February 24, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Aditi Sangal, Meg Wagner, Adrienne Vogt, Melissa Macaya, Rob Picheta, Lauren Said-Moorhouse, Ed Upright, Maureen Chowdhury and Fernando Alfonso III, CNN

Updated 8:06 a.m. ET, February 25, 2022
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9:18 p.m. ET, February 24, 2022

White House condemns Russia over "credible reports" of taking staff hostage at Chernobyl

From CNN's Sam Fossum and Tim Lister

The White House on Thursday condemned Russia over “credible reports” that civilian staff of the Chernobyl power plant in northern Ukraine had been taken hostage.

"We are outraged by credible reports that Russian soldiers are currently holding staff of the Chernobyl facilities hostage," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
"This unlawful and dangerous hostage taking, which could upend the routine civil service efforts required to maintain and protect the nuclear waste facilities, is obviously incredibly alarming and greatly concerning. We condemn it and we request their release."

Russians take Chernobyl: Ukrainian officials on Thursday confirmed that Russian forces had overtaken the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster. 

Alyona Shevtsova, adviser to the supreme commander of Ukrainian Ground Forces, said on Facebook that Russian forces have taken control of the power station and staff members were being "held hostage." 

"After the fierce battle, our control over the Chornobyl zone was lost. The condition of the former ChNPP facilities, confinement and nuclear waste storage facilities is unknown. After a completely senseless Russian attack in this direction, it is impossible to say that Chernobyl is safe. This is one of the most serious threats to Europe today," Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, said earlier on Thursday. 

The nuclear disaster: In 1986, more than 30 people died after an explosion ripped through one of the Chernobyl power station's reactors. In the years and months that followed, many more people died from radiation symptoms.

In the immediate aftermath, a steel and concrete sarcophagus was constructed to cover the damaged reactor and contain the radioactive material, but it has deteriorated since then — leaking radiation. 

In 2016 the New Safe Confinement arch was put in place to seal off the aging and hastily-constructed sarcophagus. In 2020 the facility was handed over to Ukrainian authorities, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

8:49 p.m. ET, February 24, 2022

China's Embassy in Ukraine to organize charter flights to evacuate Chinese nationals  

From CNN's Isaac Yee and Beijing Bureau

China’s Embassy in Kyiv is organizing charter flights to evacuate Chinese nationals out of Ukraine on a voluntary basis due to the “high security risk” in the country.

In a statement released Thursday, the embassy said: “At present, the domestic situation in Ukraine is rapidly deteriorating. Chinese citizens and Chinese enterprises in Ukraine are at high security risk,” adding that in order to prepare for charter flights, registration for citizens to leave the country has now started.

Flight times will be determined by the safety situation, the statement added.

There are currently around 6,000 Chinese nationals in Ukraine according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

9:03 p.m. ET, February 24, 2022

Brazilian soccer players plead for help evacuating from Ukraine

From journalist Rodrigo Pedroso in São Paulo

Brazilian soccer players based in Ukraine pleaded for their government to help evacuate them from the country on Thursday, as President Jair Bolsonaro and his vice president publicly disputed how to refer to the war. 

"Due to lack of fuel, closed borders, closed airspace, we cannot go out. We are asking for support from the government of Brazil, which can help us,” Marlon Santos, who plays for Shakhtar Donetsk, said in a video, speaking alongside 11 other Brazilian footballers and their families.

Shakhtar Donetsk is one of Ukraine's most popular and successful soccer clubs, becoming the first club in independent Ukraine to the Europe-wide UEFA Cup in 2009. In recent years, it has been forced to relocate away from the city of Donetsk. Last season it played in Kyiv.

A spokesperson from the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, Leonardo Gorgulho, said on Thursday that the government does not currently have a means to safely rescue the estimated 500 Brazilians living in Ukraine. “The evacuation will be carried out as soon as we have security conditions,” Gorgulho said.

Bolsonaro, VP, dispute how to refer to the war: Meanwhile, President Bolsonaro, who visited his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin last week, was at odds with his own vice president on Thursday over how to refer to the war in Ukraine. 

During a live broadcast on his social media, Bolsonaro refrained from calling the situation in Ukraine a war or an invasion and said he will meet with his ministers “so that we can have a dimension of what is happening and Brazil will have its position (on the issue).”

However, earlier on Thursday, Vice President Hamilton Mourão condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and called for actions beyond economic sanctions on Putin’s government.

“Brazil is not neutral. Brazil does not agree with an invasion of Ukrainian territory,” he said. 

Bolsonaro, on his Facebook live, however, said that Brazil’s official position on the matter was up to him as President, not to Mourão. 

A news release from the Brazilian Foreign Ministry on Thursday also refrained from describing the situation in Ukraine an invasion or a war. The ministry called for an “immediate suspension of hostilities and the beginning of negotiations.”

8:46 p.m. ET, February 24, 2022

Japan to impose a range of sanctions on Russian interests

From CNN's Junko Ogura in Tokyo and Caitlin McGee

Japan will impose a series of sanctions targeting Russian financial institutions, military organizations and individuals in response to the invasion of Ukraine, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Friday.

The range of measures include freezing the assets of certain Russian individuals and financial institutions while also banning exports to Russian military organizations.

"In response to this situation, we will strengthen our sanction measures in close cooperation with the G7 and the rest of the international community," Kishida said in a news conference.

The prime minister said there are about 120 Japanese citizens still in Ukraine and the Japanese embassy is working with Poland to try and ensure their safety.

"The Japanese embassy in Ukraine will take all possible measures to protect Japanese nationals. We will set up a government liaison office in Lviv to assist the evacuation by land to Poland," he said.

8:43 p.m. ET, February 24, 2022

US senators express bipartisan support for emergency aid package

From CNN's Manu Raju

After a call between US senators and briefers from the Biden administration, one senator told CNN “there was broad bipartisan agreement” for emergency funding legislation to help shore up the defense capabilities of NATO allies on the alliance's eastern flank, and to assist with refugees and humanitarian needs.

While the administration has not specified how much would be needed, the senator estimated the package could cost about $10 billion.

8:39 p.m. ET, February 24, 2022

New Zealand imposes travel and export bans against Russian officials and forces

From Caitlin McGee in Auckland, New Zealand

New Zealand has imposed targeted travel bans against Russian officials, and is prohibiting the export of goods to the Russian military and security forces in response to the invasion of Ukraine, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Friday.

New Zealand has also suspended bilateral ministry consultations until further notice, and again called on Russia to return to talks to resolve the crisis. 

"Right here and now we need to take immediate action ... what we have here is a member of the UN Security Council who is now blatantly undermining our international rules-based order," Ardern said at a news conference in Wellington.

The New Zealand government will also offer humanitarian aid but Ardern said it was too early to say what would entail. Consular staff are on standby in eastern Poland to offer help to any New Zealand citizens trying to get out of Ukraine, she said.

"This is the blatant use of military might and violence that will take innocent lives and we must stand against it," Arden said. 

"The institutions built to avoid conflict have been threatened and we stand resolute in our duty to provide swift and ongoing condemnation of actions that are putting lives at risk ... our thoughts today are with the people of Ukraine affected by this conflict. Decades of peace and security in the region have been undermined," she said.

8:31 p.m. ET, February 24, 2022

Audio emerges appearing to be of Ukrainian fighters defending island from Russian warship

From CNN's From Tim Lister in Kyiv and Josh Pennington

An audio clip has emerged of what appears to be an exchange between Ukrainian soldiers on an island in the Black Sea and an officer of the Russian Navy.

All the soldiers — who were defending Snake Island — are reported to have been killed, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

"All border guards died heroically but did not give up. They will be awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine posthumously," Zelensky said.  

At some point on Thursday, a Russian warship approached the island. 

According to the purported audio exchange, the Russian officer says: "This is a military warship. This is a Russian military warship. I suggest you lay down your weapons and surrender to avoid bloodshed and needless casualties. Otherwise, you will be bombed."

The alleged response from a Ukrainian soldier: "Russian warship, go f*** yourself."

8:27 p.m. ET, February 24, 2022

Blinken briefs US lawmakers, says this will be "a bloody mess for Russia"

From CNN's Manu Raju, Zachary Cohen, Kylie Atwood and Natasha Bertrand

In a conference call with US lawmakers, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he thinks the war will be a "bloody mess" for Russia but warned it could take a while, according to a person familiar with the call. 

This “will take a long time to play out,” Blinken told the lawmakers, the person told CNN.

He told members that how long this goes “is mostly dependent on the Ukrainian people.” Blinken added: “Will they allow themselves to be subjected to a puppet government?"

Attacked from three directions: A separate source familiar with tonight’s briefings told CNN that lawmakers were told Kyiv is under attack from the north, south and east, though it was unclear if administration officials believed it would likely fall.

The officials told lawmakers that Russia has been facing greater resistance from Ukrainian forces than anticipated, according to a fourth source on the call. But they did not say whether Kyiv would fall, as it is still too early assess the dynamics on the ground, the source said. 

Sanctions on Russia: The administration briefers also said they were launching unprecedented sanctions, “both in terms of impact and coordination” that would severely impair the tech, financial and energy sectors.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen defended not cutting Russia off from SWIFT — a high security network that connect thousands of financial institutions around the world — arguing that if was even better to directly target the big Russian banks. Though she added that "all actions remain at Treasury's disposal.”

A separate source confirmed SWIFT is not off the table, but defended the decision not to take Russia off the platform today, arguing that it is really a way of communicating and Russia would find other ways to communicate.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced a new deployment of ground and air forces to NATO's eastern flank, even as he reiterated US troops would not engage in direct conflict in Ukraine.

In the call, Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, reiterated that the US troops were aimed at both reinforcing Ukraine and trying to prevent Putin from attacking a NATO member.

7:57 p.m. ET, February 24, 2022

US secretary of state is "convinced" Moscow will try to overthrow the Ukrainian government

From CNN's From Hansler and Kylie Atwood

(From ABC News)
(From ABC News)

On Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that he is “convinced” Moscow is going to try to overthrow the Ukrainian government.

Blinken's comments came during a taped national TV interview in which he was asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin's ambitions.

“You don't need intelligence to tell you that that's exactly what President Putin wants. He has made clear he’d like to reconstitute the Soviet Empire, short of that he’d like to reassert a sphere of influence around the neighboring countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc,” said Blinken.

Blinken went on to promise that NATO would stand in the way of Putin's ultimate goals. 

“Now, when it comes to a threat beyond Ukraine’s borders. There's something very powerful standing in his way. That's article five of NATO, an attack on one is an attack on all,” the top diplomat said.