international protection in Germany,” Germany’s interior minister Nancy Faeser was quoted saying in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. 

Germany had taken in 438 people from Russia through a program that is supposed to offer protection to dissidents, journalists and scientists, adding that procedures had already been changed in April so that “as a rule, conscientious objection is a reason for protection,” interior minister spokesperson Maximilian Kall said.

Exact number of Russians applying for asylum is not yet available.

UN experts say evidence shows war crimes, including torture of children, committed in Ukraine

A United Nations panel of experts says their investigation has found evidence that war crimes have been committed during Russia’s war in Ukraine, including cases of rape and torture of children.

“In the cases we have investigated, the age of victims of sexual and gendered-based violence ranged from four to 82 years,” Erik Møse, chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. “The Commission has documented cases in which children have been raped, tortured, and unlawfully confined. Children have also been killed and injured in indiscriminate attacks with explosive weapons.”

The panel said that it had identified two incidents of ill-treatment of Russian soldiers in Ukrainian captivity.

The three human rights experts on the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine traveled to Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy, visiting 27 towns and interviewing more than 150 people.

Speaking at the UN Security Council on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the “increased activity of international justice,” calling it “undoubtedly a put-up job.”

The Commission said “some Russian Federation soldiers” have been responsible for sexual and gender-based violence.

“These acts amounted to different types of violations of rights, including sexual violence, torture, and cruel and inhuman treatment. There are examples of cases where relatives were forced to witness the crimes,” it added. 

Møse also noted that a number of attacks investigated by the panel “had been carried out without distinguishing between civilians and combatants, including cluster munition attacks and airstrikes on populated areas.”

Commission members “were struck by the large number of executions in the areas that we visited,” Møse added.

“Common elements of such crimes include the prior detention of the victims as well as visible signs of executions on bodies, such as hands tied behind backs, gunshot wounds to the head, and slit throats,” he reported. “Some of the victims reported that after initial detention by Russian forces in Ukraine, they were transferred to the Russian Federation and held for weeks in prisons. Interlocutors described beatings, electric shocks, and forced nudity, as well as other types of violations in such detention facilities.”

Western countries slam the Russian-backed "sham" referendums in Ukraine

A woman votes during a referendum in a mobile polling station in Mariupol, Donetsk People's Republic, Ukraine, on September 23.

Four Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine began voting in referendums on joining Russia, according to their separatist leaders. The referendums are illegal under international law and dismissed as “a sham” by Western governments and Kyiv.

Here’s what governments around the world are saying:

United Kingdom:

The outcome of “sham” secession referendums in four Russian-occupied Ukrainian regions is “almost certainly already decided,” the UK ambassador to Ukraine said on Friday.

“There will be results publicised of something that didn’t happen. I wonder whether anyone will even be called to vote. They won’t need to. The outcome is almost certainly already decided,” Melinda Simmons said on Twitter

Switzerland:

”Switzerland condemns sham referendums in parts of Ukraine” the Swiss Federal Council said in a statement on Friday, adding that ”the referendums currently taking place in Ukrainian territories partially occupied by Russia do not conform with the law and are illegal under international law.”

Condemning the violation, the Federal Council also said it “will not recognize the results of any of these sham referendums.”

The President of the Swiss Confederation Ignazio Cassis clearly stated this position to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in New York on Wednesday when representatives from countries around the world met for the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, the statement added.

NATO (A US-led alliance)

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the plan to hold so-called ‘referenda’ on joining the Russian Federation in the Ukrainian regions partly controlled by the Russian military,” the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s principle decision-making body said in a statement.  

“Allies do not and will never recognize Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea. Sham referenda in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions of Ukraine have no legitimacy and will be a blatant violation of the UN Charter. NATO Allies will not recognize their illegal and illegitimate annexation,” the council added.  

US has privately warned Russia against using nuclear weapons for several months, officials say

A Russian Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launcher parades through Red Square during the general rehearsal of the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow, Russia, on May 7.

The US has privately communicated to Russia for the past several months that there will be consequences if Moscow chooses to use a nuclear weapon, according to US officials.

It was not immediately clear how or when the warnings were sent. The State Department was involved, according to one official. The Biden administration has also leaned heavily on intelligence channels to communicate sensitive messages to Moscow throughout the buildup and prosecution of Russia’s war in Ukraine, including recently in the negotiations over wrongfully detained Americans.

The warnings come as Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to turn to nuclear weapons in a speech on Wednesday amid a series of embarrassing setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine.

US officials have emphasized that this is not the first time Putin has threatened to turn to nuclear weapons since the start of his re-invasion of Ukraine in February, although some analysts have seen this threat as more specific and escalatory than the Russian president’s past rhetoric.

For now, top CIA officials have said publicly that they have seen no signs that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons. But some military analysts have been concerned that Russia may seek to use a so-called tactical, or battlefield, nuclear weapon in response to its poor showing in Ukraine — a tactic sometimes called “escalate to deescalate.” Intelligence officials believe Putin would likely only turn to that option he felt Russia or his regime were existentially endangered, and it’s not clear if he would feel that losing his war in Ukraine would fit that description.

Ukrainian foreign minister meets with Chinese counterpart

Ukraine’s foreign minister has met with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Dmytro Kuleba posted a photo on Twitter of him shaking hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

“I met with State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi to discuss relations between Ukraine and China,” Kuleba wrote. “My counterpart reaffirmed China’s respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as its rejection of the use of force as a means of resolving differences.”

Wang Yi met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.

What China says: The Chinese news agency Xinhua provided Beijing’s account of the meeting between Wang and Kuleba.

“Chinese President Xi Jinping has pointed out that sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected, the purposes and principles of the UN Charter must be fully observed, the legitimate security concerns of all countries must be taken seriously, and all efforts that are conducive to the peaceful settlement of the crisis must be supported,” it quoted Wang as saying.

Wang said that “China has always been committed to promoting peace talks, never stands idly by, never adds fuel to the fire, and never takes advantage of the situation for self-interest,” Xinhua reported. 

Analysis: Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan last week — but the mood was noticeably different from their triumphant meeting in Beijing, weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Putin conceded that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about his faltering invasion, in a subtle nod to the limits of China’s backing and the growing asymmetry in their relationship.

The shift in tone is unsurprising given Russia’s string of humiliating defeats on the battlefield, which has exposed Putin’s weakness to his friends and enemies alike. 

Read more here:

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, gestures while speaking to Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. (Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

As Russia raises nuclear specter in Ukraine, China looks the other way

CNN’s Tim Lister contributed reporting to this post.

Ukrainian officials describe ‘coercion’ tactics of "sham" referendums

Ukrainian officials from occupied areas of the country are on Friday accusing pro-Russian forces of using coercive tactics in referendums on secession, which Western leaders have described as a “sham.”

Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s Ukrainian mayor, said on Telegram that “the main means of coercion for voting is door-to-door canvassing.”

Mariupol is in Donetsk, one of four Ukrainian regions – occupied to varying degrees by Russian and pro-Russian forces – where Russian-backed leaders are holding what Ukraine and Western governments have decried as sham referendums on joining the Russian Federation.

Andriushchenko is not in the city, but has been a reliable conduit for information from Mariupol. CNN is not able to independently verify his and other characterizations.

“Polling stations are located in shops and cafes,” Andriushchenko said. “However, they are empty. There are no usual amenities such as polling booths there. The mark is made under the close supervision of armed people. This is what Russian democracy looks like.”

Yurii Sobolevskyi, deputy head of the Kherson Regional Council, told CNN that the effort being carried out in his region has seen very little turnout.

“Most people are determined not to go,” he said. “That’s why this door-to-door idea came about, because when armed people come to your house, it will be difficult and dangerous even to refuse to vote.”

He said that the United Russia political party – the ruling party in Russia – has been campaigning for secession while also handing out food packages to residents.

He said that the population of Kherson city, which is occupied, had been reduced by half since Russia’s invasion. Those who remain, he said, skewed toward the elderly.

The Ukrainian mayor-in-exile of Melitopol – which is in Zaporizhzhia region, and occupied by Russia – also urged residents to boycott the vote.

Ivan Fedorov said on Telegram that to participate was to “assume part of the responsibility for war crimes in Bucha, Borodianka, Mariupol, Izium, etc.”

“Participation in a pseudo-referendum is the worst betrayal,” he said. “Yourself, your family, all Ukrainians, your country!”

Kremlin says LPR, DPR, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions can join Russia "quite soon" following referendums

A woman casts her ballot during the first day of a referendum on the joining of Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine to Russia, in Sevastopol, Crimea, on September 23.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Friday the territories currently controlled by Russian forces and holding so-called referendums on joining Russia can become part of the Russian Federation “quite soon.” 

The referendums have been widely condemned by western governments and in Kyiv as illegitimate. 

Some background: Parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – which are occupied to varying degrees by Russian or pro-Russian forces – have begun what pro-Russian local administrations call “referendums” on whether to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.

Speaking at a regular press briefing Friday, Peskov explained what steps Russia would take if the regions announce majorities in favor of joining Russia.

“Of course, certain decisions of our parliament and president will be required, as well as the signing of the necessary documents, that is, a whole range of procedures,” Peskov said.

Once the procedure of those territories officially joining Russia is complete, Russian law will apply there.

When asked if that would mean any attempt of Ukraine to regain the territories would be regarded as an attack on Russian territory, Peskov said: “Of course.”
“If the act of entry of these territories into the Russian Federation is carried out, then the relevant provisions of our Constitution will apply [there],” he added.

When pressed further on how long the recognition process might take, Peskov said:

“I can’t say exactly, but I’m actually convinced that it will be quite soon.”

Large parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions are still held by Ukrainian forces. The voting processes are irregular, and the process been dismissed Western governments and Kyiv as a “sham,” held under military occupation and effectively carried out at gunpoint. Western governments have said they will not recognize the results or the absorption of these areas into Russia.

It's 3pm in Kyiv. Here's what we know.

Russian President Vladimir Putin dramatically escalated the conflict this week, after announcing the “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens. Today, the war enters a new phase, with what have been denounced as “sham” referendums on joining Russia being held in four Ukrainian regions.

  • “Referendums” on joining Russia have begun: Separatist leaders in four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine say that referendums on joining Russia are underway. Western and Ukrainian leaders alike have denounced the exercise – which will take place in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia – as a farce of no legal consequence.
  • Kremlin says four regions can join Russia “quite soon”: Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Friday that the territories holding the so-called referendums can become part of the Russian Federation “quite soon.” This could provide Moscow with a pretext to further escalate the conflict, since Putin claimed on Wednesday he would use “all the means at our disposal” to protect the “territorial integrity” of Russia.
  • Ukrainian leaders urge vote boycotts: Serhii Hayday, the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, said on Telegram: “Russians will calculate and draw any result that is favorable to them.” He said the presence of an “armed man” in each polling station “should force people meekly to cast their vote.” Hayday is one of several Ukrainian leaders urging people to boycott the vote.
  • Tearful goodbyes as “partial mobilization” begins: Many Russians have bid emotional farewells to their families, following Putin’s announcement that 300,000 reservists would be drafted into the army to bolster his faltering invasion. Some have attempted to flee the country, with a sharp spike in the demand for – and price of – flights to visa-free destinations.
  • Anti-war protesters drafted into army: More than 1,300 protesters were arrested after Putin’s speech on Wednesday, as anti-war opposition broke out across the country. Some of those detained have been directly conscripted into the Russian army, according to a monitoring group. The punishment for refusing the draft is now 15 years in jail.
  • Russia rebuked at United Nations Security Council meeting: “Russia really felt the hot breath of world opinion” at Thursday’s UNSC meeting, a senior US State Department official said. Russia has long looked to China for support in its war efforts, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did not receive “a shred of comfort” from his Chinese counterpart, according to the official. “Everybody said this war has to end.”
  • Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince aided prisoner release: Mohammad bin Salman took a “direct” and “personal” role in the release of 10 foreign prisoners held by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists on Wednesday. According to a Saudi official, it was MBS’ “own initiative” to speak with Putin. “Regular calls” since April led to the release of 5 Britons, 2 Americans, 1 Moroccan, 1 Croatian and 1 Swede.

Saudi Crown Prince took “direct” and “personal” role in release of 10 prisoners held by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists

Prisoners of war sit after a swap in a location given as Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in this screen grab taken from a handout video on September 21.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took a “direct” and “personal” role in the release of 10 foreign prisoners held by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists Wednesday.

According to a Saudi official with knowledge of the Crown Prince’s role, it was “his own initiative” to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The official said that since April, the Crown Prince has “talked to President Putin”, had “regular calls” with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and had “regular meetings with the Ukraine envoy.” These conversations led the Crown Prince – often referred to as MBS – to think he might be able to help prisoner exchange talks on the issue of the foreign prisoners.

The release of the 5 Britons, 2 Americans, 1 Moroccan, 1 Croatian and 1 Swede, who had been captured by the separatists while fighting for Ukraine over the past several months, came the same day Putin threatened possible nuclear war.

The Saudis were puzzled by the contradictory nature of the two moves from Putin, but the official said that the success of the prisoner release could encourage the Crown Prince to do more to help end the war. “This war has destabilized the whole world and we’re talking about nuclear war. That’s not good for anyone,” the official said.

Luhansk's Ukrainian governor says Russia will "calculate" favorable result in "pseudo-referendum"

People gather to attend voting in a referendum in front of a mobile polling station in Krasny Yar village outside Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, on September 23.

The Ukrainian governor of Luhansk on Friday described the process begun by pro-Russian separatist leaders in the eastern region as a “pseudo-referendum,” adding that Russia will “calculate” a favorable result in the vote.

“Russians will calculate and draw any result that is favorable to them,” Serhii Hayday said on Telegram. “The opinion of the population has no importance.”

“An armed man is involved in each polling station, the appearance of which should force people to meekly cast their vote,” Hayday said.

The Luhansk region is almost entirely controlled by Russian and pro-Russian forces. But it remains contested – Ukrainian forces liberated the village of Bilohorivka earlier this week.

Hayday warned that “criminal liability” awaits anyone who helps organize the endeavor.

“It does not matter who: whether it is the initiator, agitator, member of the polling station – collaborative and separatist activities are punishable by up to 15 years in prison,” he added.

Mykhailo Podoliak, adviser to the head of the office of President Volodymyr Zelensky, described the referendums in Luhansk and three other regions as a “propaganda show” designed to aid recruitment in Russia.

Some background: Separatist leaders in four regions of Ukraine say that referendums on joining Russia are underway.

Western and Ukrainian leaders alike have denounced the exercise, which will take place in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, as a “sham” of no legal consequence, and the move is widely seen as a forgone conclusion in support of annexation.

The referendums, which run counter to international law upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty, could pave the way for Moscow to frame the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive as an attack on Russia itself.

Tearful goodbyes and an exodus from Russia as Putin's "partial mobilization" begins