June 21, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Helen Regan, Jeevan Ravindran, Hafsa Khalil, Ed Upright, Adrienne Vogt and Aditi Sangal, CNN

Updated 2:31 a.m. ET, June 22, 2022
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2:27 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

Kremlin claims Geneva Conventions don't apply to Americans captured in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov speaks to NBC on June 20.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov speaks to NBC on June 20. (NBC)

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the Geneva Conventions for the protection of prisoners of war do not apply to two Americans captured in Ukraine, accusing them of being "involved in illegal activities."

Peskov made the comments during an exclusive interview with NBC News on Monday night. 

Who are the Americans? US citizens Alexander John-Robert Drueke, 39, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, from Hartselle, Alabama, were taken into detention by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk after being captured last week, according to Russian state media. They went missing on June 9 during a battle north of Kharkiv.

Peskov called Drueke and Huynh "soldiers of fortune."

"They were involved in firing and shelling our military personnel. They were endangering their lives. And they should be responsible. They should be held responsible for those — for those crimes that they have committed. Those crimes have to be investigated," he told NBC News. 

Peskov wouldn't clarify whether the pair were being held by Russian or Donetsk authorities.

"So they’re being held in a new place, a new place to ensure that the investigation of their crimes is being completed," he said. 

Peskov said their case would be "investigated in due course" but said "Geneva Conventions cannot be applied for soldiers of fortune."

"They are in not in the Ukrainian Army. They are not subject to Geneva Convention," he said. 

Some context: Geneva Convention protections include that prisoners of war "must at all times be humanely treated."

"Any unlawful act or omission by the Detaining Power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited, and will be regarded as a serious breach of the present Convention," Article 13 of the convention states.

11:07 p.m. ET, June 20, 2022

Luhansk military head: Russian army has enough firepower to launch a "large-scale offensive" on Severodonetsk

From CNN's Sebastian Shukla

Russian forces attacking the key city of Severodonetsk, in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, have enough reserved to launch a large-scale offensive, the head of the region's military, Serhiy Hayday, said.

Speaking on Monday evening, Hayday said dozens of pieces of Russian heavy military equipment had been brought into the region and were already deployed on the battlefield.

In the city itself, Hayday said fighting is underway in the industrial area, but “most of the city is under control [of Russian army]. Now the Ukrainian military controls only the industrial zone and the territory of the Azot plant.”

Hayday also provided an update on the fighting in the neighboring city of Lysychansk. He said there was fighting along the highway between Lysychansk and Bakhmut and that all the towns in that area are being shelled. Lysychansk “had been shelled almost all day” on Monday, he added. 

2:24 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

Russian Nobel Peace Prize laureate auctions his medal for more than $100 million to help Ukraine refugees

From CNN’s Philip Wang in Atlanta 

Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, gives a short speech after the conclusion of bidding during a charity auction at The Times Center on June 20, in New York City.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, gives a short speech after the conclusion of bidding during a charity auction at The Times Center on June 20, in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Dmitry Muratov, 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, auctioned off his medal for $103.5 million on Monday, with all proceeds going to benefit Ukrainian child refugees.

Heritage Auctions tweeted that Muratov “auctioned his 2021 #NobelPeacePrize to benefit UNICEF’s child refugee fund. It sold for $103,500,000.”

“Right now, the award is an opportunity for me to share it with people,” Muratov said before the auction, urging people around the world to join the cause and make their contributions.

According to a statement from Heritage Auctions, Norwegian Nobel Institute Director Olav Njølstad supported the auction, calling it a "generous act of humanitarianism."

Muratov is the editor-in-chief of Russia’s independent news outlet, Novaya Gazeta. He criticized Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the government’s use of military force, both in and outside Russia, according to the Nobel Peace Prize organization.

1:12 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

Ukraine's deputy defense minister calls fight for Luhansk region "very difficult" and "dynamic"

From CNN's Sebastian Shukla

Debris and destroyed cars are seen along a road in Lysychansk on June 19.
Debris and destroyed cars are seen along a road in Lysychansk on June 19. (Madeleine Kelly/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Ukraine's Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Monday that “the struggle is very difficult” in the eastern Luhansk region, making any predictions “extremely difficult” given the “dynamic” nature of the fighting.

She added that information is changing rapidly “every half an hour the situation changes.” She said that unless either Ukrainian or Russian forces are in total control of a town or village border, “it is impossible to say what the situation is.”

On the battle for Severodonetsk, Mailar said she was not going to make any predictions as to the outcome of the battle for the key strategic city in Luhansk region. 

Maliar added that Russian forces in the region have an advantage in number of personnel and weapons.

9:04 p.m. ET, June 20, 2022

Biden says it's "not likely" he'll visit Ukraine on Europe trip

From CNN's Allie Malloy

US President Joe Biden said Monday he is “not likely” to visit Ukraine when he travels to Europe this weekend.

“That depends,” Biden said when asked if he was still planning to visit Ukraine, adding he doesn’t want to “cause more difficulty for Ukrainians.”

Asked again if he was expected to travel there while he’s in Germany and Spain for the G7 and NATO summits, Biden said: “On this trip, not likely.”

Biden has not visited Ukraine since the country has been under Russian invasion. Instead, he has sent US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, as well as first lady Jill Biden

On whether he’s confident Ukraine will become a member of the European Union, Biden told reporters he thinks it’s “very likely” to happen.

9:03 p.m. ET, June 20, 2022

Kremlin says Lithuania's ban on sanctioned goods passing through Russian exclave is "illegal"

From CNN's Anna Chernova

Lithuania's decision to ban the transit of sanctioned materials to Russia through the Kaliningrad region — Russia’s exclave in the European Union — is "unprecedented" and Russia considers it "illegal," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

This decision is truly unprecedented. This is a violation of everything,” Peskov told reporters during a regular conference call on Monday.

“We also consider it illegal," Peskov said, adding the Kremlin will need to analyze the situation carefully. “It is part of a blockade, of course,” he said.

Lithuanian Railways, the state-owned railway company, had notified Russia that starting midnight on June 18, transit trains with goods subject to EU sanctions would no longer be allowed to pass through, the governor of the Kaliningrad region Anton Alikhanov said on his telegram channel Friday.

The list of the banned goods includes construction material, cement, metals and "a number of other goods important both for construction and for production," according to Alikhanov.

Some background: Lithuania's decision is the latest by an EU member state to sanction Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in February.

At the end of May, the EU agreed to ban 90% of Russian oil imports by the end of the year, alongside other measures, European Council leaders said at the time.

“Agreement to ban export of Russian oil to the EU. This immediately covers more than 2/3 of oil imports from Russia, cutting a huge source of financing for its war machine,” Michel announced in a tweet.

Meanwhile in the United States, the White House announced another round of sanctions targeting Russian government officials and elites close to Russian President Vladimir Putin with a series of new financial and diplomatic sanctions at the start of June.

The White House said in a statement that the latest sanctions are designed “to crack down on evasion and tighten our sanctions to enhance enforcement and increase pressure on Putin and his enablers.”

CNN's Niamh Kennedy, Jeremy Diamond, Betsy Klein and Kate Sullivan contributed reporting to this post.

11:21 p.m. ET, June 20, 2022

Western leaders say Ukraine needs continued support

From CNN's Tim Lister, Denis Lapin and Julia Kesaieva

As Russia's war in Ukraine rages on, Western leaders have made clear that the country, and the rest of the world, must brace itself for the long haul.

Who said what? In separate comments published Sunday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated that Western governments must continue to support Ukraine to deter future aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Stoltenberg told the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag that nobody knew how long the conflict would last but "we need to prepare for the fact that it could take years."

"We must not cease to support Ukraine. Even if the costs are high, not only for military support, but also because of rising energy and food prices."

Johnson, writing in the Sunday Times after his second visit to Kyiv on Friday, said Western allies must "steel ourselves for a long war, as Putin resorts to a campaign of attrition, trying to grind down Ukraine by sheer brutality."

Both men stressed the need to avert future Russian aggression.

Stoltenberg said: "If Putin learns the lesson from this war that he can just carry on as he did after the Georgia war in 2008 and the occupation of Crimea in 2014, then we will pay a much higher price."

Johnson asked what would happen if Putin was free to keep all the areas of Ukraine now controlled by Russian forces. "What if no one was willing to lift a finger as he annexed this conquered territory and its fearful people into a greater Russia? Would this bring peace?"

The British Prime Minister added that through firm long-term support for Ukraine, "we and our allies will be protecting our own security as much as Ukraine's and safeguarding the world from the lethal dreams of Putin and those who might seek to copy them."

Johnson wrote: "Time is the vital factor. Everything will depend on whether Ukraine can strengthen its ability to defend its soil faster than Russia can renew its capacity to attack. Our task is to enlist time on Ukraine's side."

Read the full story here.