September 23, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Amy Woodyatt, Christian Edwards, Hannah Strange, Aditi Sangal and Adrienne Vogt, CNN

Updated 9:32 p.m. ET, September 23, 2022
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7:37 a.m. ET, September 23, 2022

Ukrainian officials describe ‘coercion’ tactics of "sham" referendums

From Olga Voitovych, Maria Kostenko, and Mick Krever, CNN

Ukrainian officials from occupied areas of the country are on Friday accusing pro-Russian forces of using coercive tactics in referendums on secession, which Western leaders have described as a “sham.”

Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s Ukrainian mayor, said on Telegram that “the main means of coercion for voting is door-to-door canvassing.”

“The commission consists of two people with a ballot box and ballots, and two armed men,” he said.
“They knock on the doors of apartments/houses, force neighbors to make people come to the commission. Coercion, coercion and more coercion. In fact, they offer to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ directly into the barrel of a gun.”

Mariupol is in Donetsk, one of four Ukrainian regions -- occupied to varying degrees by Russian and pro-Russian forces -- where Russian-backed leaders are holding what Ukraine and Western governments have decried as sham referendums on joining the Russian Federation.

Andriushchenko is not in the city, but has been a reliable conduit for information from Mariupol. CNN is not able to independently verify his and other characterizations.

“Polling stations are located in shops and cafes,” Andriushchenko said. “However, they are empty. There are no usual amenities such as polling booths there. The mark is made under the close supervision of armed people. This is what Russian democracy looks like.”

Yurii Sobolevskyi, deputy head of the Kherson Regional Council, told CNN that the effort being carried out in his region has seen very little turnout.

“Most people are determined not to go,” he said. “That's why this door-to-door idea came about, because when armed people come to your house, it will be difficult and dangerous even to refuse to vote.”

He said that the United Russia political party -- the ruling party in Russia -- has been campaigning for secession while also handing out food packages to residents.

He said that the population of Kherson city, which is occupied, had been reduced by half since Russia’s invasion. Those who remain, he said, skewed toward the elderly.

The Ukrainian mayor-in-exile of Melitopol -- which is in Zaporizhzhia region, and occupied by Russia -- also urged residents to boycott the vote.

Ivan Fedorov said on Telegram that to participate was to “assume part of the responsibility for war crimes in Bucha, Borodianka, Mariupol, Izium, etc.”

“Participation in a pseudo-referendum is the worst betrayal,” he said. “Yourself, your family, all Ukrainians, your country!”

7:12 a.m. ET, September 23, 2022

Kremlin says LPR, DPR, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions can join Russia "quite soon" following referendums

From CNN's Anna Chernova

A woman casts her ballot during the first day of a referendum on the joining of Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine to Russia, in Sevastopol, Crimea, on September 23.
A woman casts her ballot during the first day of a referendum on the joining of Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine to Russia, in Sevastopol, Crimea, on September 23. (Alexey Pavlishak/Reuters)

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Friday the territories currently controlled by Russian forces and holding so-called referendums on joining Russia can become part of the Russian Federation “quite soon.” 

The referendums have been widely condemned by western governments and in Kyiv as illegitimate. 

Some background: Parts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson -- which are occupied to varying degrees by Russian or pro-Russian forces -- have begun what pro-Russian local administrations call “referendums” on whether to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.

Speaking at a regular press briefing Friday, Peskov explained what steps Russia would take if the regions announce majorities in favor of joining Russia.

“Of course, certain decisions of our parliament and president will be required, as well as the signing of the necessary documents, that is, a whole range of procedures,” Peskov said.

Once the procedure of those territories officially joining Russia is complete, Russian law will apply there.

When asked if that would mean any attempt of Ukraine to regain the territories would be regarded as an attack on Russian territory, Peskov said: “Of course.”
“If the act of entry of these territories into the Russian Federation is carried out, then the relevant provisions of our Constitution will apply [there],” he added.

When pressed further on how long the recognition process might take, Peskov said:

“I can't say exactly, but I'm actually convinced that it will be quite soon.”

Large parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions are still held by Ukrainian forces. The voting processes are irregular, and the process been dismissed Western governments and Kyiv as a “sham,” held under military occupation and effectively carried out at gunpoint. Western governments have said they will not recognize the results or the absorption of these areas into Russia.

6:26 p.m. ET, September 23, 2022

It's 3pm in Kyiv. Here's what we know.

Russian President Vladimir Putin dramatically escalated the conflict this week, after announcing the "partial mobilization" of Russian citizens. Today, the war enters a new phase, with what have been denounced as "sham" referendums on joining Russia being held in four Ukrainian regions.

  • "Referendums" on joining Russia have begun: Separatist leaders in four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine say that referendums on joining Russia are underway. Western and Ukrainian leaders alike have denounced the exercise -- which will take place in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia -- as a farce of no legal consequence.
  • Kremlin says four regions can join Russia "quite soon": Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Friday that the territories holding the so-called referendums can become part of the Russian Federation "quite soon." This could provide Moscow with a pretext to further escalate the conflict, since Putin claimed on Wednesday he would use "all the means at our disposal" to protect the "territorial integrity" of Russia.
  • Ukrainian leaders urge vote boycotts: Serhii Hayday, the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, said on Telegram: "Russians will calculate and draw any result that is favorable to them." He said the presence of an "armed man" in each polling station "should force people meekly to cast their vote." Hayday is one of several Ukrainian leaders urging people to boycott the vote.
  • Tearful goodbyes as "partial mobilization" begins: Many Russians have bid emotional farewells to their families, following Putin's announcement that 300,000 reservists would be drafted into the army to bolster his faltering invasion. Some have attempted to flee the country, with a sharp spike in the demand for -- and price of -- flights to visa-free destinations.
  • Anti-war protesters drafted into army: More than 1,300 protesters were arrested after Putin's speech on Wednesday, as anti-war opposition broke out across the country. Some of those detained have been directly conscripted into the Russian army, according to a monitoring group. The punishment for refusing the draft is now 15 years in jail.
  • Russia rebuked at United Nations Security Council meeting: "Russia really felt the hot breath of world opinion" at Thursday's UNSC meeting, a senior US State Department official said. Russia has long looked to China for support in its war efforts, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did not receive "a shred of comfort" from his Chinese counterpart, according to the official. "Everybody said this war has to end."
  • Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince aided prisoner release: Mohammad bin Salman took a "direct" and "personal" role in the release of 10 foreign prisoners held by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists on Wednesday. According to a Saudi official, it was MBS' "own initiative" to speak with Putin. "Regular calls" since April led to the release of 5 Britons, 2 Americans, 1 Moroccan, 1 Croatian and 1 Swede.
5:53 a.m. ET, September 23, 2022

Saudi Crown Prince took “direct” and “personal” role in release of 10 prisoners held by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists

From CNN's Nic Robertson

Prisoners of war sit after a swap in a location given as Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in this screen grab taken from a handout video on September 21.
Prisoners of war sit after a swap in a location given as Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in this screen grab taken from a handout video on September 21. (Coordination Headquarters for Treatment of Prisoners of War/Reuters)

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took a “direct” and “personal” role in the release of 10 foreign prisoners held by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists Wednesday.

According to a Saudi official with knowledge of the Crown Prince’s role, it was “his own initiative” to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The official said that since April, the Crown Prince has "talked to President Putin", had “regular calls” with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and had “regular meetings with the Ukraine envoy." These conversations led the Crown Prince -- often referred to as MBS -- to think he might be able to help prisoner exchange talks on the issue of the foreign prisoners.

The release of the 5 Britons, 2 Americans, 1 Moroccan, 1 Croatian and 1 Swede, who had been captured by the separatists while fighting for Ukraine over the past several months, came the same day Putin threatened possible nuclear war.

The Saudis were puzzled by the contradictory nature of the two moves from Putin, but the official said that the success of the prisoner release could encourage the Crown Prince to do more to help end the war. “This war has destabilized the whole world and we're talking about nuclear war. That's not good for anyone,” the official said.

7:05 a.m. ET, September 23, 2022

Luhansk's Ukrainian governor says Russia will "calculate" favorable result in "pseudo-referendum"

From CNN's Olga Voitovych and Mick Krever

People gather to attend voting in a referendum in front of a mobile polling station in Krasny Yar village outside Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, on September 23.
People gather to attend voting in a referendum in front of a mobile polling station in Krasny Yar village outside Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, on September 23. (AP)

The Ukrainian governor of Luhansk on Friday described the process begun by pro-Russian separatist leaders in the eastern region as a “pseudo-referendum,” adding that Russia will "calculate" a favorable result in the vote.

“Russians will calculate and draw any result that is favorable to them,” Serhii Hayday said on Telegram. “The opinion of the population has no importance.”

“An armed man is involved in each polling station, the appearance of which should force people to meekly cast their vote,” Hayday said.

The Luhansk region is almost entirely controlled by Russian and pro-Russian forces. But it remains contested -- Ukrainian forces liberated the village of Bilohorivka earlier this week.

Hayday warned that “criminal liability” awaits anyone who helps organize the endeavor.

“It does not matter who: whether it is the initiator, agitator, member of the polling station -- collaborative and separatist activities are punishable by up to 15 years in prison,” he added.

Mykhailo Podoliak, adviser to the head of the office of President Volodymyr Zelensky, described the referendums in Luhansk and three other regions as a “propaganda show” designed to aid recruitment in Russia.

Some background: Separatist leaders in four regions of Ukraine say that referendums on joining Russia are underway.

Western and Ukrainian leaders alike have denounced the exercise, which will take place in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, as a “sham” of no legal consequence, and the move is widely seen as a forgone conclusion in support of annexation.

The referendums, which run counter to international law upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty, could pave the way for Moscow to frame the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive as an attack on Russia itself.

5:18 a.m. ET, September 23, 2022

Tearful goodbyes and an exodus from Russia as Putin's "partial mobilization" begins

From CNN's Ivan Watson, Masho Lomashvili, Simone McCarthy, Tim Lister and Uliana Pavlova

A Finnish border guard officer stands near cars queued to enter Finland from Russia in Vaalimaa, Finland, on September 23.
A Finnish border guard officer stands near cars queued to enter Finland from Russia in Vaalimaa, Finland, on September 23. (Janis Laizans/Reuters)

Vladimir Putin’s “partial mobilization” of citizens for his war in Ukraine has already set in motion sweeping changes for many Russians, as drafted men bid their families emotional goodbyes, while others attempt to flee, scrambling to make it across land border crossings or buy air tickets out.

For many of those leaving, the reason is the same: to avoid being drafted into Putin’s brutal and faltering assault on neighboring Ukraine. But the circumstances surrounding their decisions -- and the difficulties of leaving home -- are deeply personal to each.

Ivan, a man who said he's an officer in Russia's reserves, left his country for Belarus on Thursday. He told CNN:

“I don’t support what’s going on, so I just decided that I had to leave right away. I felt like the doors are closing and if I didn’t leave immediately, I might not be able to leave later."

Read more on this story.

7:04 a.m. ET, September 23, 2022

Separatist leaders in four Ukrainian regions say referendums on joining Russia have begun

From Olga Voitovych and Mick Krever

A service member of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) votes during a referendum on joining LPR to Russia, at a military unit in Luhansk, Ukraine, on September 23.
A service member of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) votes during a referendum on joining LPR to Russia, at a military unit in Luhansk, Ukraine, on September 23. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Separatist leaders in four regions of Ukraine say that referendums on joining Russia – widely condemned in the West as a farce – are underway.

Western and Ukrainian leaders alike have denounced the exercise, which will take place in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia, as a “sham” of no legal consequence.

Large swaths of the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions in particular are still held by Ukrainian forces, and leaders in Kyiv have urged people in occupied regions to boycott the process.

“The long-awaited referendum has started, which is designed to restore the fair course of things in our land, to return peace to our homes, to consolidate the status of Donbas as part of our historical Motherland – Russia," Vladimir Bidyovka, head of the People's Council of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic said in a propaganda statement published on Telegram.

Voting, he said, will be conducted by the Central Election Commission of the DPR either by visiting people's homes or near their homes. On the final day of voting, September 27, people can vote at polling stations.

Members of the local electoral commission gather at a polling station ahead of the planned referendum on the joining of the self-proclaimed Donetsk people's republic to Russia, in Donetsk, Ukraine, on September 22.
Members of the local electoral commission gather at a polling station ahead of the planned referendum on the joining of the self-proclaimed Donetsk people's republic to Russia, in Donetsk, Ukraine, on September 22. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

How is the referendum conducted? In Donetsk, the question will only be presented in Russian. The chair of the People's Council — an unelected body — in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, Vladimir Bidyovka, called Russian the "state language."

The polling question is: "Are you in favor of joining of the DPR to the Russian Federation on the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation?" The self-declared Luhansk People's Republic uses the same phrasing.

2:32 a.m. ET, September 23, 2022

Occupied parts of Ukraine prepare to hold referendums on joining Russia

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

Head of the central electoral commission of the self-proclaimed Donetsk people's republic Vladimir Vysotsky visits a polling station ahead of the planned referendum on the joining of the Donetsk people's republic to Russia, in Donetsk, Ukraine, on September 22.
Head of the central electoral commission of the self-proclaimed Donetsk people's republic Vladimir Vysotsky visits a polling station ahead of the planned referendum on the joining of the Donetsk people's republic to Russia, in Donetsk, Ukraine, on September 22. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Four areas of Ukraine occupied by pro-Moscow forces are preparing to hold referendums on formally joining Russia, in a move widely seen as a forgone conclusion in support of annexation.

The referendums, which run counter to international law upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty, could pave the way for Moscow to frame the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive as an attack on Russia itself.

Polling is set to take place over five days from Friday to Tuesday.

The questions on the ballot vary slightly depending on the region. 

  • In the Donetsk People's Republic, the question, presented only in Russian, will be: "Are you in favor of joining of the DPR to the Russian Federation on the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation?" The self-declared Luhansk People's Republic uses the same phrasing.
  • In Kherson, the question will be: “Are you in favor of the secession of the Kherson region from state of Ukraine, the formation of an independent state by the Kherson region and its joining the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation?”
  • And in occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia, the question is in both Russian and Ukrainian, and it reads: "Do you vote FOR the secession of Zaporizhzhia Oblast from Ukraine, the formation of Zaporizhzhia Oblast as an independent state and its accession to the Russian Federation as a sub-entity of the Russian Federation?"

In both Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions, local authorities have urged people to vote from home, saying that ballot boxes can be brought to them. 

Ahead of the votes, pro-Russian authorities are trying to enthuse voters. Russian state news agency RIA Novosti showed a poster being distributed in Luhansk, which read "Russia is the future." 

"We are united by a 1,000-year history," it says. "For centuries, we were part of the same great country. The break-up of the state was a huge political disaster. ... It's time to restore historical justice."

A military vehicle drives along a street with a billboard reading "With Russia forever, September 27" prior to a referendum in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, on September 22.
A military vehicle drives along a street with a billboard reading "With Russia forever, September 27" prior to a referendum in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, on September 22. (AP)

In a statement, election monitoring group, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, condemned the "illegal referenda.”

"Any so-called 'referenda' planned by or with the support of the forces illegally exercising de facto control in the occupied territories of Ukraine would be in contravention of international standards and obligations under international humanitarian law, and their outcome will therefore have no legal force," said the OSCE, which monitors elections across 57 member states.

Ukraine has dismissed the referendums in the occupied regions as a “sham” stemming from the “fear of defeat,” while the country’s Western supporters have made clear they would never recognize Russia’s claim to annexed Ukrainian territory.

2:12 a.m. ET, September 23, 2022

Analysis: As Russia raises nuclear specter in Ukraine, China looks the other way

From CNN's Nectar Gan

China Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks at the Security Council meeting on Ukraine at the United Nations on September 22, in New York, US.
China Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks at the Security Council meeting on Ukraine at the United Nations on September 22, in New York, US. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)

So far, Beijing has carefully avoided actions that would violate Western sanctions, such as providing direct military aid to Moscow. But it has presented a lifeline for the battered Russian economy by stepping up purchases of its fuel and energy -- at a bargain price. China's imports of Russian coal in August rose by 57% from the same period last year, hitting a five-year high; its crude oil imports also surged 28% from a year earlier.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin called up army reservists to join the war in Ukraine, Beijing has continued to walk the fine line, reiterating its long-held stance for dialogue to resolve the conflict.

"We call on the relevant parties to achieve a ceasefire through dialogue and negotiation, and find a solution that accommodates the legitimate security concerns of all parties as soon as possible," China's foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a news briefing Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

According to the Chinese readout, Wang stressed that China would continue to "maintain its objective and impartial position" and "push for peace negotiations" on the issue of Ukraine.

But that "impartial position" was given away in the prime evening newscast on China's state broadcaster CCTV, the most-watched news program in China.

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