June 17, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Helen Regan, Hafsa Khalil, Jack Guy, Ed Upright, Elise Hammond, Adrienne Vogt and Aditi Sangal, CNN

Updated 7:05 p.m. ET, June 17, 2022
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6:57 a.m. ET, June 17, 2022

"We do not know anything about it," says Kremlin spokesperson about missing US fighters

From CNN's Anna Chernova

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told CNN on Friday that he does not know anything about two American fighters who went missing north of Kharkiv, Ukraine.

"No, we do not know anything about it," Peskov said during a media call.

The two Americans fighting alongside Ukrainian forces 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.

On Thursday, a photo emerged on the Telegram channel of a Russian blogger which appeared to show the two Americans in the back of a military truck, apparently confirming they had been captured by Russian forces.

The photo shows the two men looking up at the camera with hands behind their backs as if bound.

On Thursday the US State Department said there is potential evidence that Alexander Drueke has been captured, but it cannot verify the photo at this time, his mother, Bunny Drueke, told CNN. 

The undated photo was posted on Telegram on Thursday by a Russian blogger, The V -- whose full name is Timofey Vasilyev, from Moscow. CNN cannot verify when it was taken.

6:43 a.m. ET, June 17, 2022

Ukraine’s defense minister claims NATO allies consider the country a "de-facto" member

From CNN's Mick Krever

Ukraine’s defense minister on Friday morning said NATO allies told him at a summit in Brussels that his country was considered a “de facto” member of the alliance.

“It is important to point out that this was the first time such a meeting was held with four non-Alliance states present: Ukraine, Georgia, Sweden, and Finland,” Oleksiy Reznikov said on Facebook. “Soon, the matter of Sweden’s and Finland’s membership in NATO will be considered.”

“Given the occasion, I had the opportunity to discuss ‘NATO de-facto’ with our partners," he added. "I am glad that my colleagues have confirmed that Ukraine de-facto is already a member of this family.”

Reznikov provided no specifics about who may have characterized Ukraine in that manner. Aspiration to NATO membership is enshrined in Ukraine's constitution, but the country is not a member of the alliance.

On Thursday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was asked at a press conference whether the huge levels of military support for Ukraine meant that now was the “right time” to discuss the country’s future membership in the military alliance.

“Our focus now is on support to Ukraine to provide military support, lethal, non-lethal support, from Allies and from NATO, and also on capacity building and this helped to modernize​ more for the longer term, the defense and security institutions of Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said. 

When asked about Reznikov’s comments, a NATO official pointed CNN to Stoltenberg’s press conference on Thursday.

6:38 a.m. ET, June 17, 2022

Ukraine's bid to join EU gets major boost as executive backs candidacy

From CNN's Luke McGee

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen holds a press conference on the EU membership applications by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on June 17.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen holds a press conference on the EU membership applications by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on June 17. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukraine's bid to join the European Union received a major boost on Friday morning, after the bloc's executive said it believed the country should be formally considered for candidate status in the wake of Russia's invasion.

Speaking in Brussels, the European Commission's President Ursula von der Leyen said the Commission recommends "that Ukraine is given candidate status. This is of course on the understanding that the country will carry out a number of further reforms."

In the view of the Commission, Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country's aspiration and determination to live up to European standards."

Leaders of the 27 EU member states will now meet for a summit next week to discuss the Commission's opinion. Even if the member states agree that Ukraine should be a candidate nation -- which is far from certain -- the process to join the EU is complicated and takes, on average, just under five years to complete, according to the think tank, UK in a Changing Europe.

5:49 a.m. ET, June 17, 2022

Conditions in Mariupol now "medieval," says Ukrainian city official

From CNN's Maria Kostenko and Mick Krever

An aerial view of the destroyed city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on June 13,
An aerial view of the destroyed city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on June 13, (Andrey Borodulin/AFP/Getty Images)

Conditions in Russian-occupied Mariupol are now “medieval,” an advisor to the city’s Ukrainian mayor said Friday.

“Mariupol is now in the medieval,” Petro Andriushchenko told national television. “Water supply is only available in 2-3% of the city’s households. People wash their clothes in puddles on the streets.”

“The risk of disease spreading is rising day by day. There is information that people come to doctors with symptoms similar to dysentery or cholera,” he said.

The World Health Organization last month said that it too was concerned about the risk of cholera in Mariupol, calling the hygienic situation there “a huge hazard.”

Andriushchenko is not in the city but has been a reliable conduit for information from Mariupol.

Russian servicemen patrol near the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, on June 13.
Russian servicemen patrol near the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, on June 13. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)

He said that Russia was in the process of building a “military camp” at the city.

“Departure from Mariupol is possible only to Russia,” Andriushchenko said. “We advise people to leave, but on their own and not in official columns, and then go towards the Baltic countries or Georgia. We advise people to drive non-stop and cross the border ASAP.”

Crossing from Russian-occupied Mariupol to Ukrainian-held territory, he said, was impossible.

On May 20, the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol -- the final stand and a powerful symbol of Ukrainian resistance in an otherwise Russian-occupied city -- fell to Russian troops after nearly three months of brutal fighting.

At least 1,348 civilians were killed during the battle of Mariupol, including 70 children, a top United Nations official said Thursday.

“The actual death toll of hostilities on civilians is likely thousands higher,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said. 

5:37 a.m. ET, June 17, 2022

The war is the reason behind Ukraine’s possible EU candidacy, says President Macron

From CNN’s Joseph Ataman and Camille Knight in Paris

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron shake hands after giving a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on June 16.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron shake hands after giving a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on June 16. (Sergei Supinksy/AFP/Getty Images)

French President Emmanuel Macron said that the possible granting of European Union candidate status to Ukraine was a result of Russia’s invasion.

In an interview with CNN affiliate BFMTV Friday on board a train leaving Ukraine after his visit to Kyiv, Macron said, “Ukraine normally should not be a candidate” and that they were “doing it because of the war and because we think it’s good.”

Macron was in Ukraine's capital alongside his German, Italian and Romanian counterparts to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a trip to smooth tensions over what Ukrainian officials perceive as a lukewarm support of their defense against Russia.

It’s a sign of hope, it’s a message for Ukraine to say that they are in the European family,” he said. 

While Macron said most of western Europe was supportive of the plan, “we have countries that are more reticent,” he said. 

The French leader added that the question of Ukraine’s candidacy for the EU will be decided at the European Council summit next Thursday and Friday. 

“The path is long to join the EU,” he added.

He also said that Moldova can also become a candidate for EU accession. The French president visited the eastern European country on Wednesday as part of a two-day trip to Moldova and Romania before his unannounced trip to Ukraine. 

Some background: Part of joining the EU means abiding by the Copenhagen Criteria, which entails that a candidate state must have a functioning free-market, if it can uphold European values such as on human rights and law, and if the country has a functioning democracy.

As well as currently being at war, Ukraine is 122nd on the Transparency International's 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index out of 180, highlighting a main reason that the country would not usually be considered an EU candidate member.

Read more here.

9:50 a.m. ET, June 17, 2022

Ukraine says it has destroyed a Russian tugboat

From CNN's Maria Kostenko and Mick Krever

The Ukrainian military says it has sunk a Russian tugboat in the Black Sea on its way to resupply occupying forces on the strategically important Snake Island.

“The tugboat of the Black Sea Fleet ‘Vasiliy Bekh’ was hit in the Black Sea during the transportation of ammunition, weapons and personnel of the Black Sea Fleet to Snake Island,” the Ukrainian Navy said via its official Telegram channel on Friday.

The Navy claimed that the tug had a “TOR” anti-aircraft missile system on board.

According to the website Marine Traffic, the boat left Sevastapol, in Crimea, Tuesday night.

5:09 a.m. ET, June 17, 2022

If you "crush Russia," Ukraine will never have peace, says French president

From CNN’s Joseph Ataman & Camille Knight in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron has said that Ukraine would never have peace if the ultimate aim of the conflict in the country is to “crush Russia." Macron said he had heard some say that “the goal of this war is to crush Russia. And that's where I say you're wrong. If you do that, you'll never get a negotiated peace.”

The president was speaking in an interview with CNN affiliate BFMTV on Friday on board a train leaving Ukraine following meetings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other European leaders in Kyiv on Thursday.

He added that crushing Russia is not Zelenksy's goal either.

“President Zelensky defends his land. And we want to help him do so,” Macron said, adding that “commentators or certain leaders shouldn’t push beyond even what the Ukrainians intend.”

“And so it has been the role of France to put a limit to this question,” he said, adding: “we have sometimes won the war and lost the peace.”

Macron affirmed France’s support for Ukraine and countered charges that his previous comments about not wishing to “humiliate Russia” had hampered relations with Ukraine’s president. 

We are doing everything so that Ukraine wins this war,” he said.

He also defended France’s efforts to broker discussions between Moscow and Kyiv.

"The role of the France is to have possible links for discussion with Russia,” he said, conceding that currently, "there’s no availability on the Russian or Ukrainian side for real discussions” following the discovery of war crimes in Bucha.

"We have never negotiated on the part of the Ukrainians. Never,” he said.

5:08 a.m. ET, June 17, 2022

Ukraine's bid to join the EU is expected to take a small step forward today

From CNN's Jack Guy and Luke McGee

Left to right, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Frances President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are seen during a press conference on June 16, in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Left to right, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Frances President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are seen during a press conference on June 16, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Alexey Furman/Getty Images)

Ukraine's bid to move politically closer to the West may receive a boost today.

The European Commission is expected to offer its opinion that Ukraine should be considered a candidate state to join the European Union, meaning it will then be up to the 27 EU member states to decide whether or not they agree with the Commission's opinion.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky officially applied for the country to join the European Union on February 28, four days after Russia invaded the country.

He asked that the EU "urgently admit Ukraine using a new procedure ... our goal is to be with all Europeans and, to be equal to them. I am sure we deserve it. I am sure it is possible."

On Thursday, Zelensky said Ukraine is ready to work to become a full EU member.

"We understand that that the path to the European Union is really a path and it is not one step," he said. "But this path must begin, and we are ready to work so that our state is transformed into a full member of the European Union and Ukrainians have already earned the right to embark on this path."

Speaking alongside him at a press conference in Kyiv, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that Germany is in favor of a positive decision for Ukraine’s EU candidacy, and that Ukraine “belongs to the European family."

Also on Thursday, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said “there is no time for hesitancy," inviting the European Union to grant Ukraine candidacy status.

We are at a turning point in European history,” he said.

But while the early signs from some quarters are positive, Ukraine's accession to the EU is far from a fait accompli.

For political and procedural reasons, it is possible that the EU ultimately decides that now is not the right time. And even if they did agree with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's opinion that Ukraine should be considered for membership, it could take years, even decades, for it to become a reality.

It is expected that the Commission will say that Ukraine's accession will only start properly once the war is over and the country's institutions are able to meet the criteria required to join the EU.

Known as the Copenhagen Criteria, these are fairly opaque requirements.

They focus on whether or not that country has a functioning free-market economy, if the country's institutions are fit to uphold European values such as human rights and the EU's interpretation of the rule of law and whether the country has a functioning, inclusive democracy.

Only then can work begin on the EU's 35 chapters of negotiation, the final three of which return to some areas of the Copenhagen Criteria.

Then, when the leaders of the EU member states have agreed, which seems unlikely, it must then be ratified in the EU Parliament and by the legislative branches of each member state's government.

4:37 a.m. ET, June 17, 2022

Russia "not squeaky clean" and "not ashamed of showing who we are," says Sergey Lavrov

From CNN's Anna Chernova

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a press conference in Yerevan, Armenia, on June 9.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a press conference in Yerevan, Armenia, on June 9. (Karen Minasyan/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia is "not squeaky clean" and "not ashamed of showing who we are," in an interview with the BBC released Thursday.

“We didn’t invade Ukraine,” Lavrov insisted.
"We declared a special military operation because we had absolutely no other way of explaining to the West that dragging Ukraine into NATO was a criminal act."  

When pushed further to comment on the victims of war in Ukraine, Lavrov said: “No, Russia is not squeaky clean. Russia is what it is. And we are not ashamed of showing who we are." 

Lavrov went on to comment on the UK citizens who were sentenced to death in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Russia’s responsibility for this verdict.

“I am not interested in the eyes of the West at all. I am only interested in international law. According to international law, mercenaries are not recognized as combatants," Lavrov said.