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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2:00 p.m. ET, September 23, 2022

Residents of occupied areas are ignoring referendums called by pro-Russian officials, Ukraine says

From CNN's Tim Lister

Vehicles drive past advertising boards, including panels displaying pro-Russian slogans, in a street in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Luhansk, Ukraine on September 20.
Vehicles drive past advertising boards, including panels displaying pro-Russian slogans, in a street in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Luhansk, Ukraine on September 20. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Ukrainian officials say residents of Russian-occupied areas are ignoring the referendums organized by local Kremlin-backed authorities, but they acknowledged that in some instances, residents are being forced to vote.

The referendums, called on Tuesday in four parts of Ukraine under Russian control, have been widely denounced by western governments as a sham and are being conducted with few or no international observers beyond delegations from Russia.

"There is no referendum as such. It is imitation. Local residents are ignoring it. Some people are simply forced to vote. There were buses of people brought it from Crimea to cast ballots," Andriy Yusov, a Ukrainian Defense Intelligence official, told CNN.

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said it had uncovered documents showing that the Russian-backed separatist-held Donetsk People's Republic planned to expand the electorate by involving teenagers younger than 18 in the vote.

In order to enhance control over the "turnout," Donetsk officials decided that minors should be accompanied to the polling stations by their parents, guardians or representatives of so-called orphanages, SBU added.

Pro-Russian officials in the occupied areas have been enthusiastically pushing the referendums as a historic change.

"Today is a day that happens in history once every few centuries. I personally knew it would happen, always. I always felt I was part of a huge family called Russia. Dreams have come true," Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-backed head of the Kherson region administration, said on his Telegram channel.

As he cast his ballot, Saldo said he was sure that as part of the Russian Federation, "our Kherson region and most importantly its people will be protected. Protected in every way."

The leader of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, Denis Pushilin, also cast his vote, saying, "I feel a sense of awe and confidence that what we have fought for so long is finally coming true. This is Homecoming. Return to the great Russia. History is being made today."

The voting continues until Tuesday.

1:58 p.m. ET, September 23, 2022

"The truth is the truth": ICC prosecutor vows to determine if war crimes are being committed in Ukraine

The bodies of civilians killed by russian soldiers were found near the village of Myrotske in Bucha, Ukraine on June 13.
The bodies of civilians killed by russian soldiers were found near the village of Myrotske in Bucha, Ukraine on June 13. (Anna Opareniuk/Ukrinform/Abaca/Sipa USA)

International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan reiterated that the ICC will continue to investigate allegations of Russian war crimes, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov continued to dismiss images of atrocities in Ukraine at the United Nations this week.

“The truth is the truth. Parties can make their own statements but I've been to Bucha. … I saw those bodies in the body bags and they were real people. We have to investigate how did they die, if crimes were committed and if so, who is responsible,” Khan told CNN’s Kate Bolduan. 

He said he has written to Russia to have a meeting with Lavrov, but there has been no response.

“There’s counter-narratives and narratives, truth, disinformation mixed, and we have to separate it so we get distilled pure water from what could be a variety of information,” he added. 

Khan has been to Ukraine three times now, and he said he is "staggered" by both the destruction in the country and also the hope and determination of its people.

Being in Ukraine in the midst of war allows "access to evidence before it is interfered with," he added.  

Priorities for the ICC includes allegations of crimes against children targeted in hospitals and schools, as well as allegations of children being transferred into Russia, he said.

"All of your viewers will know 'never again' that we've heard since the Holocaust, and yet we see — to our great chagrin — yet again, yet again, and yet again, these crimes are taking place. So this is the moment where I think we need to re-galvanize our efforts to show that the law can be active on the front lines. We're trying to act more nimbly," he said.

11:17 a.m. ET, September 23, 2022

Ukraine says it's taken more territory in Donetsk and improved positions around Bakhmut

From CNN's Tim Lister and Olga Voitovych

Ukraine has taken another settlement in the Donetsk region, the Ukranian military says as it continues the consolidation of an offensive in the "tri-border" area where Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk regions meet.

As a result of assault actions, the village of Yatskivka in Donetsk region was now in Ukrainian hands, said Oleksii Hromov, deputy head of the Operations Directorate of the General Staff.

Yatskivka is to the east of the Oskil river. Large areas west of the river, including the city of Izium, were captured by the Ukrainians in a sudden offensive earlier this month.

The situation further south around Bakhmut was "difficult but controlled," Hromov said in a briefing in Kyiv on Friday, adding that Russia "continued offensive actions in order to expel our units" from their positions around Bakhmut and elsewhere along the front lines in Donetsk.

Ukrainian troops had improved their positions around Bakhmut, which has been under siege for several months, Hromov said.

"Thanks to the timely regrouping of units of one of the mechanized brigades and high-quality organization of the battle, we managed to restore the previously lost position and ensure control over the positions south to Bakhmut," he said. 

Elsewhere in Donetsk, near Avdiivka and Novopavlivka, Russian forces were conducting offensive actions with the goal of taking the settlements of Nevirske and Novomykhailivka, Hromov said.

11:12 a.m. ET, September 23, 2022

Russia could use "sham" referendums to escalate war, NATO's secretary general tells CNN

From CNN's Amy Cassidy in London 

The world should prepare for Russia to use “sham” referendums in Ukraine to claim Russian territory is being attacked with NATO weaponry, according to the alliance’s chief.

"That’s exactly what we need to be prepared for, that Russia will use these sham votes to further escalate the war in Ukraine,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN’s Julia Chatterley on Friday as Ukrainian officials allege citizens in partially occupied regions are coerced into voting in referendums on joining Russia.

“But these votes have no legitimacy, and of course don’t change anything,” he said, echoing several Western leaders.

“NATO’s answer is to step up support. The best way to end this war is to strengthen Ukrainians on the battlefield further, so they can at some stage sit down and reach a solution which is acceptable for Ukraine and preserves Ukraine as a sovereign independent nation in Europe” he added.

"I support the message from [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky that they [people] should not take part in these referendums," Stoltenberg said. 

1:36 p.m. ET, September 23, 2022

Russia knows there will be severe consequences if nuclear weapons are used in Ukraine, NATO chief says

From CNN's Amy Cassidy in London

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg looks on ahead of a meeting with US President Joe Biden during the NATO summit at the Ifema congress centre in Madrid, Spain, on June 29.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg looks on ahead of a meeting with US President Joe Biden during the NATO summit at the Ifema congress centre in Madrid, Spain, on June 29. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia knows there will be “severe consequences” if nuclear weapons are used in Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN’s Julia Chatterley on Friday.

“They know that there will be severe consequences. I will not elaborate exactly on how we will react, that depends on what kind of weapons of mass destruction they may use,” he said.

His comments come after Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of using nuclear weapons in a speech on Wednesday.

“We are sending these messages and we’re making it clear to prevent that from happening,” Stoltenberg said. 

“The thing is,” he continued, “the likelihood of any use of nuclear weapons is still low, but the potential consequences are so big, so therefore we have to take this seriously. And the rhetoric, the threats that President Putin [is] putting forward again and again increase tensions, are dangerous and are reckless."

9:39 a.m. ET, September 23, 2022

Germany says it's open to accepting Russians who want to flee their country 

From CNN's Nadine Schmidt in Berlin

German officials are indicating that the country is open to accepting Russians who are trying to flee the country. 

"Many Russians who are now being called up do not want to take part in this war either. This is a good sign," the German Chancellor's spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit told reporters during a regular news briefing. "A way must be left open for Russians to come to Europe and also to Germany."

EU members states must find a "viable solution" on how to deal with Russian conscientious objectors to Russian President Vladimir Putin's "partial mobilization" orders, he added, saying motives of each such objector must be examined before asylum is granted.

On Thursday, Germany's foreign and interior ministries indicated that citizens fleeing Russia could apply for asylum in Germany.

''Deserters threatened with serious repression can - as a rule - obtain international protection in Germany,'' Germany's interior minister Nancy Faeser was quoted saying in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. 

Germany had taken in 438 people from Russia through a program that is supposed to offer protection to dissidents, journalists and scientists, adding that procedures had already been changed in April so that "as a rule, conscientious objection is a reason for protection," interior minister spokesperson Maximilian Kall said.

Exact number of Russians applying for asylum is not yet available.

9:30 a.m. ET, September 23, 2022

UN experts say evidence shows war crimes, including torture of children, committed in Ukraine

From CNN’s Mick Krever

A United Nations panel of experts says their investigation has found evidence that war crimes have been committed during Russia's war in Ukraine, including cases of rape and torture of children.

“In the cases we have investigated, the age of victims of sexual and gendered-based violence ranged from four to 82 years,” Erik Møse, chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. "The Commission has documented cases in which children have been raped, tortured, and unlawfully confined. Children have also been killed and injured in indiscriminate attacks with explosive weapons."

The panel said that it had identified two incidents of ill-treatment of Russian soldiers in Ukrainian captivity.

The three human rights experts on the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine traveled to Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy, visiting 27 towns and interviewing more than 150 people.

Speaking at the UN Security Council on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the “increased activity of international justice," calling it "undoubtedly a put-up job."

The Commission said “some Russian Federation soldiers” have been responsible for sexual and gender-based violence.

“These acts amounted to different types of violations of rights, including sexual violence, torture, and cruel and inhuman treatment. There are examples of cases where relatives were forced to witness the crimes," it added. 

Møse also noted that a number of attacks investigated by the panel "had been carried out without distinguishing between civilians and combatants, including cluster munition attacks and airstrikes on populated areas."

Commission members “were struck by the large number of executions in the areas that we visited,” Møse added.

“Common elements of such crimes include the prior detention of the victims as well as visible signs of executions on bodies, such as hands tied behind backs, gunshot wounds to the head, and slit throats,” he reported. “Some of the victims reported that after initial detention by Russian forces in Ukraine, they were transferred to the Russian Federation and held for weeks in prisons. Interlocutors described beatings, electric shocks, and forced nudity, as well as other types of violations in such detention facilities.”

9:22 a.m. ET, September 23, 2022

Western countries slam the Russian-backed "sham" referendums in Ukraine

From CNN’s Mick Krever in London and Nadine Schmidt in Berlin

A woman votes during a referendum in a mobile polling station in Mariupol, Donetsk People's Republic, Ukraine, on September 23.
A woman votes during a referendum in a mobile polling station in Mariupol, Donetsk People's Republic, Ukraine, on September 23. (AP)

Four Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine began voting in referendums on joining Russia, according to their separatist leaders. The referendums are illegal under international law and dismissed as "a sham" by Western governments and Kyiv.

Here's what governments around the world are saying:

United Kingdom:

The outcome of “sham” secession referendums in four Russian-occupied Ukrainian regions is “almost certainly already decided,” the UK ambassador to Ukraine said on Friday.

“There will be results publicised of something that didn’t happen. I wonder whether anyone will even be called to vote. They won’t need to. The outcome is almost certainly already decided,” Melinda Simmons said on Twitter


''Switzerland condemns sham referendums in parts of Ukraine'' the Swiss Federal Council said in a statement on Friday, adding that ''the referendums currently taking place in Ukrainian territories partially occupied by Russia do not conform with the law and are illegal under international law.''

Condemning the violation, the Federal Council also said it "will not recognize the results of any of these sham referendums."

The President of the Swiss Confederation Ignazio Cassis clearly stated this position to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in New York on Wednesday when representatives from countries around the world met for the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, the statement added.

NATO (A US-led alliance)

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms the plan to hold so-called 'referenda' on joining the Russian Federation in the Ukrainian regions partly controlled by the Russian military,” the North Atlantic Council, NATO's principle decision-making body said in a statement.  

"Allies do not and will never recognize Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea. Sham referenda in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions of Ukraine have no legitimacy and will be a blatant violation of the UN Charter. NATO Allies will not recognize their illegal and illegitimate annexation,” the council added.  

8:44 a.m. ET, September 23, 2022

US has privately warned Russia against using nuclear weapons for several months, officials say

From Katie Bo Lillis, Oren Liebermann and Kylie Atwood

A Russian Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launcher parades through Red Square during the general rehearsal of the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow, Russia, on May 7.
A Russian Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launcher parades through Red Square during the general rehearsal of the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow, Russia, on May 7. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

The US has privately communicated to Russia for the past several months that there will be consequences if Moscow chooses to use a nuclear weapon, according to US officials.

It was not immediately clear how or when the warnings were sent. The State Department was involved, according to one official. The Biden administration has also leaned heavily on intelligence channels to communicate sensitive messages to Moscow throughout the buildup and prosecution of Russia’s war in Ukraine, including recently in the negotiations over wrongfully detained Americans.

The warnings come as Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to turn to nuclear weapons in a speech on Wednesday amid a series of embarrassing setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine.

US officials have emphasized that this is not the first time Putin has threatened to turn to nuclear weapons since the start of his re-invasion of Ukraine in February, although some analysts have seen this threat as more specific and escalatory than the Russian president’s past rhetoric.

For now, top CIA officials have said publicly that they have seen no signs that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons. But some military analysts have been concerned that Russia may seek to use a so-called tactical, or battlefield, nuclear weapon in response to its poor showing in Ukraine — a tactic sometimes called “escalate to deescalate.” Intelligence officials believe Putin would likely only turn to that option he felt Russia or his regime were existentially endangered, and it’s not clear if he would feel that losing his war in Ukraine would fit that description.