September 22, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Aditi Sangal, Tara Subramaniam, Andrew Raine, Jack Bantock, Ed Upright, Adrienne Vogt and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 9:15 p.m. ET, September 22, 2022
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8:40 a.m. ET, September 22, 2022

"I am the happiest woman in the world," says wife of Azovstal fighter who was freed in prisoner swap

From Olga Voitovych in Kyiv and Mick Krever in London

Wives of some of the scores of Ukrainian fighters released by Russia in a prisoner swap have described to CNN the disbelief and joy of hearing their loved ones had been released.

Alina Volovyk, speaking with CNN via WhatsApp, described getting a phone call from a man she did not recognize at first as her husband, Artem Volovyk, a Ukrainian Marine who fought at the Azovstal Steel Plant earlier this year, before all of Mariupol was captured by Russian forces.

“At first, I didn't understand what was going on and where he was,” Alina Volovyk recalled. “But he said, ‘Honey, I’m already in Ukraine! There was a swap.’”
“I just started screaming, my hands were shaking,” she said. “Now I am the happiest woman in the world.”

Russia on Wednesday released 215 people from its custody, including some foreign nationals who had been fighting for Ukraine. In exchange, Ukraine released 55 people, as well as Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician and oligarch, whose daughter is goddaughter to Vladimir Putin.

Among the 215 people released by Russia were “188 heroes of Azovstal and Mariupol,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said overnight.

The release of the Azovstal and Mariupol fighters is a major coup for Ukrainian morale, given the huge role the defense of Mariupol played in the Ukrainian psyche early in the war. 

This is the largest single release of fighters from Mariupol. In a June prisoner swap, Russia released 144 soldiers, among whom 95 had defended the Azovstal plant. 

Ruslana Volynska, whose husband Serhii "Volyna" Volynskyi, was acting commander of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, told CNN via text message that she found out about the swap on the Internet.

“Later Serhii called himself, and I heard him. It was boundless joy, shock, happiness! All emotions were mixed! I cried with happiness, and could not believe that this day had come," she said.

An advisor to Mariupol’s Ukrainian mayor, Petro Andriushchenko, who was forced to leave his city as Russia advanced, said on Telegram that Mariupol “rejoices the return of its Heroes to Ukrainian soil. Even in the occupation!”

“I still can't believe it,” Alina Volovyk told CNN. “It seems to me that this is a dream and I will wake up soon. I couldn't sleep until 5 a.m., because I was overwhelmed with emotions.”

“Only two hours ago, when I was doing some shopping, I realized that my husband was at home and started to cry. The only thing I want now is to hug him as soon as possible,” she added.

8:17 a.m. ET, September 22, 2022

Putin's partial mobilization only strengthens support for Ukraine in Berlin, German defense minister says

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt

Christine Lambrecht, Minister of Defense, gives a press conference in Berlin, Germany, on September 22.
Christine Lambrecht, Minister of Defense, gives a press conference in Berlin, Germany, on September 22. (Carsten Koall/picture alliance/Getty Images)

Russia's "partial mobilization" and planned referendums in occupied parts of Ukraine will not deter Germany's military support for Ukraine, the country's Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht announced Thursday.

"Rather, this reaction from Putin to Ukraine's successes spurs us on to continue to support Ukraine and send this clear signal," Lambrecht told reporters in Berlin following a meeting with her French counterpart.

"We see that Ukraine has achieved great successes," she said, highlighting the support it received from Germany and France.

We see how Russia reacts to these successes — in a desperate manner."

Lambrecht also said the announced referendums by Kremlin-backed officials in Ukraine ''will have no impact on us," noting they will not change the level of support Ukraine will receive from Germany. 

French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu said France will also continue its support for Ukraine in terms of arms and training, adding that France needed cooperation within NATO to do so.

7:55 a.m. ET, September 22, 2022

Five British nationals released as part of Ukraine prisoner swap, UK government confirms

From CNN's Mick Krever and Arnaud Siad

Foreign nationals, left to right, Vjekoslav Prebeg from Croatia, Dylan Healy and John Harding from Britain, Mathias Gustafsson from Sweden and Andrew Hill from Britain, who were captured by pro-Russian forces while allegedly fighting for Ukraine, during a court hearing in Donetsk in August.
Foreign nationals, left to right, Vjekoslav Prebeg from Croatia, Dylan Healy and John Harding from Britain, Mathias Gustafsson from Sweden and Andrew Hill from Britain, who were captured by pro-Russian forces while allegedly fighting for Ukraine, during a court hearing in Donetsk in August. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Five British nationals have been released as part of a prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia, the UK government confirmed on Thursday.

Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner, John Harding, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill have all been released, according to the government.

Two American veterans and three further nationals from Morocco, Sweden, and Croatia have also been released as part of a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia.

All five citizens are "back safely in the UK", non-profit organization the Presidium Network -- which has been supporting Healy's family -- told the BBC Thursday.

The Presidium Network's co-founder Dominik Byrne added that the released Brits -- captured while fighting alongside Ukrainian forces -- were "looking forward to normality with their families after this horrific ordeal."

The UK government has not yet confirmed the process that brokered the group's release, the report from the BBC added.

The confirmation follows British Prime Minister Liz Truss announcement of the group's release on Wednesday.

"Hugely welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine are being safely returned, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families," she said in a tweet.

Truss thanked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for "for his efforts to secure the release of detainees" and Saudi Arabia for its “assistance."

Read more here:

7:43 a.m. ET, September 22, 2022

Kremlin insists Russia's actions in Ukraine are still "special military operation"

From CNN's Anna Chernova

Russia continues to call its actions in Ukraine a "special military operation" following the announcement of partial mobilization, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday. 

When asked by CNN during a daily call with journalists whether the actions carried out by Russia in Ukraine should be referred to as a "special military operation" or a “war” in view of the partial mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, Peskov said, "No, this is a special military operation."

When asked whether, in this sense, the status of hostilities has changed, Peskov said, "No, it hasn’t."

7:39 a.m. ET, September 22, 2022

Russian decree appears to allow for wider mobilization

From CNN’s Mick Krever. Translation by Irina Morgan.

In this handout photo taken from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu appears on television in Moscow, Russia, on September 21.
In this handout photo taken from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu appears on television in Moscow, Russia, on September 21. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP)

The decree signed on Wednesday by Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to allow for wider mobilization than he suggested in his Wednesday morning speech. 

“We are talking about partial mobilization,” President Putin said on Wednesday in his televised address. “In other words, only military reservists, primarily those who served in the armed forces and have specific military occupational specialties and corresponding experience, will be called up.”

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, too, said that “there is no question of any mobilization of university students and there will be none under no circumstances.”

The first paragraph of the decree signed by President Putin talks about a “partial mobilization.”

But it does not define those eligible as narrowly as Russia’s leader did in his address. Instead, it says that the only people to which it does not apply are those who are ineligible because of age, sickness, or imprisonment.

In paragraph two, it says that the president has decided “to call up citizens of the Russian Federation for military service by mobilization into the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Citizens of the Russian Federation called up for military service under mobilization shall have the status of enlisted military personnel performing military service in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on a contractual basis.”

Ekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist and associate fellow at Chatham House, said on Telegram that while the decree “describes the mobilization as partial,” it “sets no parameters of this partiality, either territorial or categoric.”

“According to this text, anyone can be called up except for those working in the military-industrial complex who are exempt for the period of their employment. The fact that the mobilization applies only to reservists or those with some particularly necessary skills is mentioned in the address, but not in the decree,” she said.

Russian human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov, also on Telegram, said that the decree sets out mobilization “in the broadest terms.”

“The president is leaving it at the Defense Minister's discretion. So in fact it is the Russian Defense Ministry that will decide who will be sent to war, from where and in what numbers.”

7:32 a.m. ET, September 22, 2022

Russia's military divided as Putin struggles to deal with Ukraine's counter-offensive, US sources say

From CNN's Katie Bo Lillis

Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank in Novoselivka, Ukraine, on September 17.
Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank in Novoselivka, Ukraine, on September 17. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia's military is divided over how best to counter Ukraine's unexpected battlefield advances this month, according to multiple sources familiar with US intelligence, as Moscow has found itself on the defensive in both the east and the south.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is himself giving directions directly to generals in the field, two sources familiar with US and western intelligence said — a highly unusual management tactic in a modern military that these sources said hints at the dysfunctional command structure that has plagued Russia's war from the beginning.

Intelligence intercepts have captured Russian officers arguing amongst themselves and complaining to friends and relatives back home about decision-making from Moscow, one of these sources told CNN.

And there are significant disagreements on strategy with military leaders struggling to agree on where to focus their efforts to shore up defensive lines, multiple sources familiar with US intelligence said.

The Russian Ministry of Defense has claimed that it is redeploying forces towards Kharkiv in the northeast — where Ukraine has made the most dramatic gains — but US and western sources say the bulk of Russian troops still remain in the south, where Ukraine has also mounted offensive operations around Kherson.

So far, Russia has responded to Ukraine's advances by launching attacks against critical infrastructure like dams and power plants — attacks that the US sees as largely "revenge" attacks rather than operationally significant salvos, a source said.

Putin's mobilization order is significant because it is a direct acknowledgment that Moscow's "special military operation" wasn't working and needed to be adjusted, military analysts said.

CNN's Barbara Starr and Tim Lister contributed to this reporting

Read the full report here.

6:50 a.m. ET, September 22, 2022

More than half of the protesters detained across Russia are women, monitoring group says

From CNN's Anastasia Graham-Yooll

Police officers detain a person in Moscow, Russia, on September 21.
Police officers detain a person in Moscow, Russia, on September 21. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

Over half of the anti-war demonstrators detained across Russia on Wednesday are women, according to the independent protest monitoring group OVD-Info, making it the biggest anti-government protest by share of women in recent history.

Of the names made public, women made up 51% of those held in the anti-war protest crackdown, though the watchdog specified the full scale of arrests remains unknown.

The monitoring group estimate that more than 1,300 people -- including nine journalists and 33 minors -- have so far been detained. One underage protester has been "brutally beaten" by law enforcement, the watchdog added on its Telegram feed.

Some detainees have been directly conscripted into the Russian military, OVD-Info spokeswoman Maria Kuznetsova told CNN in a phone call.

6:12 a.m. ET, September 22, 2022

The amount of people crossing the Finland-Russia border has increased, Finnish border guard says

From CNN's Allegra Goodwin

Traffic across the Finland-Russia border intensified overnight, according to Finnish officials, following the Kremlin's announcement of a partial mobilization on Wednesday.

Some 4,824 Russians arrived in Finland via the country's eastern border on Wednesday, the Finnish border guard's head of international affairs Matti Pitkaniitty said in a tweet, an increase of 1,691 compared to the same day last week.

However, Pitkaniitty continued that the number of people crossing the border Wednesday was lower than on a normal weekend.

Border traffic on Thursday morning has remained busy, the Border Guard of Southeast Finland added in a tweet Thursday.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen said Finland is closely monitoring the situation in Russia

5:08 a.m. ET, September 22, 2022

Senior international officials express "grave concern" over Ukrainian nuclear facilities

From CNN's Pierre Bairin and Lauren Kent

A Russian serviceman guards an area of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in territory under Russian military control in southeast Ukraine, on May 1.
A Russian serviceman guards an area of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in territory under Russian military control in southeast Ukraine, on May 1. (AP)

Foreign ministers and senior officials from Europe, North America and South Korea have expressed their "grave concern" regarding threats posed to the safety of nuclear facilities in Ukraine.

The officials -- who include the foreign Ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and Ukraine, as well as senior officials from the Republic of Korea, Switzerland, the United States and the European Union -- released a joint statement released following a high-level meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday.

The statement detailed their "grave concern regarding the threats posed to the safety and security of nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes in Ukraine and their personnel, significantly raising the risk of a nuclear accident."

Continuing, the statement voiced support for the International Atomic Energy Agency's mission to Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), before criticizing Russia's occupation and "sham referenda."

"We emphasize that Russia’s seizure and militarization of the ZNPP is the root cause of the current threats in the field of nuclear safety and security," the statement added.

"We recall that the heightened risks of a nuclear incident will remain dangerously high as long as Russia remains present on the site of ZNPP. The Russian Federation must immediately withdraw its troops from within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders and respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty."

"Should the Russian Federation conduct any sham referenda within occupied territories of Ukraine, we reiterate that these would have no legal and political effect, including on the status of the ZNPP," the statement continued.

The officials also highlighted the importance of uploading the UN nuclear watchdog's resolutions regarding "armed attacks or threats against nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes" and the agency's pillars of nuclear safety. The statement also highlighted the importance of complying with international humanitarian law.