September 21, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Sophie Tanno, Aditi Sangal, Elise Hammond, Maureen Chowdhury and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, September 22, 2023
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4:09 p.m. ET, September 21, 2023

McConnell: US "support for Ukraine is not charity" but an "investment" in American interests

From CNN's Clare Foran

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer walk with President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky at the Capitol Building on September 21, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer walk with President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky at the Capitol Building on September 21, 2023 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee/Getty Images

 

In his floor remarks Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell welcomed Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky to the US Capitol and defended US aid to Ukraine.

“American support for Ukraine is not charity. It’s an investment in our own direct interests,” the top Senate Republican said.
“Degrading Russia’s military power helps to deter our primary strategic adversary, China,” McConnell added.

On Zelensky’s visit, the GOP senator said he was glad that “our colleagues got an opportunity to hear from him firsthand and ask questions about the state of Ukraine’s counteroffensive.”

Earlier, Zelensky described his meeting with US senators on Capitol Hill as a "great dialogue." Prior to meeting with the senators, he had also met with lawmakers from the US House of Representatives. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy would not commit to reporters on putting Ukraine aid on the chamber's floor by end of the year despite what he described as a productive meeting with Zelensky, insisting instead domestic spending is a priority.

4:09 p.m. ET, September 21, 2023

Zelensky says he had a "great dialogue" with US senators on Capitol Hill

From CNN's Morgan Rimmer

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with U.S. Senators John Kennedy, Ron Wyden, Maisie Hirono and Tom Carper after a meeting with all members of the Senate held in the Old Senate Chamber, during a visit to the Capitol in Washington, DC, on Thursday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with U.S. Senators John Kennedy, Ron Wyden, Maisie Hirono and Tom Carper after a meeting with all members of the Senate held in the Old Senate Chamber, during a visit to the Capitol in Washington, DC, on Thursday. Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his meeting with US senators on Capitol Hill on Thursday was a "great dialogue."

“We’re thankful to you, to journalists, to senators, and all the rest for helping us,” the leader said as he left the meeting with the lawmakers. Zelensky said they "spoke about so many details,” though he didn’t share what they were.

US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters that Zelensky had warned them about the dangers of not passing more Ukraine funding.

"There was a single sentence that sums it all up, and I'm quoting him verbatim, Mr. Zelensky said, ‘if we don't get the aid, we will lose the war.’ That's a quote from him,” he said. 

US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell added it was a “good meeting.”

Earlier Thursday, Zelensky also met with lawmakers from the US House of Representatives. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy would not commit to putting Ukraine aid on the chamber's floor by end of the year despite what he described as a productive meeting with Zelensky, insisting instead domestic spending is a priority.

White House meeting this afternoon: President Joe Biden is set to welcome Zelensky to the White House this afternoon. Biden is seeking to hear a “battlefield perspective” from Zelensky as a second autumn of war approaches, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby told reporters.

Biden is expected to talk to Zelensky about battlefield needs, Kirby said, but it comes amid CNN reporting that ATACMS, the long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems, may not be part of a new weapons package, something Zelensky suggested to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer would be a disappointment. ATACMS are “not off the table,” Kirby said.

The Biden administration has been asking Congress for more Ukraine funding amid skepticism from some GOP lawmakers.

CNN's Lauren Fox contributed reporting to this post.

11:44 a.m. ET, September 21, 2023

Death toll from Russian strikes in Kherson rises to 5, regional official says

From CNN's Yulia Kesaieva

The death toll from Thursday's Russian strikes on the Kherson region has risen.

Since the beginning of the day, five people had been killed and 10 others injured, said Oleksandr Prokudin, head of Kherson Region Military Administration.

The strikes in Kherson were part of a larger Russian attack across Ukraine, just hours before President Volodymyr Zelensky was set to meet US President Joe Biden at the White House.

The attack marked the first time in six months that Russia has launched attacks on Ukraine’s power infrastructure, according to the state energy provider Ukrenergo, just as the country gears up for colder seasons that will require more energy use for heating.

Last year, Russia began a series of intense attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in October.

4:14 p.m. ET, September 21, 2023

McCarthy won't commit to putting Ukraine aid on the House floor by end of the year

From CNN's Lauren Fox and Haley Talbot

U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters after leaving the House Chambers in the U.S. Capitol Building on September 20, in Washington, DC.
U.S. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters after leaving the House Chambers in the U.S. Capitol Building on September 20, in Washington, DC. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Asked repeatedly if he would commit to putting a $24 billion Ukraine aid package on the floor, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy would not commit to moving the aid forward despite what he described as a productive meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, insisting instead that domestic spending is a priority.

"Look, we've got to get our fiscal house taken care of here in America. I'm more than willing to look at that. But the one thing I know is that if the President's only focused on that, well, you've just had 10,000 people come across the border, and he wants to ignore that," McCarthy told reporters Thursday. "I think there are priorities here." 

He said he raised issues such as accountability in his meeting with Zelensky, and the Ukrainian president answered a series of questions too. The House speaker described the conversation as "good" and "productive."

McCarthy also told reporters he was asked to host a joint session of Congress, but declined because he said there wasn't time with Congress' busy schedule and that Zelensky just got one last year.

Looming shutdown: Zelensky’s visit is coming as House Republicans are engaged in a bitter fight over government funding on the domestic front and as the prospects for more money for Ukraine – while very much alive in the Senate – are far less clear in the House even with the Biden administration sending over a request for $24 billion in support.

The White House has said there is a “critical need” for Congress to grant the funding request for Ukraine for its counteroffensive capabilities, and that the aid “will have a significant impact on Ukraine’s fight.”

4:14 p.m. ET, September 21, 2023

US House Speaker McCarthy denied Zelensky's joint session request

From CNN's Annie Grayer, Haley Talbot and Lauren Fox

 

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy denied Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a joint session of Congress, which would have allowed him to give a speech and address everyone, a source told CNN. 

"What I was asked for was a joint session. We don’t have time for a joint session,” McCarthy told reporters. "So, I did exactly what I've done with the prime minister of Italy, the prime minister of the UK. I always bring when leaders come in, I bring a bipartisan group of leadership together."

This comes as members of Congress remain divided over aid to Ukraine.

McCarthy also avoided being seen with Zelensky publicly. He denied official photographers access to the room where House leaders met the Ukrainian president, the source added. But he took photos with Zelensky during a closed-door meeting, and a source shared with CNN photos from the room.

Punchbowl was first to report McCarthy denied Zelensky's request. 

11:34 a.m. ET, September 21, 2023

Analysis: Poland halts arms supply to Ukraine. Here's what to know about the decision — and how we got here

From CNN's Rob Picheta

Ukrainian servicemen fire a Polish self-propelled howitzer Krab toward Russian positions on a frontline in Donetsk region, Ukraine, on January 17.
Ukrainian servicemen fire a Polish self-propelled howitzer Krab toward Russian positions on a frontline in Donetsk region, Ukraine, on January 17. Oleksandr Ratushniak/Reuters

One of Ukraine’s closest and most vocal allies has now said it will stop sending arms to Kyiv, a major reversal that threatens to upend Europe’s strategic relationship with the country as it wages a counteroffensive against Russia.

Poland’s decision was both sudden and predictable, coming after months of tensions over a temporary ban on Ukrainian grain imports to a number of European Union countries.

It also follows a pattern of increasingly confrontational behavior towards Kyiv from Poland’s government, just weeks before a tight general election.

And it could have implications for Ukraine’s attempts to push Russian forces out of the country’s southern regions, in an ongoing assault that has been making slow and grinding progress.

What has Poland announced? “We no longer transfer weapons to Ukraine because we are now arming Poland,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in a blunt social media statement on Wednesday.

Morawiecki added in a television interview that Poland will now focus on supplying “the most modern weapons” for its own purposes, state news agency PAP reported. “If you want to defend yourself you have to have something to defend with,” the prime minister said.

It marks a major chance in policy. In the spring, Poland became the first NATO country to send fighter jets to Ukraine – months ahead of the United States, which only agreed last month to approve the transfer of F-16 jets, pending the completion of training by Ukrainian forces.

It has also previously sent more than 200 Soviet-style tanks to Ukraine, and most Western military equipment and other supplies reach Ukrainian forces by crossing Polish territory.

Poland will now only carry out the supplies of ammunition and weapons to Kyiv that were agreed before Warsaw made its decision to stop shipments, government spokesman Piotr Muller said Thursday, according to PAP.

Muller emphasized that Ukraine has made a series of “absolutely unacceptable statements and diplomatic gestures” and that “Poland does not accept this type of unjustified actions,” PAP reported.

How did we get here? Pressure has been building for months over a ban on Ukrainian grain, initially put in place earlier this year by several EU nations to protect the livelihood of local farmers worried about being undercut by the low price of Ukrainian grain.

Last week, the EU announced plans to suspend the rule. But three nations – Poland, Hungary and Slovakia – said they intended to defy the change and keep the restrictions in place. It prompted protests from Ukraine, which this week filed lawsuits against all three countries over the issue.

Ukraine, often called the “breadbasket of Europe” due to the vast quantities of grain it produces, had its Black Sea ports blockaded by Russia following its full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Fearing that the situation was “threatening global food security,” the European Commission set up what it called “solidarity lanes” in May to facilitate exports, and temporarily eliminated all duties and quotas on Ukraine’s exports, allowing a glut of cheap Ukrainian grain to flow into the continent.

Anger in Poland has been simmering since the spring, when farmers led demonstrations against the moves. But they erupted once again in recent days, after the decision of the three nations to ignore the removal of the ban.

In a swipe against the trio on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the UN General Assembly in New York that “it is alarming to see how some in Europe, some of our friends in Europe, play out solidarity in a political theater – making a thriller from the grain.”

Zelensky added that the nations involved “may seem to play their own role but in fact they are helping set the stage to a Moscow actor.” His comments sparked immediate condemnation from Poland, with the foreign ministry summoning the Ukrainian ambassador to convey its “strong protest.”

Read more here about Poland's reversal and how it might impact the war.

4:14 p.m. ET, September 21, 2023

Biden hopes to hear "battlefield perspective" in meeting with Zelensky, White House says

From CNN's Betsy Klein

US President Joe Biden is seeking to hear a “battlefield perspective” from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky during his visit to Washington, DC, on Thursday, the White House said.

It comes as the Ukrainian president pleas for additional aid for his war-torn country and the US Congress remains divided about how to proceed. Biden will also reiterate US support "that we're going to continue to be with them for as long as it takes,” National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby said.

Biden will talk to Zelensky about specific weapons needs, Kirby said. However, CNN has reported that ATACMS — the long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems — may not be part of a new weapons package, something Zelensky suggested to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer would be a disappointment. 

Kirby said ATACMS is “not off the table,” and "we continue to have discussions here in the interagency about that particular weapon system, but no decision has been made.

More broadly, Kirby said there is a “critical need” for Congress to grant the White House’s $24 billion supplemental funding request for Ukraine for its counteroffensive capabilities. He offered forceful pushback to Republican lawmakers questioning continued US aid to Ukraine and encouraged them to meet directly with the Ukrainian president.

“If you think that the cost of supporting Ukraine is high now, just ponder how exorbitantly higher it would be in blood and treasure if we just walk away and let them take Ukraine, all of it. And then he's [Russian President Vladimir Putin] left in a much stronger position and oh, by the way, right up on to the shores of NATO territory,” he said. 

How the visit is expected to unfold: First, Zelensky is meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and others at the Pentagon. In addition to the Senate, Zelensky is expected to talk with Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and other leaders, according to Kirby.

After that, Biden and Zelensky will meet in the Oval Office followed by an extended bilateral meeting in the Cabinet Room, Kirby said. 

Biden and Zelensky have met in person six times, Kirby noted, and “have spoken regularly,” adding that there will be an “air of familiarity” between the two. 

4:14 p.m. ET, September 21, 2023

US senators divided over aid to Ukraine as Zelensky comes to the Capitol

From CNN's Sam Fossum and Manu Raju

As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits the US Capitol to meet lawmakers and ask for continued support for the country's defense against Russia, senators remain divided over the aid:

GOP Sen. Josh Hawley told CNN Thursday that he remains skeptical of funding for Kyiv and that Senate leadership who argue in favor of it are “totally wrong.”

“They're going to ask for more later. There's no end in sight. We were told this could literally go on for years. It’s another forever war,” the Missouri Republican told CNN.

Later Thursday, Hawley told CNN that Zelensky's direct appeal to Congress today left him unconvinced.

"No. I mean, what the meeting revealed to me is, is that in the words of President Zelenskyy the conflict is a total stalemate. That's what he said totally frozen," Hawley told CNN.

Hawley noted that while he was unconvinced, he said Zelensky was "effusive" in his thanks and very respectful. He added that he told senators the aid from the US is not being diverted away from the war effort. 

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, however, described funding for Ukraine as a critical “investment.” 

“I'm totally committed to supporting Ukraine until we win this war and help them win that war that they're willing to sacrifice their life for. So I think the majority of all senators feel the same as I do,” he added.

10:00 a.m. ET, September 21, 2023

Ukraine claims fresh progress on southern battlefront in Zaporizhzhia region

From CNN's Tim Lister, Julia Kesaieva and Olga Voitovych

Soldiers of the 47th Brigade of the Ukrainian army are seen with a Leopard 2 at the Tokmak front in Zaporizhia Oblast, Ukraine, on September 16.
Soldiers of the 47th Brigade of the Ukrainian army are seen with a Leopard 2 at the Tokmak front in Zaporizhia Oblast, Ukraine, on September 16. Vincenzo Circosta/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Ukrainian officials indicated further progress has been made on the southern front in the Zaporizhzhia region, with some units advancing "deep into the Russian defenses."

  • Melitopol: "Units of the Offensive Guard brigades are pushing the [Russians] out of their positions and consolidating their positions despite strong Russian resistance," said Col. Mykola Urshalovych, deputy director of planning with the National Guard, at a briefing in Kyiv Thursday. "Despite dense mining and engineering equipment, as well as strong resistance from the occupiers, our units had a partial success, advanced both into the depths of the enemy's defense and along the front."
  • Robotyne-Verbove area: Vladimir Rogov, a member of the Russian-installed administration in occupied Zaporizhzhia, gave a different picture. "Our attack drones have hit an assault group of Ukrainian militants who tried to break through to our positions on the Orikhiv direction between the villages of Robotyne and Verbove," he said, according to Russian news agency RIA Novosti. Ukrainians were forced to retreat with heavy losses, he added.

However, Yevgeniy Balitskiy, the Russian-appointed acting governor of occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia region said on Telegram that Ukraine is "completing the redeployment of its units in the Robotyne area, after which we expect the situation in the Robotyne-Verbove area to deteriorate."

CNN is unable to verify the battlefield reports of either side. However, open-source analysis of available video suggests some Ukrainian units have crossed through an important line of Russian defenses near the village of Verbove.

According to several analysts, Ukrainian vehicles from the 82nd Air Assault Brigade had crossed one trench system.

Without air superiority and in the face of dense minefields and reinforced Russian units, Ukrainian forces have so far struggled to break through the multiple layers of Russian defenses in occupied Zaporizhzhia. They still remain some 20 kilometers from the strategic Russian hub of Tokmak — their first major target on the southern offensive.