July 27, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Kathleen Magramo, Jack Guy and Adrienne Vogt, CNN

Updated 2:40 a.m. ET, July 28, 2022
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4:23 p.m. ET, July 27, 2022

Blinken: Biden signed off on proposal presented to Russia to try to secure the release of Griner and Whelan

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood, Michael Conte and Christian Sierra

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the White House in Washington, DC., on July 27.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the White House in Washington, DC., on July 27. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said President Joe Biden was "directly involved" and signed off on the "substantial proposal" presented to Moscow to try to secure the release of detained Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.

As first reported by CNN, the US government has offered to trade convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout as part of that proposal. 

Blinken did not directly confirm Bout was part of the deal, saying he "can't and won't get into any of the details of what we proposed to the Russians over the course of so many weeks now."

He added, "in terms of the President, of course he was not only directly involved, he signs off on any proposal that we make, and certainly when it comes to Americans who are being arbitrarily detained abroad, including in this specific case."

The sign-off from the President is required for any prisoner swaps, and overrules objections from the Department of Justice.

The top US diplomat plans to speak with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in the coming days, and said at a news conference Wednesday that his "hope would be that in speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov, I can advance the efforts to, to bring them home."

"There is in my mind utility in conveying clear, direct messages to the Russians on key priorities for us. And as I mentioned, these include securing the return home of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan," he said.

"We make a judgment in every instance where we think our diplomacy can hopefully advance our interest and values, including direct engagement," Blinken continued.

"We make judgments about when it makes sense to talk about it in public, and as a general proposition, I believe in as much transparency as we possibly can have. And sometimes we make judgments that we’re going to keep conversations quiet. So in this instance, I thought it was important to make clear that on these issues, the detention of our American citizens, the food prices the world is facing because of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the plans that Russia now has to pursue the annexation of Ukrainian territory, that our Russian counterparts hear directly from me," he said.

The families of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner were notified by a senior administration official ahead of Secretary Blinken’s announcement that a "substantial proposal" had been put on the table to secure their release from Russia, an official says. Officials will be speaking to their families today and tomorrow as well. 

National Security Council communications coordinator John Kirby told CNN Wednesday that the Biden administration made “a substantial offer” weeks ago, adding that the “offer has been made, and we certainly hope that that Russia will favorably engage on it, but I don’t want to get into more detail about that.”

Kirby told reporters during the White House press briefing that Deputy Homeland Security Adviser Josh Geltzer spoke earlier today with the Griner and Whelan families ahead of Blinken’s announcement of the proposed prisoner swap.

Pressed Wednesday on if, in absence of favorable engagement from Russia, the President’s national security team thinks Biden may have to make the offer directly, Kirby told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins “I think we're making it clear across the national security team that we're serious about securing that release — I don't have any conversations to speak about, or announcements on the President's behalf. We believe that this is a serious proposal, and we want the Russians to take it seriously as well.”

He emphasized that the administration was disinclined to offer more details on the proposed prisoner swap, telling reporters, “I'm sure you can all understand that it's not going to help us get them home by negotiating in public with y'all, so I'm not going to have any more details, but I will say that the President and his team are willing to take extraordinary steps to bring our people home, as we've demonstrated with Trevor Reed, and that's what we're doing right here, it's actively happening now.”

CNN's Kaitlan Collins and DJ Judd contributed reporting to this post.

4:08 p.m. ET, July 27, 2022

Ukraine "very grateful" for increase in Western military assistance, national security official says

From CNN's Vasco Cotovio

Ukraine is “very grateful” for an increase in deliveries of Western military aid over the past month, the country’s national security adviser Oleksiy Danilov tweeted on Wednesday

“Over the past month, there has been a strong intensification of military assistance from our partners, we are very grateful to them for this,” Danilov wrote. 

The Ukrainian National Security went on to say his country’s forces had used some of that equipment to target the Antonivskyi bridge, in the Kherson region, an important supply artery for Russian forces stationed west of the Dnieper river. 

“The destruction of the [Antonivskyi] bridge shows how delicately modern military equipment works — the enemy trembles, and partners are delighted at how quickly and efficiently our military has mastered it,” Danilov said, adding that Russia has been moving “troops in the Kherson direction.”

Analysts have suggested Russia has been fortifying it’s positions in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in advance of a Ukrainian counteroffensive. 

“This war will result in the decolonization of the Russian federation,” Danilov also said.

3:48 p.m. ET, July 27, 2022

US expects Russian-installed leaders to hold sham referenda in Ukraine with goal of annexation, Blinken says

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Christian Sierra

The United States expects Moscow-installed leaders in Ukraine to hold sham referenda with the goal of annexing parts of Ukraine, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday, adding that the US "must and we will act quickly to make clear to Russia that these tactics will not work."

"Russia installed leaders will hold sham referendums to manufacture the fiction that the people in those places want to join Russia. Then they'll use those false votes to claim that the annexation of these regions is legitimate," Blinken said at a news conference at the US State Department in Washington, DC.

The top US diplomat said that "annexation by force of the territory of a sovereign and independent country is a gross violation of the United Nations Charter."

"Members of the international community that have committed to uphold the charter and international law, have a responsibility to denounce these plans by the Russian government and to make clear they will never recognize these illegal acts," he said. "Otherwise, no one can claim to be surprised when Russia follows through on its plans or if other countries follow suit in the future."

4:11 p.m. ET, July 27, 2022

Ukrainian President Zelensky and first lady sit down for first joint international TV interview 

From CNN's Jorge Engels in London

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a briefing in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday, July 25, 2022.
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a briefing in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday, July 25, 2022. (Hennadii Minchenko/Ukrinform/Future Publishing/Getty Images)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and first lady Olena Zelenska sat down with Britain’s TalkTV host Piers Morgan in their first joint international TV interview, which will air Wednesday.

They discussed the United States’ and Britain’s support for Ukraine and how the war has affected their marriage, according to preview clips shared on Twitter by TalkTV and Piers Morgan.

Zelensky said he his keen on US President Joe Biden visiting Ukraine as this would send “the strongest signal in support of Ukraine.”

“I believe this would be a great signal, a big signal. Everyone sees Ukraine’s attitude toward the US. This would be highest support,” Zelensky told Morgan in a preview clip.

Asked whether he had a message for the next British prime minister, Zelensky said in a separate preview clip that he would be happy to cooperate closely and maintain the close relationship with the UK that Ukraine benefitted from under now-caretaker Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership. The interview content was translated from Ukrainian by TalkTV.

"Whoever is the leader, the highest level of support will be provided from the Ukraine," Zelensky said. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former finance minister Rishi Sunak are vying to become the next Conservative party leader and prime minister.

Zelensky also said he had “no right to play in politics inside the UK” when asked about whether he would support a potential campaign to get Boris Johnson back into office. However, Zelensky said Johnson has been a “great friend to Ukraine” and said he hoped he retained some sort of political office.

“I don’t want him to disappear, but the decision is in the hands of the British people,” Zelensky said. 

The presidential couple also said their marriage had gotten stronger thanks to the challenges presented by the war.

“I agree with the theory that marriage gets stronger with challenges. I think in our case, it would be the same,” said Zelenska.

“I have only one wife and I am happy,” the president added.

In a moment of levity, the first lady disclosed that she found out her husband would be running for Ukraine’s presidency while watching his presidential campaign announcement on TV on Dec. 31, 2018.

“He forgot [to tell me],” Zelenska said. “I saw his New Year’s address and found out he was actually running!” she added.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated when the interview would air.

3:23 p.m. ET, July 27, 2022

Blinken says he expects to speak with Russia's foreign minister this week about release of Americans

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, July 27.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, July 27. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken intends to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for the first time since the war in Ukraine began more than five months ago.

The top US diplomat said Wednesday that he expected a call with his Russian counterpart this week to discuss a "substantial proposal" presented to Moscow "weeks ago" to try to secure the release of two wrongfully detained Americans — Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.

He also plans to discuss the recently signed agreement to allow Ukrainian grain to transit through the Black Sea.

Speaking at a news conference at the State Department, Blinken said he would not negotiate on Ukraine in a call with Lavrov, repeating that they would not discuss Ukraine without Ukraine.

3:00 p.m. ET, July 27, 2022

CNN exclusive: Biden administration offers convicted Russian arms dealer in exchange for Griner and Whelan

From CNN's Kylie Atwood, Evan Perez and Jennifer Hansler

In this photo provided by the US Department of Justice, former Soviet military officer and arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout, center — who has since been convicted and is serving a 25-year US prison sentence — deplanes after arriving at Westchester County Airport in White Plains, New York, in November 2010.
In this photo provided by the US Department of Justice, former Soviet military officer and arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout, center — who has since been convicted and is serving a 25-year US prison sentence — deplanes after arriving at Westchester County Airport in White Plains, New York, in November 2010. (U.S. Department of Justice/Getty Images)

After months of internal debate, the Biden administration has offered to exchange Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year US prison sentence, as part of a potential deal to secure the release of two Americans held by Russia, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, according to people briefed on the matter.

These sources told CNN that the plan to trade Bout for Whelan and Griner received the backing of President Joe Biden after being under discussion since earlier this year. Biden's support for the swap overrides opposition from the Department of Justice, which is generally against prisoner trades.

"We communicated a substantial offer that we believe could be successful based on a history of conversations with the Russians," a senior administration official told CNN Wednesday. "We communicated that a number of weeks ago, in June."

The official declined to comment on the specifics of the "substantial offer." They said it was in Russia's "court to be responsive to it, yet at the same time that does not leave us passive, as we continue to communicate the offer at very senior levels."

"It takes two to tango. We start all negotiations to bring home Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained with a bad actor on the other side. We start all of these with somebody who has taken a human being American and treated them as a bargaining chip," the official said. "So in some ways, it's not surprising, even if it's disheartening, when those same actors don't necessarily respond directly to our offers, don't engage constructively in negotiations."

The families of Whelan, who has been held by Russia for alleged espionage since 2018, and WNBA star Griner, jailed in Moscow for drug possession since February, have urged the White House to secure their release, including via a prisoner exchange if necessary.

In response to CNN reporting, David Whelan, the brother of imprisoned Paul Whelan, said he appreciates the Biden administration.

“Our family appreciates the Biden Administration seeking Paul's release using the resources it has available. We hope the Russian government responds to the U.S. government and accepts this or some other concession that enables Paul to come home to his family. Hopefully no other American will be wrongfully held by the Russian government in the future," Whelan said in a statement to CNN.

Keep reading here.

2:04 p.m. ET, July 27, 2022

Moscow warns of consequences if Ukraine uses US-made weapons against Russian territory, official says

From CNN's Uliana Pavlova

Moscow has warned of "more than serious" consequences if Ukraine uses US-made multiple launch rocket systems or other NATO-supplied long-range weapons against Russian territory, according to Russian official Konstantin Gavrilov.

Gavrilov is the head of the Russian delegation at talks in Vienna on issues of military security and arms control.

“If the Armed Forces of Ukraine use American MLRS or other NATO long-range weapons against Russian territory, the consequences will be more than serious," Gavrilov said according to a statement published by the Russian Foreign Ministry. 

“An increase in the transfer of Western weapons to Kyiv may force the Russian Federation to move to tougher responses,” he said. 

Gavrilov also said that all of the main goals set by President Vladimir Putin will be accomplished in Ukraine and urged Western governments to listen to Russia’s concerns.

Some background: Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on Tuesday that the United States and other allies have praised his country’s use of donated systems, such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, with officials in Washington saying Russia has yet to take out any of the gifted Western rocket artillery.

The Ukrainian defense minister said the donated weapons were “already affecting the course of the war.” The HIMARS, with range and accuracy superior to that of equivalent Russian artillery, has allowed Ukraine to hit targets well within Moscow-controlled territory, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff said last week.

Germany has also delivered three Mars II multiple launch rocket systems launchers from its army stocks, as well as five Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns and three self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine, German Minister of Defense Christine Lambrecht said on Tuesday.

1:53 p.m. ET, July 27, 2022

Ukraine says it has rebuffed Russian offensive toward Donetsk town

From CNN's Petro Zadorozhnyy

Workers cut down a tree that has fallen due to shelling in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on July 27.
Workers cut down a tree that has fallen due to shelling in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on July 27. (Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The Ukrainian military said it was able to repel Russian offensives toward the Donetsk town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

In its evening update on Wednesday, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said it had inflicted losses on Russian forces looking to advance in that area.

“Ukrainian soldiers successfully repelled enemy assaults in the settlement of Berestove and in the directions of" Volodymyrivka, Soledar, Rota and Semyhiria, the military said. “The enemy withdrew with losses.”

Artillery shelling and airstrikes were reported in most villages and towns around the area, as well as along most of the frontline in the Donetsk region, as Russia “continues its attempts to improve the tactical position in the directions of the cities of Kramatorsk and Bakhmut with assault actions,” the General Staff said. 

The Ukrainian military said an assault along the Bilohorivka-Verkhnokamianske axis was also repelled. 

In the area around Kharkiv, as well as along the southern flank near Kherson, Ukrainian forces said the Russian military has mostly maintained its defensive positions. 

1:40 p.m. ET, July 27, 2022

Hungary must do its part to ration gas while depending on neighbors, EU energy official says

From CNN's Amy Cassidy

European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson speaks in Brussels, Belgium, on Tuesday, July 26.
European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson speaks in Brussels, Belgium, on Tuesday, July 26. (Virginia Mayo/AP)

Hungary should still do its part to ration natural gas ahead of winter while relying on help from its EU neighbors amid supply cuts from Russia, Kadri Simson, the EU Energy Commissioner, told CNN on Wednesday.

The EU announced a deal Tuesday to reduce gas usage by 15% from August to March to see the bloc through winter since Russia has significantly slashed its exports to Europe.

Hungary was the only member state to vote against the plan, which was branded “unfounded” and “unenforceable” by Hungarian Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Péter Szijjártó.

“Hungary as a landlocked country, it depends on [its] neighbors' solidarity,” Simson told CNN’s Becky Anderson. "Even to cut the gas right now from Russia, they need neighbors who are offering them transit routes."

“We also agreed that at this moment when we are facing full disruption, then the neighbors will provide alternative routes. But to ask for that you also have to do your part," Simson added. That means that every member state is right now at this stage preparing their plans, how they can save gas.”