September 16, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Andrew Raine, Lianne Kolirin, Ed Upright and Adrienne Vogt, CNN

Updated 2355 GMT (0755 HKT) September 16, 2022
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2:16 p.m. ET, September 16, 2022

White House calls reports of mass burial site in Ukraine "repugnant" and "horrifying"

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, John Kirby, speaks the daily White House briefing in Washington, DC on September 16.
National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, John Kirby, speaks the daily White House briefing in Washington, DC on September 16. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The White House said reports of a mass burial site in the eastern Ukrainian city of Izium are "horrifying" and "repugnant."

John Kirby, the strategic communications adviser at the National Security Council, said the discovery of what Ukrainian officials say is at least 440 graves at the site was "in keeping with the kind of depravity and the brutality with which Russian forces have been prosecuting this war against Ukraine and the Ukrainian people."

Kirby said the United States would continue to “actively support efforts to document war crimes and atrocities that Russian forces commit in Ukraine and assist national and international efforts to identify and hold Russians accountable.”

Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications said on Thursday that some of the graves discovered at Izium were “fresh” and that the bodies buried there were “mostly civilians.”

Izium was subject to intense Russian artillery attacks in April, and the city, which sits near the border between the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, became an important hub for the invading military during five months of occupation.

2:14 p.m. ET, September 16, 2022

UN General Assembly votes to allow Zelensky to speak by video link

From CNN's Tim Lister

The U.N. General Assembly meets during a special session at the U.N. headquarters in New York City on September 15.
The U.N. General Assembly meets during a special session at the U.N. headquarters in New York City on September 15. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The UN General Assembly has voted to allow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to address the 77th session of the Assembly by video link.

The vote was 101 in favor and seven against, with 19 abstentions.

The countries voting against were Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Nicaragua, Syria and Cuba.

China abstained.

General debate in the Assembly will run from Sept. 20 through Sept. 26.

2:22 p.m. ET, September 16, 2022

Release of Americans detained abroad is a top priority for the US, top official says

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a meeting at the Department of State in Washington, DC on September 15.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a meeting at the Department of State in Washington, DC on September 15. (Jose Luis Magana/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the administration is working relentlessly to secure the release of Americans detained abroad, including Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, who are being held in Russia.

Speaking at a news conference Friday, Blinken said the matter is “at the very top of my priority list.” He reiterated that the United States had presented Russia with a “substantial proposal” to secure the release of the two Americans, who have been classified as wrongfully detained.

“I'm not going to get into the details or the back and forth. I don’t think that serves the interest of an agreement. But suffice to say we are working on it every day. And just because we don’t say something or you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” Blinken said.

Some background: A senior administration official told CNN on Thursday that there has been “movement but not breakthrough” on the efforts to free Griner and Whelan.

The official said that the United States has urged Russia to put forward “a serious counteroffer” to the proposal on the table to secure the release of the two, but “we've not gotten a serious response back.”

President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet with Griner and Whelan families at the White House later on Friday, marking his first time personally meeting with them since their loved ones were detained in Russia.

Griner was detained in February for carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. The two-time US Olympic basketball gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug charges and said she accidentally packed the drugs while in a hurry. She has been sentenced to nine years, along with a fine of about $16,400. Her legal team in Russia has appealed the sentence.

Whelan has been imprisoned in Russia for more than three years after being convicted on espionage charges that he vehemently denies. He was sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial US officials denounced as unfair.

1:00 p.m. ET, September 16, 2022

Zelensky meets commanders to discuss next phase of "de-occupation"

From CNN's Yulia Kesaieva in Kyiv

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with senior military commanders to discuss the next steps in Ukraine's "de-occupation" efforts.

According to the Presidency's website, officials including the Commander of Ground Forces Oleksandr Syrsky, the Commander of the Western Command Serhiy Litvinov and the Commander of the South Command Andriy Kovalchuk joined the meeting via videoconference.

"The participants of the meeting considered further steps for the de-occupation of the territories of Ukraine and made the necessary decisions," the statement said.

They had also "updated the list of weapons necessary for the continuation of the operation to liberate Ukrainian lands."

1:05 p.m. ET, September 16, 2022

Putin says Russia is in "no hurry" in first public remarks on Ukrainian counteroffensive

From CNN's Uliana Pavlova

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on September 16.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on September 16. (Sergei Bobylev/Pool/Sputnik/AP)

In his first comments following Kyiv’s successful counteroffensive in northeastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the main goal of Russia's "special military operation" — what he calls the Ukraine invasion — has not changed.

Speaking at a press conference at the end of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan, Putin said the main goal continued to be “the liberation of the entire territory of Donbas” — the Luhansk and Donetsk regions — and that Russia was in “no hurry.”

"This work continues, despite these attempts to counterattack by the Ukrainian army. Our offensive operation in the Donbas itself does not stop. It continues," Putin said. "It goes at a slow pace, but it keeps going. Gradually, gradually, the Russian army occupies new territories."

On ending the fighting, Putin said, “The Kyiv authorities abandoned all agreements, they were thrown into a drawer and announced that they would not seek any agreements with Russia, but would seek victory on the battlefield. 

"Well, the flag is in their hands. They are now just trying to do this by conducting this counteroffensive. Let's see how this ends,” Putin said.

Putin also took aim at the West in his justification for the invasion, claiming that "for decades, the idea of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of classical Russia has been cultivated in the West."

Some context: This month brought huge strategic losses for the Kremlin as Ukraine carried out counteroffensives in the northeast and south. Ukraine has recaptured a total of 8,000 square kilometers (about 3,088 square miles) of land, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday.

12:56 p.m. ET, September 16, 2022

China and India concerns about war in Ukraine are "reflective of concerns around the world," Blinken says

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said concern by Chinese and Indian leaders about the war in Ukraine “is reflective of concerns around the world about the effects of Russia's aggression on Ukraine, not just on the people of Ukraine… but on countries and people across the entire planet.”

“It's an aggression not just against Ukraine and its people, it's an aggression against the very principles of international relations that help keep peace and security,” Blinken said at a news conference at the State Department Friday.

He said the war is a violation of the UN charter, saying that global leaders are noticing the aggression.

“This is something that leaders in countries around the world are feeling because their people are feeling it. And so I think what you’re seeing is just a manifestation of the fact that this aggression has been an aggression against the interests of people across the planet, and I think it increases the pressure on Russia to end the aggression,” he said. 

Some context: On Friday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Vladimir Putin that "today’s era is not of war” — a significant rebuke from a leader who has stayed largely silent on the conflict throughout its more than six months duration. A day earlier, Putin acknowledged China's President Xi Jinping had “questions and concerns” regarding the conflict in Ukraine. 

1:05 p.m. ET, September 16, 2022

"Document the atrocities," US secretary of state says about reports of Izium mass burial site

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

Members of the Ukrainian Emergency Service work on an exhumation of a mass burial site in the town of Izium, Kharkiv region on September 16.
Members of the Ukrainian Emergency Service work on an exhumation of a mass burial site in the town of Izium, Kharkiv region on September 16. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he has seen the reports about a mass burial site in Izium, saying it was “part, horrifically, of a continuing, ongoing story” of Russian brutality in Ukraine.

Blinken said there is a need to “build the evidence and document the atrocities that have been committed,” even as Ukrainian forces retake territory.

“In many instances, these will amount to war crimes,” Blinken said at a news conference at the State Department Friday.

Blinken reiterated that the US does not intend to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terror, saying that as a practical matter, the US is applying the penalties that would come with that designation. He also said the designation could have “unintended consequences.” 

“What we are doing is working with Congress right now to see if there is another way forward that achieves could be achieved through the use of the SST designation without any of the unintended consequences that would make it more counterproductive than productive,” Blinken said.

12:10 p.m. ET, September 16, 2022

Bodies of family with young daughter found at Izium site, Ukrainian official says

From CNN's Tim Lister and Yulia Kesaieva

A Ukrainian official at a mass burial site near Izium said the bodies of an entire family have been identified there.

The Ukrainian Parliament's Commissioner for Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets said in a video statement from the site that "there is a whole family right next to me ... This is a young family ... The father was born in 1988, the wife was born in 1991; their little daughter was born in 2016." 

"We have testimonies from local people that they all died as a result of an airstrike" carried out by the Russian air force, Lubinets said.

"There are many, many similar cases," he added.

"Also we saw here a mass burial of servicemen of the Ukrainian army. The way they were buried; you will see evidence that their hands were tied, they were killed at close range," Lubinets said.

At least 440 graves were found at a mass burial site in the city in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky saying that some of the bodies have "signs of torture."

Ukraine recaptured the city from Russian forces last Saturday during its counteroffensive. The Russian military used it as a key base and resupply route for its forces in eastern Ukraine.

12:03 p.m. ET, September 16, 2022

Relationship between Russia and China is one "of convenience, not necessarily one of trust," US official says

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Friday that she thinks the relationship between Moscow and Beijing is one “of convenience, not necessarily one of trust or one that will combine their efforts on all things.”

“This is not a full-flown marriage in all ways, shapes and form, but they are certainly going to work together, but they will also work for advantage with each other,” Sherman said in a conversation with Washington Post Live.

“It was quite interesting that President Putin made a remark that he knew that Xi Jinping had concerns about what he was doing in Ukraine,” she said. “Very interesting for Putin to say that.”

On Thursday, in a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Putin acknowledged China’s “questions and concerns” regarding the conflict in Ukraine. 

Sherman said she is “sure that Xi Jinping is looking for advantage while Russia is continuing its unprovoked, premeditated and horrifying invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign country.”

“Xi Jinping has constantly talked about sovereignty and territorial integrity so this doesn’t square with the principles he wants for his own views, whether it’s about Hong Kong or Tibet or Taiwan,” she said.