September 20, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Sana Noor Haq, Adrienne Vogt, Aditi Sangal and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 9:51 p.m. ET, September 20, 2022
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7:27 p.m. ET, September 20, 2022

Several large explosions heard overnight in Kharkiv

From CNN’s Ben Wedeman, Kareem Khadder and Peter Rudden in Kharkiv, Ukraine

There were several large explosions in the city of Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine early Wednesday.

As air raid sirens wailed, CNN's team on the ground heard 6-7 "large explosions."

It's been just over two weeks since Ukraine launched a counter-offensive in the northeast Kharkiv region that allowed Kyiv to recapture thousands of square miles of territory that had been occupied by Russia for months.

The explosions happened at about 1:52 a.m. local time.

4:50 p.m. ET, September 20, 2022

Ukraine's counteroffensive will continue despite referendums in occupied territories, official says

From CNN's Katharina Krebs in London

Referendums in Russian-occupied territories will have no effect on the actions of the Ukrainian army, and its counteroffensive and the liberation of the occupied territories will continue, Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukrainian presidential adviser, told CNN on Tuesday. 

"The actions of our army are exclusively defensive in nature, they are legal and legitimate. International law is unambiguous and undeniable: Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia region, Kherson and Crimea are the territory of Ukraine. Our partners also proceed from this basic principle," Podolyak said to CNN. 

According to Podolyak, any Russian-organized referendums on Ukrainian territory would be "absolutely meaningless."

The proposed referendums are a reaction to defeats of the Russian army and the loss of Putin's influence, Podolyak said, adding that "active hostilities are taking place in these territories" and that "there is no possibility for any other actions except for the blockade to be lifted by military means."

4:43 p.m. ET, September 20, 2022

Trudeau condemns Russian-backed referendums in occupied Ukraine 

From CNN's Aliza Kassim

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned planned referendums by Russian-backed authorities in Ukraine, calling them a "violation of international law" and a further escalation of the war.

"Canada denounces Russia’s planned 'referendums' in occupied regions of Ukraine. We will never recognize them. This is a blatant violation of international law. It is a further escalation of war. And it is unacceptable," Trudeau said in a tweet on Tuesday.

Trudeau's comments come as Russia and multiple Kremlin-backed authorities in eastern and southern Ukraine have announced that referendums on joining Russia would be held this week. Ukraine has dismissed the moves as a “sham” stemming from the “fear of defeat.”

4:03 p.m. ET, September 20, 2022

US secretary of state calls for extension of Russia-Ukraine grain deal

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

(David Dee Delgado/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
(David Dee Delgado/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday called for an extension of the deal to allow Ukrainian grain to transit through the Black Sea, which is due to expire in mid-November.

Blinken noted that the agreement between Ukraine and Russia, brokered by the UN and Turkey, “should never have been necessary in the first place,” but was required after Russia’s war blocked thousands of tons of grain at Ukrainian ports. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently suggested he could pull out of the agreement.

“It needs to keep going, it needs to be renewed, that is urgent,” Blinken said at a Global Food Security Summit held during the UN General Assembly high level week.

"As you heard from some of my colleagues, despite some of the misinformation that continues to come from Moscow, that grain and other food products are getting where they need to go, to the countries most in need, predominantly in the Global South,” Blinken said.

The top US diplomat called on countries to do more to respond to the food insecurity crisis, noting that “action is crucial.” 

“Some countries with the capacity to do more are among those doing the least. That needs to change,” Blinken said, without naming names. “And no matter what countries have done so far, every country is called upon to do more.”

He said President Joe Biden would be announcing new assistance from the US on Wednesday. 

Blinken also called for a strengthening of global food systems to increase the ability of countries to respond to shocks and the effects of the climate crisis. He said the US government will work with Congress over the next five years to invest over $11 billion toward this aim.

4:06 p.m. ET, September 20, 2022

White House announces nomination for US ambassador to Russia

From CNN's Nikki Carvajal and Kylie Atwood

An undated US State Department photo of Ambassador Lynne Tracy.
An undated US State Department photo of Ambassador Lynne Tracy. (US State Dept./AP)

The White House announced Lynne Tracy as President Joe Biden’s nominee for US ambassador to Russia on Tuesday, as first reported last week by CNN’s Kylie Atwood

In a release Tuesday, the White House also announced the nominee for US ambassador to Barbados, the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, the Commonwealth of Dominica, Grenada, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, along with two members of the board for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. 

Some context: The Biden administration hopes to get Tracy in place swiftly to replace John Sullivan who stepped down earlier this month.

The timing of her arrival will depend on Russia agreeing to accept her as ambassador at a time of huge tension between Washington and Moscow as the war in Ukraine continues.

The nomination of Tracy will mark a complete overhaul of leadership at the embassy in Moscow. Sullivan had not been present in Russia for most of the summer because he had been in the US with his wife who had been seriously ill and died last week.

2:38 p.m. ET, September 20, 2022

US deputy secretary of state: Russia troops "appears on the ropes" in Ukraine

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Tuesday that Russian troops “appear on the ropes” in Ukraine and that the Kremlin's actions, including supporting what she described as “sham referenda” in some Ukrainian regions, were a desperate move by President Vladimir Putin.

In an interview on MSNBC, Sherman said there are concerns that Putin “will use kinds of weapons of war that he should not,” noting he had already weaponized food.

“Hopefully he understands what the President just conveyed: Don’t. Don’t. Don’t,” she said, referring to President Joe Biden’s warning of punishments if Russia were to use chemical or nuclear weapons.

Some context: Multiple Kremlin-backed authorities in eastern and southern Ukraine announced referendums on joining Russia will be held this week. Ukraine has dismissed the move as stemming from "fear of defeat."

3:12 p.m. ET, September 20, 2022

It's just after 10 p.m. in Kyiv. Catch up with the latest on Russia's war in Ukraine

Multiple Kremlin-backed authorities in eastern and southern Ukraine suddenly announced referendums on joining Russia will be held this week.

If you're just joining us here's what you need to know about Tuesday's developments in Russia's war in Ukraine.

While previous plans for such a vote have been delayed, there was a flurry of announcements from different Russian-backed officials in occupied regions in Ukraine — all set on voting from Sept. 23 to Sept. 27.

Kherson: Russian-backed head of the Kherson administration, Vladimir Saldo, said he "signed a decree" for the referendum, which also established the procedure for organizing voting and "measures of administrative and criminal liability for violation of these rules." Parts of Kherson are on the front lines between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

Luhansk People's Republic: The leader of the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic, Leonid Pasechnik, also signed a law on a referendum. According to the text, "the Central Election Commission of the LPR will determine the results of the referendum on the Republic's entry into the LPR no later than five days after the last voting day," according to local media portal Lug-Info.

Dontesk People's Republic: The self-declared DPR agreed to hold a referendum and the head said he wrote a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking him for the rapid accession of the republic to the Russian Federation once a referendum is held.

Zaporizhzhia: The so-called National Congress of Citizens of the Zaporizhzhia Region has approved a referendum, said Vladimir Rogov, a senior pro-Russian official in occupied Zaporizhzhia. “Technically, we are ready. Security of polling stations is ensured. Our borders are reliably protected by the Russian military," said Yevgeniy Balitskiy, the Russian-appointed head of the Zaporizhzhia regional administration

Ukrainian response: Ukrainian officials condemned these announcements. The foreign ministry said the “fake plebiscites” will not change the “administrative-territorial structure and internationally recognized borders of Ukraine.” The ministry called the vote “forced citizenship” of residents and said it is “another attempt of Russia to legitimize the consequences of its aggressive war against Ukraine.”

Russian response: The announcements have received swift support from Russian politicians. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has publicly endorsed referendums in the self-declared Donbas republics, saying it will have "huge significance" for "systemic protection" of the residents. "Not one future leader of Russia, not one official will be able to reverse these decisions," he added.

US response: The Pentagon said that announcements are "simply an information operation that’s meant to distract from the difficult state that the Russian military currently finds itself in.” US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield also condemned the moves on Tuesday.

2:36 p.m. ET, September 20, 2022

Ukrainian flag raised on the border between Donetsk and Kharkiv regions 

From CNN's Yulia Kesaieva in Kyiv and Hira Humayun

(Pavlo Kyrylenko/Telegram)
(Pavlo Kyrylenko/Telegram)

The Ukrainian flag has been raised on the border between the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions, according to a Telegram post from Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk region military administration on Tuesday.

“The Ukrainian flag was raised on the entrance sign installed on the border of Donetsk and Kharkiv regions!” he wrote, “Thanks to our Armed Forces, this section of the Kyiv-Kharkiv-Dovzhansky highway is free of occupiers, but extremely dangerous, as it is literally stuffed with deadly scrap metal.”

Fierce battles were being fought in the area until recently, but now only abandoned equipment and minefields remain, Kyrylenko said.

“Together with the First Deputy Head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Yevhen Yenin and the Head of the State Emergency Service Serhiі Kruk, we went to the site to assess the scale of work to be done on demining,” Kyrylenko said.

1:46 p.m. ET, September 20, 2022

US ambassador to UN condemns Russian-backed referendums in meeting with Ukrainian foreign minister

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba Tuesday, and they both condemned the announcement of referendums announced by Russian-backed officials within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders, according to Nate Evans, a spokesperson for the United States Mission to the United Nations [USUN].

Thomas-Greenfield “reiterated that the United States will not recognize any attempt by Russia to claim annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory,” Evans said in a readout.

The referendums "are an affront to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that are at heart of the UN Charter,” the readout added.

The two “assessed the progress made under the Black Sea Grain Initiative in getting Ukrainian agricultural products to market” and reiterated the importance for all member states to defend the UN Charter and to "work together to address the crises Russia’s war against Ukraine has exacerbated, including global food insecurity.”