April 20, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Andrew Raine, Travis Caldwell, George Ramsay, Jack Bantock, Laura Smith-Spark, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, April 21, 2022
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6:21 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

Russian forces attempting advance toward southeastern Zaporizhzhia, say regional officials

From CNN's Nathan Hodge in Lviv

A Ukrainian tank on the road between Pokrovske and Zaporizhzhia on April 12 in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian tank on the road between Pokrovske and Zaporizhzhia on April 12 in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. (Wojciech Grzedzinski/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Russian forces are attempting an advance toward the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, said the city's Regional Council on Wednesday, as fighting escalates across the east of the country.

"The situation at the frontline suggests that the enemy is trying to advance in direction of Zaporizhzhia, but suffers losses and focuses its main efforts on maintaining the occupied frontiers," the council said in a statement.

"Russian troops continue to shell the positions of our troops and conduct offensive operations in the direction of Pokrovske - Huliaipole," the council added.

Zaporizhzhia lies north of the besieged city of Mariupol, and is set to form part of an evacuation corridor reportedly agreed on with Russia for Wednesday.

Women, children, and the elderly would be evacuated from the southeastern port city toward Manhush, onward through the Russian held-city of Berdyansk and then toward Zaporizhzhia, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

Russian forces occupy the southern part of the region, and according to the council they have established a base in the city of Melitopol, near residential areas.

Sham referendums: The council claims Russian forces are planning to hold sham referendums in occupied territory, similar to those carried out in the separatist-held parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014.

Earlier this week, Russian-backed separatist leader Denis Pushilin said that the separatist Donetsk People's Republic would support a Russian-occupied district in the Zaporizhzhia region.

Pushilin alleged that Zaporizhzhia had made "an appeal" to secede from Ukraine and join the breakaway republic.

Ukrainian officials have said Russian forces appear to be preparing for a similar sham referendum in southern Kherson region.

5:39 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

Conflict in Ukraine comparable to "darkest pages" of European history, says Belgian Prime Minister

From CNN’s James Frater in Ghent, Belgium

Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo addresses the media in Ghent, Belgium, on April 19.
Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo addresses the media in Ghent, Belgium, on April 19. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has said that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is “comparable to the darkest pages in our European history” and that it is “heart-breaking to see that something like this can still happen in Europe.”

Speaking Tuesday evening in the Belgian town of Ghent, following a rare joint meeting of the Dutch and Belgian cabinets, De Croo added “that there can be no impunity for war crimes.”

He said that both Belgium and the Netherlands are “going to make efforts to ensure that everything is documented,” in the hope that “prosecutions can take place for the terrible stories we hear of rapes of women, rapes of girls.”

Russia has denied allegations of war crimes and claims its forces do not target civilians, but CNN journalists on the ground in Ukraine have seen firsthand evidence of atrocities at multiple locations across the country.

Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine's prosecutor general, said last week that her office was investigating 5,800 cases of alleged Russian war crimes, with "more and more" proceedings opening every day.

De Croo said that the Belgian Government was supporting the International Criminal Court and the Commission of Inquiry set up by the UN Human Rights Council and was “looking to be able to send forensic experts” to Ukraine.

“It is the first step to ensure that the barbarians who did this will be prosecuted,” he added.

5:19 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

What we know about Mariupol’s Azovstal plant

The giant Azovstal Iron and Steel Works fills the skyline in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 19.
The giant Azovstal Iron and Steel Works fills the skyline in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 19. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

The fate of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol rests on the Azovstal iron and steel plant -- a huge compound spanning four square miles in the southeastern corner of the port city.

Ukrainian forces have consolidated around the factory and continue to resist Russian attacks, but a Ukrainian commander has called the situation “critical.”

According to Maj. Serhii Volyna, commander of Ukraine's 36th Separate Marine Brigade, the steel plant is “completely surrounded.”

“There are about 500 wounded military, it is very difficult to provide them with medical care. They literally rot,” he told CNN on Tuesday.

“There are civilians on the territory. They are also suffering from explosions, blasts on them, next to them. They [the Russians] use heavy aircraft bombs against us and strike with artillery."

Officials say hundreds of civilians are sheltering in the basements of the plant -- which previously employed 10,000 people -- and a Mariupol police official told CNN that food and water supplies were dwindling amid the heavy bombardment. 

A video shared by the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs appears to show dozens of children and families who have been sheltering there for weeks. CNN cannot verify the authenticity of the video or when it was taken. However, after reviewing thousands of photos and videos of the steel plant, the walls of the shelter appear to match the lime-green painted walls of the steel plant's basements.

Volyna called for assistance from a third country to provide an evacuation route -- such as by boat or helicopter -- to take troops and civilians to safety.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address on Tuesday that Russian forces are blocking evacuation routes from Mariupol.

Meanwhile, the Security Service of Ukraine released a purported communications intercept of a Russian ground unit commander, who said Russian aircraft were planning to “level everything to the ground” around the factory.

Mariupol, situated in the southeast of Ukraine, has been heavily targeted by Russian forces during the war due to its strategic position on the coast of the Sea of Azov.

Taking it would allow Russia to create a continuous land bridge from Donbas to Crimea, the peninsula it illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Speaking to CNN last week, Zelensky said nobody knows how many civilians have died in Mariupol.

"Several thousand, tens of thousands, were forced to evacuate in the direction of the Russia Federation and we don't know where they are, they've left no document trail," he said.

Read more about the Azovstal plant here:

5:33 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

It's 12:30 p.m. in Kyiv. Here's what you need to know

Fighting in the Donbas region continues to escalate, with Ukrainian forces repelling "numerous attempted advances" by Russia, according to UK defense intelligence.

The battle for the Donbas represents a new and potentially decisive phase in the conflict, with the besieged southeastern port city of Mariupol a key battleground.

Referenced as a "critical logistics hub" for Ukrainian forces, Mariupol continues to be in Ukrainian control despite weeks of Russian bombardment, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said the situation remains "brutal and unchanged."

With tens of thousands of civilians remaining in Mariupol, the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister said Wednesday that a corridor had been agreed on with Russia for the evacuation of women, children and the elderly from the city.

Here are the latest developments in the Russia-Ukraine conflict:

  • Besieged Mariupol under heavy bombardment: Ukrainians continue to defend Mariupol despite heavy attacks as Russia seeks to "close the circle" around the city. Mariupol's strategic position on the coast of the Sea of Azov makes it a key target, said Retired Lt. General and CNN military analyst Mark Hertling, as taking it would allow Russia to create a continuous land bridge from Donbas to Crimea.
  • Last stand for those trapped at steel plant: Ukrainian troops and civilians remain trapped in Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant under heavy Russian bombardment. It's not clear how many troops are holding out. An estimated 1,000 civilians, including women, children and the elderly were sheltering inside the plant, Myhailo Vershynin, chief of the Mariupol patrol police, told CNN earlier this week.
  • Humanitarian corridor agreed for Mariupol: Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Wednesday that a humanitarian corridor had been agreed on with Russia for the evacuation of women, children and the elderly from Mariupol. She said the convoy is set to move from the besieged city toward Manhush and then onward through the Russian-held city of Berdyansk, then north toward the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia.
  • Zoo employees who stayed behind to care for animals found dead: Two employees of a zoo in Kharkiv who stayed behind last month to take care of animals amid heavy shelling from Russian forces were found dead, the zoo said in a statement Tuesday. Feldman Ecopark zoo said it had received confirmation that the employees had been shot and killed by Russian soldiers and found barricaded in a room.
  • Major German manufacturer to quit Russia: German manufacturer Henkel will cease operations in Russia, the company announced on Tuesday. Producer of various consumer goods, such as laundry and cleaning products, Henkel said its 2,500 employees in Russia will continue to be employed and paid.
3:14 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

Humanitarian corridor agreed for Mariupol today, Ukraine deputy PM says

From CNN's Nathan Hodge in Lviv

A local resident walks along a street past burnt out buses in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 19.
A local resident walks along a street past burnt out buses in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 19. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

A humanitarian corridor had been agreed on with Russia for the evacuation of women, children and the elderly from the besieged city of Mariupol, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said. 

"Given the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Mariupol, it is in this direction that we will focus our efforts today," she said on Telegram.
"We managed to agree in advance on a humanitarian corridor for women, children and the elderly. Gathering in Mariupol today, April 20, from 14:00 [2:00 p.m. local] on the corner of Taganrog Street and 130th Taganrog Division."

The convoy would move from Mariupol toward Manhush and then onward through the Russian-held city of Berdyansk, then north toward the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia, Vereshchuk said.

"Due to the very difficult security situation, changes may occur during the corridor," she said. "So, please follow the relevant official announcements. We will do our best to make everything work properly."

Tens of thousands of civilians remain in the city, which has been encircled by Russian forces for weeks and under relentless bombardment.

2:08 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

An abandoned Russian military camp in a forest near Kyiv reveals horrors of the invasion

From CNN's Sandi Sidhu, Phil Black, Daria Markina and Victoria Butenkow

Dmitry Nekazakov was walking his dog before he went to work when the Russian shelling started on Hostomel, a city on the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv. The sky buzzed with low-flying helicopters from which Russian troops jumped, while rockets rained down.

It was 6:40 am on Feb. 24, the first day of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and for almost a month, the bombardment didn't stop. Nekazakov said he spent 20 days sitting on the ground in his basement during the night. In the cold light of day, he and other residents would emerge to witness the damage that had been inflicted on their homes and devise plans to find safer places to shelter.

"For a long time, the shells were coming — the rockets were coming," he said.

The Russian missiles and rockets that decimated buildings, lives and homes were fired from a sprawling Russian base, hidden in the forest some 4 kilometers (around 2.5 miles) away.

Now, only the remains of that sprawling military camp sit among the trees. CNN was shown around the camp by Ukrainian special forces, who are picking up clues as to what Russia's plans may have been for the capital among the debris.

Read the full story:

2:30 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

Mariupol is under heavy bombardment, officials say. Here's the latest in the besieged city

Local resident Tamara, 71, cries in front of a destroyed apartment building in Mariupol, on Tuesday.
Local resident Tamara, 71, cries in front of a destroyed apartment building in Mariupol, on Tuesday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Russian attacks on the besieged southern port city of Mariupol continue and the situation remains "brutal and unchanged," according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Conditions may soon worsen, with a Ukrainian military commander telling CNN from one of the remaining holdouts that they may have "only a few days or even hours left."

Here are the latest developments:

  • Ukrainians still defending city: Mariupol continues to be in Ukrainian control, the Donetsk’s military governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said, and the changing Russian tactics — including an offensive to the south — are an attempt to further "close the circle" around the city.
  • Troops and civilians trapped at steel plant: Maj. Serhii Volyna spoke by phone with CNN and requested international assistance with evacuating hundreds of troops and civilians trapped in the Azovstal steel plant under heavy Russian bombardment. The situation is "critical," he said, with a number of wounded troops and limited medical care, adding "We are completely surrounded."
  • Video purportedly shows women and children sheltering: A video shared by the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs appears to show dozens of children and families who have been sheltering for weeks at the plant. CNN cannot verify the authenticity of the video or when it was taken. However, after reviewing thousands of photos and videos of the steel plant, the walls of the shelter appear to match the lime-green painted walls of the steel plant's basements.
  • Unclear how many troops holding out: The Azovstal plant is a sprawling industrial complex in the southeastern corner of Mariupol. The compound spans an area of more than 4 square miles and used to employ more than 10,000 people. It is unclear how many Ukrainian troops are still holding out there.
  • Evacuations blocked, Zelensky says: The Ukrainian president claimed in a video address on Tuesday that Russian forces are blocking corridors and evacuations from Mariupol. Zelensky added he had signed a decree to honor Ukrainian armed forces defending Mariupol. 
  • Shipyard damaged: Part of Mariupol's Azov shipyard has been heavily damaged by fighting in the city, according to a new video released by the Mariupol City Council. In the footage, the shipyard's entrance sign and gate can be seen. Debris is scattered outside the gate, where a car and a forklift appear to have been strategically placed to block access. CNN has geolocated the video and verified its authenticity. 
  • Mariupol is a 'critical logistics hub' for Ukrainian forces: Retired Lt. General and CNN military analyst Mark Hertling said Mariupol is a critical logistics hub. Its strategic position on the coast of the Sea of Azov makes it a key target. Taking it would allow Russia to create a continuous land bridge from Donbas to Crimea, the peninsula it illegally annexed in 2014. "It not only has roads, but it also has railroads and it has ports," Hertling said.
1:07 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

Russian-backed separatist leader says he will support "appeal" of district to join breakaway region

From CNN's Paul P. Murphy

Denis Pushilin arrives to deliver a press conference in Donetsk, on April 11.
Denis Pushilin arrives to deliver a press conference in Donetsk, on April 11. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

A Russian-backed separatist leader said that the so-called Donetsk People's Republic would support a Russian-occupied district in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region after it purportedly made what he called “an appeal" to secede from Ukraine and join the breakaway republic.

Separatist leader Denis Pushilin made his comments to Russian state media outlet Russia-24 on Tuesday, saying that the separatist republic would not immediately accept the district into its "administrative border," but instead would resolve that question at a later date. 

Video published by a Russian journalist on Tuesday claimed that the Rozovsky district, which is located just 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of Mariupol, held a vote on Tuesday in favor of seceding from Ukraine to join Pushilin's Russia-backed separatist region. 

CNN is not airing the video because it could not verify its authenticity, that it was taken in the Rozovsky district, that the individuals were actually Ukrainian citizens, or that they were not pressured into voting in favor of the measure. 

Some context: This is the first time during the war that a Russian-occupied area of Ukraine has purportedly tried to secede from the country, and it could end up being the first attempt by the Russians and Russian-backed separatists to annex additional Ukrainian territory.

However, it's not the first time during the war that an area of Ukraine has had its political status changed significantly while under Russian occupation.

Shortly after Melitopol fell to Russian control in early March, the city's mayor was detained by armed men and a new pro-Russian mayor was installed. The unelected mayor has since instituted a number of pro-Russian moves, including mandating the broadcasting of Russian news outlets.

City workers and Russian troops also staged a propaganda stunt in which they took down the Ukrainian flag, signed it, and claimed they were sending it to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

12:42 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

Analysis: Signs point to more economic turbulence in US as the war in Ukraine intensifies

Analysis from CNN's Maeve Reston

President Joe Biden's visit to the critical swing state of New Hampshire to sell his domestic agenda was overshadowed by new economic warning signs of how Russia's invasion of Ukraine is creating greater uncertainty and volatility in the world economy, compounding the obstacles the President and his party are facing in November.

This time last year, Democratic strategists had hoped Biden and his Democratic colleagues in Congress would be out on the campaign trail this spring pointing to America's roaring comeback after the dark days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Instead, Biden and many vulnerable Democrats are gingerly trying to maneuver around inflation that is at a 40-year high, the threat that new Covid-19 variants could derail the recovery — amid fresh confusion over masking — and the ripple effects of a war in Ukraine that some western officials now believe may stretch until the end of the year.

Read the full analysis: