September 23, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Hafsa Khalil, Tori B. Powell, Thom Poole and Matt Meyer, CNN

Updated 6:16 PM ET, Sat September 23, 2023
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4:17 p.m. ET, September 23, 2023

Ukrainian peace plan isn't "realistic," Russian foreign minister says at the UN

From CNN's Sahar Akbarzai and Darya Tarasova

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov holds a press conference during the United Nations General Assembly on September 23 in New York City.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov holds a press conference during the United Nations General Assembly on September 23 in New York City. David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

Ukraine's blueprint for peace is not “feasible” or “realistic,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Saturday in a news conference at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Lavrov said everyone understands that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s peace formula — which he has said cannot include ceding any territory to Russia — is not feasible.

But “at the same time, everyone says this is only conditions for negotiation,” Lavrov said.

The foreign minister was asked if Moscow would hold talks with the Ukrainian government if Zelensky withdrew his decree preventing negotiations with Russia. He responded by saying that's not what Ukraine is doing, saying Zelensky is instead "going throughout the world asking for money" and weapons and attention.

More on Ukraine's peace plan: Zelensky presented Ukraine’s 10-point peace formula to world leaders at the Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, last year.

The steps include a path to nuclear safety and food security, a special tribunal for alleged Russian war crimes, and a final peace treaty with Moscow.

Zelensky — who initially proposed meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the early days of Moscow's invasion — has expressed concerns about negotiating with Russia, pointing to its past record of reneging on agreements.

Lashing out at the West: In an earlier speech at the UNGA Saturday, Lavrov also slammed the US, European Union and NATO military alliance for their support of Ukraine, calling the West an "empire of lies."

The foreign minister said governments supporting Ukraine were part of an effort to "divide the world into democracies and autocracies and dictate only their own neocolonial rules to everyone."

Moscow has justified its invasion of Ukraine, which it usually refers to as a "special military operation," by framing it as a campaign of “denazification” — a description dismissed by historians and political observers — and as a struggle against Western powers who want to destroy Russia.

More on the summit: The two-week UNGA summit has brought together 140 heads of state and government, and featured addresses from US President Joe Biden and Ukraine'sZelensky.

Putin, who now risks arrest when he travels, is not expected to attend any portion of the gathering.

Russia remains a member of the UN Security Council, despite multiple demands from the council to end the war in Ukraine. Zelensky called this week for the Security Council to remove Russia's veto power, arguing "this will be the first necessary step."

CNN's Caitlin Hu contributed to this report.

12:21 p.m. ET, September 23, 2023

3 more ships pass through designated Black Sea corridors to load at Ukrainian ports

From CNN's AnneClaire Stapleton

Three more ships passed through humanitarian corridors in the Black Sea to load at Ukrainian ports this week, US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget A. Brink said Saturday.

“Two outbound ships carrying grain destined for ports in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are now on their way to the Bosphorus," Brink added in a post on X, formally known as Twitter. "Despite Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Ukraine continues its efforts to feed the world."

Some context: Russia pulled out of a UN and Turkish brokered deal in July that had allowed Ukraine to export grain via Black Sea shipments. Moscow warned that any ships headed to Ukraine would be treated as potentially carrying weapons. 

Last month, the Ukrainian navy issued an order declaring "temporary corridors" for merchant ships sailing to and from Ukrainian ports, though it admitted there was still a threat of encountering mines or attacks by Russia along all routes.

11:25 a.m. ET, September 23, 2023

Here's what Ukraine's troops are focused on accomplishing along the southern front, according to top general

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio, Frederik Pleitgen, Daniel Hodge and Konstyantyn Gak

Gen. Oleksandr Tarnavsky speaks during an interview with CNN on September 22.
Gen. Oleksandr Tarnavsky speaks during an interview with CNN on September 22. Vasco Cotovio/CNN

The general leading Ukraine's fight along the southern front line spoke this week about his focus in the fiercely contested Zaporizhzhia region.

Gen. Oleksandr Tarnavsky believes Ukraine’s big breakthrough — the biggest of its ongoing counteroffensive — is yet to come, he told CNN’s senior international correspondent Frederik Pleitgen during an exclusive interview Friday.

"I think it will happen after Tokmak," Tarnavsky said, referring to a city that serves as a southern strategic hub for Russia, located about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the positions where Ukrainian troops are currently fighting. "At the moment they are relying on the depth of their defensive line there.”

Rather than the "Surovikin line," which is a defensive line built on the orders of former Gen. Sergey Surovikin, Tarnavsky says the bigger issues are the “crossroads, tree lines and minefields between the tree lines.” 

“(There’s) a combination of small, harmful enemy defense groups that currently are planted very precisely and competently,” he said. “But the actions of our fighters force them to slowly pull back when they face our assault squads.”

Positive about the ultimate outcome, the general conceded that for the counteroffensive to be a success, Ukrainian forces need to at least reach Tokmak. 

“Tokmak is the minimum goal,” he said. “The overall objective is to get to our state borders.”

Tarnavsky said Friday that his forces had made a breakthrough near the village of Verbove, located northeast of Tokmak in Ukraine's southern Zaporizhzhia region.

9:43 a.m. ET, September 23, 2023

What we know about the attack on Russia's Black Sea Fleet headquarters

From CNN staff

Ukraine has launched one of its most ambitious attacks yet on Crimea, targeting Russia's Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol. The Crimean peninsula was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, and Ukraine has vowed to reclaim it. Here's what we know:

  • What happened? Ukraine said its forces carried out a “successful” missile attack on the naval HQ Friday. A fire broke out in the aftermath of the attack, which also left debris scattered hundreds of meters away. Plumes of smoke could be seen pouring from the building, while officials also said shrapnel landed in a nearby theater.
  • What has Ukraine said? The country’s Special Operations Forces said Saturday that the strike was timed for when senior members of Russia's navy were convening and has left dozens dead and wounded, “including senior leadership.” Ukrainian officials have commented on the strike, with the chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People in Ukraine, Refat Chubarov, thanking those involved in the operation to "liberate" Crimea. Another Ukrainian official said that Russia's Black Sea Fleet could be "sliced up like a salami."
  • What has Russia said? Russia’s Ministry of Defense has said only one soldier is missing following the attack. “As a result of the attack, the historical headquarters building of the Black Sea Fleet was damaged,” the defense ministry stated, adding that five missiles were also shot down by their air defense systems. CNN has not been able to verify Ukraine's claim it killed Russian naval leaders.
  • What does it mean for the war? Hitting Russian facilities on occupied Crimea is a display of Ukraine's confidence — and the vulnerability of said vital infrastructure.There are plenty of reasons for Ukraine to target Crimea. It’s a sign that despite the slow progress on the front lines in its counteroffensive, Ukraine can still inflict serious damage on the Russian military. Targets such as the Crimea bridge have considerable symbolic value as well as strategic purpose. Ukrainian Defense Intelligence spokesperson Andrii Yusov said “the ultimate goal, of course, is the de-occupation of Ukrainian Crimea.”
10:59 a.m. ET, September 23, 2023

New sanctions against Russia "cause more harm to Europe than Russia," Hungarian minister says 

From CNN's Mariya Knight

Hungary's Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó speaks during an interview in Ankara, Turkey, on May 3.
Hungary's Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó speaks during an interview in Ankara, Turkey, on May 3. Omer Taha Cetin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

New sanctions against Russia are not needed because they "cause more harm to Europe than Russia," Hungary's Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said in an interview with Russian state media TASS Friday.

Szijjártó said he was speaking from a "pragmatic point of view," according to TASS, adding that "the new packages of sanctions are not necessary." 

The foreign minister said supplies of Ukrainian grain to Central European countries will destroy their agricultural sector. 

"If Ukrainian grain starts to spread into Central European countries, it will definitely destroy the agricultural markets of Central Europe. Not to mention our farmers, whom we obviously need to protect," Szijjártó continued, as cited by TASS.

Poland and Slovakia have also imposed restrictions on Ukrainian grain exports, citing the same reasons, after the European Union decided not to extend its ban on imports into those countries and fellow EU states Romania and Bulgaria.

According to Szijjártó, Hungary is ready to provide free transit of Ukrainian grain through its territory. He also noted that initially, the agreement on lines of solidarity implied permission for the transit of Ukrainian agricultural products only. 

"As I understand it, they (Ukraine) would prefer to distribute grain in Central Europe, but the original agreement on lines of solidarity was not about that," he said, according to TASS, adding that the agreement implied "permission for transit, and not for bilateral trade."

5:49 a.m. ET, September 23, 2023

Analysis: Ukraine's attack on Crimea shows it can still inflict serious damage on Russian forces

Analysis from CNN's Tim Lister

A satellite image shows smoke billowing from the Russian Black Sea Navy HQ after a missile strike in Sevastopol, Crimea, on Friday.
A satellite image shows smoke billowing from the Russian Black Sea Navy HQ after a missile strike in Sevastopol, Crimea, on Friday. Planet Labs PBC/Reuters

The Ukrainian missile attack on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet is a sign that despite the slow progress on the front lines in its counteroffensive, Ukraine can still inflict serious damage on the Russian military. Targets such as the Crimea bridge have considerable symbolic value as well as strategic purpose.

It’s also part of a broader effort – in Crimea, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk – to hit Russian logistics, fuel, maintenance and command centers, in order to disrupt their ability to supply the front lines.

The Russian Black Sea Fleet has been involved in hundreds of cruise missile attacks against Ukraine and threatens merchant shipping using Ukrainian ports. Any disruption to its operation and command facilities (as well as the targeting of vessels at sea and in dock) is a win, especially after the Russian withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July.

Ukraine has devoted considerable effort to degrading Russian air defenses in Crimea. That effort now appears to be paying off – as Ukrainian Neptune missiles (and most probably UK-provided Storm Shadows) are capable of reaching targets deep inside Crimea.

While some US officials have been critical of Ukraine's concentration on Crimea, the Ukrainians argue that targeting anything to do with the Black Sea Fleet is worthwhile.

As the Institute for the Study of War noted Thursday, “elements of the Black Sea Fleet’s 810th Naval Infantry Brigade are engaged in critical defensive operations in western Zaporizhzhia Oblast, and the Black Sea Fleet’s 22nd Army Corps is defending positions on the east bank of Kherson Oblast.”

Read the full analysis here.

9:09 a.m. ET, September 23, 2023

Ukrainian forces have broken through in Verbove, top general says

From CNN's Vasco Cotovio, Frederik Pleitgen, Daniel Hodge, Konstyantyn Gak and Yulia Kesaieva

The general leading Ukraine’s counteroffensive along the southern front line says his forces have broken through in the southern village of Verbove – and predicts an even bigger breakthrough to come.

“On the left flank (near Verbove) we have a breakthrough and we continue to advance further,” Oleksandr Tarnavsky told CNN Senior International Correspondent Frederik Pleitgen during an interview on Friday, though he conceded his troops were moving slower than anticipated.

The general’s claim is the latest indication by Ukrainian officials that inroads are being made on the southern front in the war with Russia.

Ukrainian forces claimed in recent weeks to have penetrated the “first line” of Russian strongholds in the Zaporizhzia region, where Verbove is located, in a sign that Kyiv is edging closer to Moscow’s sprawling network of fortified trenches in southern Ukraine. But Russian-appointed officials in occupied Zaporizhzhia have given a different picture of the fighting.

CNN is unable to verify the battlefield reports of either side. However, open-source analysis of available video suggests that some Ukrainian units have crossed through an important line of Russian defenses near Verbove.

Ukraine’s long-term goal is to break Russia’s “land bridge,” which links territory it holds in the east with annexed Crimea.

At the beginning of September, Ukrainian forces said they had taken the village of Robotyne and were pushing east toward the village of Novoprokopivka. Soldiers said they expected battles for control of high ground to the south and east of the village as they approached the next layer of Russian defenses. Verbove is a few miles east from Robotyne.

Read the full story here.

9:09 a.m. ET, September 23, 2023

1 dead and 3 wounded in Russian bombardment of Ukraine’s central and southern regions

From CNN’s Maria Kostenko and Jake Kwon

Russia bombarded the Ukrainian regions of Dnipropetrovsk and Kherson overnight, killing one person and wounding three people, regional military administration chiefs said on Saturday. 

Ukraine’s southern border region of Kherson was struck by 598 shells over the past 24 hours, the region’s military administration chief Oleksandr Prokudin said on Telegram.

One person was killed and three others were wounded in the attack, according to Prokudin.

Russia used mortars, artillery, grad multiple launch rocket system, missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and aircrafts in the attack which also struck Kherson region's residential areas, medical and educational facilities, and a prison in the area surrounding the city of Kherson, Prokudin said.

Ukraine’s central region of Dnipropetrovsk sustained attacks from UAV and heavy artillery, Serhii Lysak, the head of the region’s military administration said on Telegram.

The region’s capital of Dnipro was struck by Iran-made Shahed drones, damaging a “critical infrastructure facility,” Lysak said. The attack also damaged gas stations and a traffic light in the Novooleksandrivka neighborhood, Lysak added.

Explosives dropped from a drone and heavy artillery bombardments struck other towns in the region, destroying ten houses and damaging gas pipelines, according to Lysak.

No injuries or deaths were reported from the attack on the Dnipropetrovsk region, Lysak said.

9:10 a.m. ET, September 23, 2023

Never "insult Poles" again, Poland’s prime minister tells Ukraine’s Zelensky

From CNN's Maija Ehlinger

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki attends a press conference in Warsaw on July 5.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki attends a press conference in Warsaw on July 5. Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has told Volodymyr Zelensky never to “insult Poles again” after the Ukrainian president suggested his neighbor was putting on a show over their disputes on grain exports.

The Polish leader fired back at Zelensky after the Ukrainian leader offered a veiled criticism of Poland at the United Nations’ general assembly this week, saying the dispute was “political theater” and that “some of our friends in Europe” have “made a thriller from the grain.”

On Friday, at a rally in Swidnik, Poland, Morawiecki hit back. Poland is holding elections next month, with a tight result expected.

“I want to tell President Zelensky never to insult Poles again, as he did recently during his speech at the UN,” he said.

“The Polish people will never allow this to happen, and defending the good name of Poland is not only my duty and honor, but also the most important task of the Polish government,” the Polish prime minister added.

The comments by Morawiecki risk deepening the divisions between two countries that have previously been close allies united against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Tensions between them have been rising in recent weeks over a ban on Ukrainian grain, initially put in place earlier this year by several EU nations to protect the livelihood of local farmers worried about being undercut by the low price of Ukrainian grain.

The EU announced plans to suspend the ban last week but Poland – alongside Hungary and Slovakia – said it would stick with it, sparking protests from Ukraine, which filed lawsuits against the three countries, and, subsequently, Zelensky’s comments at the UN.

Read more here.