September 23, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Amy Woodyatt, Christian Edwards, Hannah Strange, Aditi Sangal and Adrienne Vogt, CNN

Updated 9:32 p.m. ET, September 23, 2022
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9:32 p.m. ET, September 23, 2022

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

From CNN's Yulia Kesaieva and Jennifer Hauser

Unidentified makeshift graves are seen at the Pishanske cemetery in Izium, on Friday.
Unidentified makeshift graves are seen at the Pishanske cemetery in Izium, on Friday. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

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.

6:57 p.m. ET, September 23, 2022

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

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

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.

6:45 p.m. ET, September 23, 2022

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

From Yulia Kesaieva and Mohammed Tawfeeq

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.
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. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

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.

6:33 p.m. ET, September 23, 2022

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:

5:14 p.m. ET, September 23, 2022

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

From CNN's Sam Fossum

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.

4:32 p.m. ET, September 23, 2022

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

From CNN's Tim Lister and Yulia Kesaieva

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.

4:17 p.m. ET, September 23, 2022

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

From CNN's Idris Muktar

European Council President Charles Michel speaks during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, on Friday, September 23.
European Council President Charles Michel speaks during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, on Friday, September 23. (Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

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."

3:48 p.m. ET, September 23, 2022

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

From CNN's Kylie Atwood

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

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.”

8:01 p.m. ET, September 23, 2022

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

From CNN's AJ Davis

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

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.