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Russia has continued to shell cities across Ukraine as the war rages on. In an annual address Wednesday, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said the war has strengthened Europe's unity, and that "no one in the West is afraid and will ever be afraid of Russia."
Zelensky also thanked Ukrainian servicemen, calling them "heroes" and said the powerful weapons Ukraine has received have strengthened its advantage.
If you're just now catching up, here's what you need to know:
Ongoing shelling. Russia struck cities including Kherson and Oleshky in the south and Kharkiv in the east. As fighting near the key Ukrainian city of Kreminna in the eastern Luhansk region continues, Russian civilians who had come to the city have stopped their work and left, according to the head of Luhansk's military administration. If the Ukrainian military is able to dislodge the Russians from Kreminna, the Ukrainian military could then proceed in two directions, the official said. Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials have called on residents to evacuate Kherson as the city was impacted 23 times over the last 24 hours.
Electricity deficit. Ukraine's power grid electricity deficit grew on Wednesday due to the shelling of gas infrastructure in eastern Ukraine, state power utility Ukrenergo said in an update. Ukraine, which has faced a wide assault on critical infrastructure and power sources since early October, will not experience further power restrictions because of the growing deficit, Ukenergo said. However, the power utility added that "all regions were informed about consumption limits, the excess of which leads to the need for emergency outages.” In the last three months, the power grid has suffered nine missile and 12 Russian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks, according to Ukrenergo.
Paul Whelan. The White House on Wednesday renewed its commitment to getting US citizen and former Marine Paul Whelan returned from Russian detention on the four-year anniversary of his arrest. In a statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Whelan's detention "unacceptable" and said that efforts to secure Paul’s release will not cease until he is back home with his family where he belongs."
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his annual address Wednesday to the Ukrainian Parliament that the war Russia has waged on his country has strengthened Europe's unity, and that "no one in the West is afraid and will ever be afraid of Russia."
"It was Ukraine that united the European Union. Turned out, it is possible," Zelensky said from the parliament's floor. "And now Europe protects itself. Europe overcomes crises. And this is despite the enormous resources thrown by Russia to wreck our continent."
"For the first time in history, some European countries have reconsidered the notion of staying neutral and are resisting aggression together with us, together with Ukraine," he added. "We helped Europe and most of the world to feel that to be neutral now is, I'm sorry, but to be immoral."
Zelensky went on to say that countries are no longer interested "in whether Russia will hear them," but rather "what else to expect from Ukraine, what else Ukraine can give to Europe, what else we can give to the world."
Zelensky also thanked Ukrainian servicemen, calling them "heroes" and said the powerful weapons Ukraine has received have strengthened its advantage.
"And let me remind you — a year ago it seemed impossible that our state would have 'Patriot' air defense systems. But now we do have such an agreement," he said. "This is a special sign of trust to Ukraine. This is a true alliance with the United States of America. We have achieved this."
During his address, Zelensky also honored Ukrainian Capt. Pavlo Cherniavskyi, the commander of a HIMARS battery, who had asked Zelensky to present his award to US President Joe Biden during Zelensky's trip to Washington.
"It was an honor for me to fulfill this special mission. But it has a second part to it," Zelensky said. "President Biden in return handed over a Command Coin — a special symbol from the President of the United States of America. Captain! Pavlo! I owe to give this Command Coin to you now," Zelensky said.
Zelensky also thanked Biden, both parties of Congress "and every American family for the historic support of Ukraine, the support of our citizens."
As fighting near the key Ukrainian city of Kreminna in the eastern Luhansk region continues, Russian civilians who had come to the city have stopped their work and left, Serhiy Hayday, head of the Luhansk region military administration, said Wednesday in a television interview.
"The military command has indeed moved [from Kreminna] to other settlements. All the Russians who came to work, the civilians — doctors, repair teams — they have all stopped their work, all left for the Russian Federation, and all the work that was started is now frozen," Hayday said.
Why Kreminna matters: If the Ukrainian military is able to dislodge the Russians from Kreminna, the Ukrainian military could then proceed in two directions, Hayday said.
"There are two prospects. The first is to go to Starobilsk, which is the logistics center of Luhansk region. Whoever controls Starobilsk will be able to control the entire logistics of the Luhansk region with firepower. In other words, there will be almost no roads left along which the enemy could quietly move either personnel or equipment," Hayday said.
"The second direction is towards Rubizhne and Severodonetsk. This is in order to break the grouping, which is now constantly, round the clock, advancing towards Bakhmut. It could be split in two and, accordingly, make the defense for the military who are defending Bakhmut easier," Hayday said.
Hayday said two of the larger cities in Luhansk region near Kreminna, Severodonetsk and Rubizhne, have been "practically destroyed" by Russian forces over four and a half months of occupation and "therefore these cities cannot be any big defense bases," Hayday said.
"Accordingly, as soon as the major cities are de-occupied, the next step is relatively the countryside. Therefore they [Russian forces] will not be able to hold out there for long," he said.
Some background: Kreminna has been occupied since the spring and lies on a key north-south road from Svatove, which Russian troops had been using for resupplies. Losing Kreminna would limit Russia's ability to resupply its troops in the key city of Severodonetsk.
Ukrainian officials are calling on residents to evacuate from the city of Kherson as Russia continues its attacks on the southern city.
Some residents who lived through the Russian occupation are reluctant to leave, according to a local official who has been involved in helping residents with the evacuation.
"I'm telling these people that Kherson is one of the most dangerous cities right now. So I ask them to imagine that they are going on vacation for a couple of weeks. It may be easier for them to decide to move this way. But still, a lot of people are staying in the city,” local Kherson city council member Dmytro Poddubniy told CNN.
Local authorities knocked on Inna Balyoha’s door on Wednesday to convince her to leave Kherson. But Balyoha told CNN she fears her elderly and sick mother cannot endure the journey.
“She is very weak. She will not reach another city. Many remain in Kherson under shelling because of their parents,” Balyoha told CNN.
More than half of Balyoha's neighbors have already left. There are 86 flats in her building but only 29 remain occupied, she said.
An evacuee, Kateryna Malenkova, who spoke to CNN from Odesa where she has relocated after leaving Kherson, said the constant shelling became unbearable. Her mother remains in Kherson and refuses to leave. “She says she built the house and doesn’t want to leave it," Malenkova said.
Another evacuee, 56-year-old Kherson native Yana Yermochenko, and her mother heeded the warnings from officials. They decided to leave Kherson in early December after experiencing constant shelling by Russian forces which left the pair of women shaking with fear. When the occupation ended, Yermochenko expected Russian retribution. “When we were under occupation, we understood that as soon as the Russians left, they would start bombing us… They're just trying to destroy us,” she said.
“It's a lottery, you never know what place the rocket will strike, and you don't know if you will live or die,” Yermochenko told CNN.
The White House is renewing its commitment to getting Paul Whelan returned from Russian detention on the four-year anniversary of his arrest.
"We will not stop, we will not relent, we will not cease until all Americans can celebrate Paul’s return," national security adviser Jake Sullivan wrote in a statement Wednesday.
Whelan, a US citizen and former Marine, was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and arrested on espionage charges, which he and the US vehemently reject.
Whelan was not included in a prisoner swap earlier this month that freed fellow American Brittney Griner from Russian detention. Despite US attempts at negotiating a joint release of the two Americans, Russia views Whelan’s case differently, American officials have said, and rejected those offers.
“I was arrested for a crime that never occurred,” Whelan told CNN's Jennifer Hansler in a phone call from the penal colony where he is being held in a remote part of Russia on the day of Griner's release. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”
Members of Whelan's family said they welcomed Griner's release and said they were in touch with the White House about Paul's case.
"Paul and the Whelan family recently showed the entire country the meaning of generosity of spirit in celebrating a fellow American’s return while Russia continues its deplorable treatment of Paul as a bargaining chip," Sullivan wrote in his statement.
Moscow has demanded the release of a former colonel from Russia’s domestic spy organization in exchange for Whelan. The US has been unable to deliver upon that request because the ex-colonel is serving a life sentence in Germany.
If you're just joining us, here's everything you need to know about Wednesday's developments in Russia's war in Ukraine.
Russian shelling continues: Moscow struck Oleshky and Kherson in the south and Kharkiv in the east.
- The shelling in Oleshky killed at least one man, injured five others, and damaged a high-rise building and kiosks on the town’s market, according to Mayor Yevhen Ryshchuk.
- Russia hit Kherson city 23 times in the past 24 hours and the larger Kherson region was impacted 50 times, said Yaroslav Yanushevych, head of the Kherson regional military administration. The strike targets included a maternity ward where there were no casualties, according to Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the office of the president of Ukraine. However, other shelling did injure three civilians to varying degrees, officials said.
- A district of the northeastern city of Kharkiv was hit with rockets on Wednesday, injuring one civilian, according to Oleh Syniehubov, the head of the Kharkiv regional military administration.
Moscow bans oil supply to countries that agreed to price caps: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Tuesday banning oil supplies to countries that have introduced a price cap on Russian crude oil at $60 a barrel, according to the decree published on the Kremlin’s website — a move that may prove to be largely symbolic. The United States, Canada, the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom and Australia all agreed to the price cap.
The power situation in Ukraine: The electricity deficit in the Ukrainian power grid grew on Wednesday due to shelling of gas infrastructure in eastern Ukraine, according to the latest update from state power utility Ukrenergo. While the deficit did not mean further power restrictions due to relatively warm weather, "the available capacity in the system is not enough to meet all the needs of consumers in the country," Ukrenergo said, adding that all regions have been informed about consumption limits. Ukraine has been facing a wide assault on critical infrastructure and power sources since early October, with the power grid suffering through nine missile and 12 Russian UAV attacks, according to Ukrenergo.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday recommitted to his pledge to work to bring American Paul Whelan home from Russia on the fourth anniversary of his wrongful detention.
"His detention remains unacceptable, and we continue to press for his immediate release at every opportunity," Blinken said in a statement. "I am committed to bringing home Paul and all U.S. hostages and wrongful detainees held around the world."
"As the President said directly to the Whelan family, our efforts to secure Paul’s release will not cease until he is back home with his family where he belongs," he said.
Whelan’s sister said Wednesday that it’s “a sign of weakness that the Russian authorities continue this practice of hostage-diplomacy by refusing to release my brother, who they know full well was arrested and sentenced on charges they themselves concocted.”
“The Kremlin appears to have lost the plot,” Elizabeth Whelan told CNN.
“Enough with this 'spy' horse crap, already!” she said. “Is this what passes for competent negotiating at the Kremlin? Because any random person at the local flea market could manage to make a deal with more skill.”
“And they certainly aren't 'winning friends and influencing people' in this household, that's for sure!” Elizabeth Whelan added.
Whelan's brother called the four-year anniversary of Paul’s detention “both awful and mundane,” questioning, “How do you mark such an awful milestone when there is no resolution in sight?”
In an emailed message to the media, David Whelan said the anniversary is “another day that Paul has to suffer in a Russian labor colony for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Another day that our parents have to suffer without being able to see or be with their son. It is both a culmination of lost life - four years of missed birthdays, Christmases, and other experiences — and also not an end point,” he wrote. “It's merely a marker of their suffering, not an indicator that the suffering will come to an end before another milestone, another year passes.”
“We continue to be grateful for the efforts of the US government to persuade the Kremlin to release Paul,” David Whelan added.
“Hopefully these efforts will be successful. Hopefully Paul will be able to stop by our parent's home and visit them, free at last, before another milestone passes. On milestones, sometimes all you have is hope,” he said.
Some background: Whelan was arrested in Moscow in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020.
The Biden administration was unable to secure his release when they brought detained WNBA star Brittney Griner home last in a prisoner swap for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in mid-December.
Multiple US officials said that the Russians refused to negotiate a deal for Whelan, and CNN reported that Moscow repeatedly demanded a convicted murderer who is in German custody in exchange for the ex-Marine.
"This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American — Brittney Griner — or bringing home none," a US senior administration official said.
Whelan told CNN in a call the day Griner was released, "It's a win for America when our citizens are repatriated and are back at home with their families, but I have to say I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release. Especially as the four year anniversary of my arrest is coming up."
The electricity deficit in the Ukrainian power grid grew on Wednesday due to shelling of gas infrastructure in eastern Ukraine, according to the latest update from state power utility Ukrenergo.
“As of December 28, the electricity deficit in the system has increased. This is due to the stop of some units of power plants due to the shelling of gas infrastructure in the eastern region,” Ukrenergo said in a statement.
Ukraine has been facing a wide assault on critical infrastructure and power sources since early October.
The deficit did not mean further power restrictions because of “relatively warm weather," Ukenergo said, but added: "the available capacity in the system is not enough to meet all the needs of consumers in the country. In this regard, all regions were informed about consumption limits, the excess of which leads to the need for emergency outages.”
In the last three months, the power grid has suffered nine missile and 12 Russian UAV attacks, according to Ukrenergo.
“As a result, generation facilities and transmission systems suffered large-scale and complex damage. Their restoration requires significant resources and time. Repair teams of Ukrenergo, electricity producers and distribution system operators are working continuously,” the statement said.