June 16, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Helen Regan, Ivana Kottasová, Sana Noor Haq, Hafsa Khalil, Adrienne Vogt and Aditi Sangal, CNN

Updated 2:56 a.m. ET, June 17, 2022
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2:12 a.m. ET, June 16, 2022

China will support Russia on security, Xi tells Putin in birthday call

From CNN's Simone McCarthy in Hong Kong

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in Beijing, China on February 4.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in Beijing, China on February 4. (Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Chinese leader Xi Jinping reiterated his support for Moscow on "sovereignty and security" matters in a call with counterpart Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, upholding his backing for the countries' partnership despite the global backlash against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking on his 69th birthday, Xi also pledged to deepen strategic coordination between the two countries, according to China's Foreign Ministry.

A separate readout from the Kremlin said the two leaders stressed their countries' relations were "were at an all-time high" and reaffirmed their commitment to "consistently deepen the comprehensive partnership."

The call is thought to be the second time the two leaders have spoken since Russia invaded Ukraine. They also spoke just days after Moscow launched what it insists on calling a "special military operation."

China, too, has refrained from referring to Russia's actions as an invasion and has walked a fine line on the issue. It has portrayed itself as calling for peace and upholding the global order, while refusing to denounce Russia's actions. It has also used its state media apparatus to mimic Kremlin lines blaming the United States and NATO for the crisis.

During Wednesday's call, Xi stressed China had always "independently assessed the situation" in Ukraine and called for "all parties" to push for a "proper settlement of the Ukraine crisis" — echoing language he used in a March call with US President Joe Biden.

China is "willing to continue to play its role" in promoting a "proper solution" to Ukraine, he said.

The Kremlin's summary of the call took this position a step further, saying: "the President of China noted the legitimacy of Russia's actions to protect fundamental national interests in the face of challenges to its security created by external forces."

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10:55 p.m. ET, June 15, 2022

2 American fighters missing in Ukraine volunteered to help Ukrainians, according to family

From CNN's Sahar Akbarzai

Alexander John-Robert Drueke, 39, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, from Hartselle, Alabama, wanted to volunteer and use their previous military training to help Ukraine fight against Russia's invasion, their families told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday.

“Alex didn’t go to fight, he said I have the skills to help train Ukrainians soldiers and help them learn how to use the weapons America was sending over there,” said Drueke’s mother, Bunny Drueke. 

“He went there to volunteer … he had this gnawing in his heart,” and a burden to serve the Ukrainian people however he can, said Joy Black, Huynh’s fiancé, adding, “he’s just so strong and has such a big heart.” 

The two Americans have been missing for a week and are feared captured by Russian forces. They were last seen during a military operation near the town of Izbytske on June 9. 

Drueke’s mother said she talked to her son about his decision to travel to Ukraine for about a month. “He said 'Mom, I really need to go and help the fight in Ukraine because if Putin is not stopped there he's not going to be satisfied, he’ll become emboldened and eventually Americans will be threatened, and he needs to be stopped now,'” she told CNN.
“Alex did not go there as a representative of the US military, he went there as a civilian with military training. He went there on his own, he was not sent there by our government.”

Black told CNN the last time she spoke to Huynh was on June 8, when he said he would be out of contact for a few days.

“They’re going to find them … we don’t want one to come home without the other,” Drueke said, adding, “I’m trying to remain strong and calm because getting upset won’t help Alex at all.” 

9:51 p.m. ET, June 15, 2022

2 American fighters missing in Ukraine and feared captured

From CNN's Mick Krever and DJ Judd

(Courtesy Bunny Drueke & Joy Black)
(Courtesy Bunny Drueke & Joy Black)

Two Americans fighting alongside Ukrainian forces north of Kharkiv in Ukraine have been missing for nearly a week and there are fears that they may have been captured by Russian forces, according to their families and a fellow fighter.

The men are Alexander John-Robert Drueke, age 39, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, age 27, from Hartselle, Alabama.

A man who wished to remain nameless for security reasons, who is acting as the team’s sergeant, provided CNN with photos of both men’s passports and their entry stamps into Ukraine.

The man said their unit was fighting under the command of Ukraine’s 92nd mechanized brigade on June 9, near the town of Izbytske.

He said Drueke and Huynh went missing during the battle, and subsequent search missions failed to find any remains. A post the following day on a Russian propaganda channel on Telegram claimed that two Americans had been captured near Kharkiv.

“It was absolute chaos,” he told CNN. “There was about a hundred plus infantry advancing on our positions. We had a T72 firing on people from 30, 40 meters away.”

Bunny Drueke, Alex’s mother, told CNN that “they are presumed to be prisoners of war, but that has not been confirmed.” She said the US Embassy to Ukraine has not been able to verify whether her son has been captured.

“They have not been able to verify that he’s with the Russians. All that they can verify is that he is missing at this point,” she said. “They stay in close touch with me, and I have every confidence that they are working on the situation.”

Joy Black, Huynh’s fiancé, age 21, told CNN: “We don’t want to make assumptions about what might have happened at this time. Obviously, they’re looking at several scenarios. And one of them is that they might have been captured. But we don’t have absolute confirmation of that at this time.”

What the US is saying: A State Department spokesperson Wednesday said they “are aware of unconfirmed reports of two US citizens captured in Ukraine.”

“We are closely monitoring the situation and are in contact with Ukrainian authorities,” the spokesperson said. “Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.”

CNN's Jennifer Hansler contributed reporting to this post.

9:54 p.m. ET, June 15, 2022

Top US general downplays criticism of weapons sent to Ukraine

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley speaks at a press conference during the first day of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization Defence Ministers' meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, June 15.
US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley speaks at a press conference during the first day of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization Defence Ministers' meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, June 15. (Valeria Mongelli/AFP/Getty Images)

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley downplayed criticisms that the United States is not providing Ukraine with all of the weapons it is requesting, saying that "in warfare, no weapons system is a silver bullet, ever."

"So no weapons system, singular weapons system ever, quote unquote turns the balance," Milley said at a news conference in Brussels alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. 

Milley said that if the Ukrainians use the weapons systems the US and other allies are providing properly, "they ought to be able to take out a significant amount of targets."

He also complimented them as "top-notch gunners" on the Triple 7 Howitzers, and he expected them to also be very good on the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as HIMARS, a lighter wheeled system capable of firing many of the same types of ammunition as MLRS.

Milley said he believes Ukraine will be able to sustain the fight, despite media reports that say around 100 Ukrainian forces are killed and another 100 to 300 people are wounded each day.

“Your ability to endure suffering, your ability to endure casualties, is directly proportional to the object to be attained. And if the object to be attained is survival of your country, then you’re going to sustain it,” Milley said.

He said that he believed Ukraine would continue to fight “as long as they have leadership, and they have the means by which to fight,” such as “ammunition, artillery tubes, et cetera.”

8:44 p.m. ET, June 15, 2022

Biden administration announces additional $1 billion in military aid for Ukraine

From CNN's Barbara Starr, Jeremy Herb and Oren Liebermann

The Biden administration announced on Wednesday it was providing an additional $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine to fight Russia, a package that includes shipments of additional howitzers, ammunition and coastal defense systems.

US President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday ahead of the announcement, which the Pentagon said included providing Ukraine with 18 howitzers, 36,000 rounds of howitzer ammunition and two Harpoon coastal defense systems.

"I informed President Zelensky that the United States is providing another $1 billion in security assistance for Ukraine, including additional artillery and coastal defense weapons, as well as ammunition for the artillery and advanced rocket systems that the Ukrainians need to support their defensive operations in the Donbas," Biden said in a statement after the call. "We also discussed Secretary Austin's efforts in Brussels today to coordinate additional international support for the Ukrainian armed forces."

Speaking in Brussels, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the US and Ukraine are "working in lockstep to meet Ukraine's requests for new capabilities, especially its need for long-range fires, armor and coastal defense."

The latest weapons package comes as Ukraine's military is burning through its Soviet-era ammunition, while Ukrainian officials have pleaded with the West to send additional heavy weaponry as the war with Russia girds on. Western intelligence and military officials believe the war is at a critical stage that could determine the long-term outcome of the conflict, while Russia has amassed a significant artillery advantage around two key cities in eastern Ukraine.

Zelensky thanked Biden on Wednesday for his "consistent, unwavering support" and for mobilizing the international security, according to a statement from the Ukrainian president's office.

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8:47 p.m. ET, June 15, 2022

Top US general: Russian control of eastern Ukraine not "an inevitability"

From CNN's Michael Conte

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that despite Russian forces outnumbering and outgunning the Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region, Russian consolidation of their control in eastern Ukraine was “not a done deal.” 

“There are no inevitabilities in war. War takes many, many turns. So I wouldn’t say it’s an inevitability,” said Milley, before granting that “the numbers clearly favor the Russians.”

Milley said the Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk “is probably three quarters taken or so by Russian forces,” but “the Ukrainians are fighting them street by street, house by house.”

He also characterized the current phase of the war as a “very severe battle of attrition, almost World War I-like,” noting how Russian progress in the region has been “very slow, a very tough slog.”

“The Russians have run into a lot of problems. They’ve got command and control issues, logistics issues. They’ve got morale issues, leadership issues and a wide variety of other issues,” said Milley. “And the Russians have suffered tremendous amounts of casualties.”
8:49 p.m. ET, June 15, 2022

Fight in eastern Ukraine "getting harder," says Luhansk region leader

From CNN's Maria Kostenko and Mick Krever

The Ukrainian military’s defense in the eastern region of Luhansk is growing more difficult, the head of Luhansk’s military administration said Wednesday.

“It is getting harder, but our military is holding back the enemy from three directions at once,” Serhiy Hayday said via Telegram. “They are defending Severodonetsk not allowing the enemy to advance towards Lysychansk. However, the Russians are close; the population suffers and houses are destroyed.”

Hayday said Russia was once again targeting the Azot chemical plant, where just over 500 civilians are said to be sheltering.

“High-rise buildings located closer to the chemical giant are being destroyed,” he said. “The enemy is weaker in street battles, which is why uses artillery fire, destroying our homes.”

The Russian Defense Ministry on Tuesday called on Ukrainian fighters at the Azot plant to lay down their arms, and said it would open a “humanitarian corridor” on Wednesday from the Ukrainian-controlled plant to Russian-held territory to the north. Ukrainian officials have not commented on that proposal.