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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2:15 p.m. ET, June 21, 2022

White House says it's "appalling" Russia won't rule out executing detained Americans

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

Alexander John-Robert Drueke, left, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huyn, right, two Americans fighting alongside Ukrainian forces north of Kharkiv, went missing on June 9.
Alexander John-Robert Drueke, left, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huyn, right, two Americans fighting alongside Ukrainian forces north of Kharkiv, went missing on June 9.

The White House says it is "appalling" Russia won’t rule out applying the death penalty on two American citizens detained after volunteering to fight in Ukraine.

"We still are trying to learn more about these two individuals," said John Kirby, the coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council.

"It’s appalling that a public official in Russia would even suggest the death penalty for two American citizens that were in Ukraine. And we’re going to continue to try and learn what we can about this," he said.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Monday the Geneva Convention — the charter which sets out how soldiers and civilians are treated in wartime, including banning execution of prisoners of war — does not apply to the two detained US citizens.

Peskov said the death penalty could not be ruled out, but that it was a decision for a court and not the Kremlin.

Kirby said he wouldn't try and get into Peskov's or Vladimir Putin's heads. But he said no matter whether the prospect of the death penalty was real or hypothetical, it was troubling no matter what.

"Either way, it’s equally alarming, whether they actually mean what they’re saying here and this could be an outcome, that they could levy a death penalty against two Americans in Ukraine,” he said. “Or that they just feel it’s a responsible thing for a major power to do, to talk about doing this as a way of signaling the president of the United States and the American people. Either one of them is equally alarming.”

12:19 p.m. ET, June 21, 2022

Russia will "absolutely not" return to pre-war status quo, US State Department official says

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood

Russia will "absolutely not" go back to the pre-war status quo, a senior State Department official told reporters Tuesday.

This official did not speak explicitly to the future of diplomatic relations with Russia, noting they were already strained prior to the war starting in February. They said US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan speaks less frequently with the Russian foreign ministry than before, but there is still contact on the issues of the US Embassy's "staffing woes" and the detained Americans.

"That's a frequent topic multiple times a week, on behalf of various detainees and not just the most high-profile ones, which are obviously Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, but there are other Americans who are detained there who deserve the same level of treatment as any American citizen does, who's detained in a foreign country," the official said.

The official also explained how challenging it is to work with the Russians on the issue of detained Americans, because the Russians put convoluted processes in place that prevent any quick contact with the detainees.

“Oh, well, we moved detainee X last week. He's on the other side of Moscow and you're gonna need a different form, in triplicate, but that but the office that issues it is closed until next Thursday. But if you come after five on Friday, then maybe we'll take care of you, but only bring blue pens,” the official said, describing the kinds of hoops that the Russians make US officials jump through.

Sullivan has not "engaged on Ukraine policy with the Russian government since mid-February,” the official explained.

The official spoke of the commercial impact the war has had in Russia, noting that there were more than 1,000 US companies that did business in Russia last year and "it's a fraction of that now."

The official said the US ambassador had previously dealt a great deal with helping US businesses in Russia that had gotten in trouble over regulatory or potential criminal matters. They said Sullivan had "a lot of interaction" with the minister of Trade and Industry and they "developed a pretty good relationship." The official said the outcomes weren't often positive but "the issues were treated seriously and sometimes we got good outcomes, more often than not we didn't, but that's all stopped."

12:08 p.m. ET, June 21, 2022

US attorney general announces team to prosecute war crimes in Ukraine

From CNN's Hannah Rabinowitz

US Attorney General Merrick Garland and Ukrainian Prosecutor General of Ukraine Iryna Venediktova today in Krakovets, at the Ukraine border with Poland.
US Attorney General Merrick Garland and Ukrainian Prosecutor General of Ukraine Iryna Venediktova today in Krakovets, at the Ukraine border with Poland. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a War Crimes Accountability team during an unannounced trip to Ukraine on Tuesday that will work to identify and prosecute anyone who committed war crimes in Ukraine.  

The team, Garland said, will be led by the department's best-known Nazi Hunter Eli Rosenbaum, and will be made up of experts in investigations involving human rights abuses and war crimes. Rosenbaum, a 36-year veteran of the Justice Department, previously served as the Director of Human Rights Enforcement Strategy and Policy, helped the department over 100 cases to strip citizenship from or deport accused Nazis, according to the Justice Department.

The announcement is a strong signal from the Justice Department that it is interested in investigating war crimes in the ongoing war in Ukraine and follows a previous effort by the Justice Department to lock down the assets of Russian oligarchs.

“There is no hiding place for war criminals. The US Justice Department will pursue every avenue of accountability for those who commit war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine,” Garland said in Ukraine. “Working alongside our domestic and international partners, the Justice Department will be relentless in our efforts to hold accountable every person complicit in the commission of war crimes, torture, and other grave violations during the unprovoked conflict in Ukraine.”

Garland also said that the Justice Department will send three prosecutors to advise Ukraine, as well as countries in Europe and the Middle East, in fighting Russian efforts to evade global sanctions.

12:20 p.m. ET, June 21, 2022

Ukraine says it has attacked Snake Island with "aimed strikes"

From CNN's Sebastian Shukla

The Ukrainian Army said Tuesday that it had launched some airstrikes on Zmiinyi Island, which is also known as Snake Island. 

The Southern Operational Command of the Ukrainian Army said it had used “aimed strikes with the use of various forces” on the island. 

The military operation is still on going and that “information silence” was required until the end of the operation, the command added.

Zmiinyi Island was the scene of one of the opening salvos of the war in Ukraine and is of strategic importance to both sides. During the opening days of the war, it was the site of a demand from a Russian war ship to Ukrainian defenders to surrender. They replied, infamously, with "Russian warship, go f**k yourself” – a phrase that become a motif of Ukrainian resistance.

10:20 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

US attorney general makes unannounced visit to Ukraine and pledges "unwavering support"

From CNN's Hannah Rabinowitz

US Attorney General Merrick Garland, left, made an unannounced trip to Ukraine on Tuesday, June 21, where he met Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova.
US Attorney General Merrick Garland, left, made an unannounced trip to Ukraine on Tuesday, June 21, where he met Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova. (CNN)

US Attorney General Merrick Garland made an unannounced trip to Ukraine on Tuesday, where he met Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova.

The two will discuss efforts by the United States and other countries to help Ukraine "identify, apprehend, and prosecute those individuals involved in war crimes" in Ukraine, according to a statement from a Justice Department official.  

Garland had previously announced a trip to Europe scheduled for this week to meet with European leaders and discuss their joint efforts to combat Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Garland is the most recent top-ranking US official to travel to Ukraine. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv in April, and a congressional delegation led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell traveled to Kyiv just a few weeks later

Appearing alongside Venediktova inside Ukraine, Garland said he was there to “express the unwavering support of the United States for the people of Ukraine in the midst of the unprovoked and unjust Russian invasion.”

Garland also said he wanted to discuss actions the United States “is taking to assist the Ukrainian authorities in holding accountable those responsible for the atrocities, for the war crimes that the entire world has seen.” 

“The United States is sending an unmistakable message – there is no place to hide. We and our partners will pursue every avenue available to make sure that those responsible for these atrocities are held accountable,” Garland said.

9:29 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

Land transit between Kaliningrad and Russia has not been banned, European Commission says

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell talks to the press during a Foreign Affairs Council meeting at the EU Council building in Luxembourg on June 20.
High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell talks to the press during a Foreign Affairs Council meeting at the EU Council building in Luxembourg on June 20. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

The land transit between Kaliningrad and other parts of Russia has not been banned, the High Representative of the European Commission Josep Borrell said on Monday.

“The land transit between Kaliningrad and other parts of Russia has not been stopped nor banned. There is no blockade,” Borrell said in published remarks. “Transit of passengers and goods that are not sanctioned continues.”

Why is the European Commission making this clarification? It comes after 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 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 the governor of the Kaliningrad region Anton Alikhanov. Kaliningrad is Russia’s exclave in the European Union.

Russia called this decision "unprecedented" and "illegal," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday.

Borrell said Lithuania had not taken any unilateral national restrictions and only applied the European Union sanctions. 

"The accusation that 'Lithuania is implementing Lithuanian sanctions' is false. Pure propaganda," he said.

Separately, a European Commission press officer confirmed that European Union representative to Moscow Markus Ederer had been meeting with representatives of the Russian ministry regarding the subject Tuesday.

“We can also confirm that our head of delegation to Russia had a meeting in the Russian ministry where he explained our position and implementation of EU sanctions,” the official said.

9:41 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

Second known American killed while fighting in Ukraine

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

U.S. citizen Stephen Zabielski has died while fighting in Ukraine.
U.S. citizen Stephen Zabielski has died while fighting in Ukraine. (The Recorder)

The US State Department on Tuesday confirmed the death of an American citizen in Ukraine whose obituary said he died in mid-May while fighting in the war.

"We can confirm the death of U.S. citizen Stephen Zabielski in Ukraine," a State Department spokesperson said. 

“We have been in touch with the family and have provided all possible consular assistance. Out of respect to the family during this difficult time, we have nothing further," the spokesperson said.

According to his obituary, published on June 1 in "The Recorder,"  a newspaper in New York, said Zabielski "died on Sunday, May 15, 2022, while fighting the war in Village of Dorozhniank, Ukraine."

He was 52 years old and is survived by his wife and five stepchildren, according to the obituary. 

Zabielski is the second known American to be killed in combat in Ukraine. Marine Corps veteran Willy Cancel was killed in April fighting alongside Ukrainian forces.

8:43 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

End to the war "depends on the world's attention," Zelensky says

From CNN's Anastasia Graham-Yooll in London

President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, speaks on stage during the Creativity Under Bombs talk at the Lumiere Theatre, Cannes Lions 2022 on June 20, in Cannes, France.
President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, speaks on stage during the Creativity Under Bombs talk at the Lumiere Theatre, Cannes Lions 2022 on June 20, in Cannes, France. (Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images/Cannes Lions)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has urged creative film professionals to do more to “promote Ukrainian bravery,” in an address the Cannes Lions International Festival for creative industry. 

“The end of this war and its circumstances depend on the world's attention. And that's why I need allies. We need people like you,” Zelensky said in a video statement on Tuesday. 

“I believe that the power of human creativity is greater than the power of a nuclear state that is stuck in the past,” Zelensky said. “Speak of Ukraine. Don't let the world switch to something else."

In 117 days of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Zelensky has made more than 70 speeches around the world, including at parliaments, international institutions and business forums. 

8:38 a.m. ET, June 21, 2022

Russian forces capture frontline village on outskirts of Severodonetsk

From Olga Voitovych in Kyiv and CNN’s Vasco Cotovio in London

Toshkivka, Ukraine, which is now under Russian control.
Toshkivka, Ukraine, which is now under Russian control. (Twitter)

Russian troops have captured the frontline village of Toshkivka in the Donbas region as they keep trying to seize the strategic city of Severodonetsk.

The head of the Severodonetsk district military administration, Roman Vlasenko, told CNN on Tuesday that the village had not been under Ukrainian control since Monday.

Toshkivka is located south of Severodonetsk, where Ukrainian forces have mounted fierce resistance to Moscow’s armies.