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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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:

''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.

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

Ukrainian foreign minister meets with Chinese counterpart

From CNN’s Mick Krever and Nectar Gan

Ukraine’s foreign minister has met with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Dmytro Kuleba posted a photo on Twitter of him shaking hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

“I met with State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi to discuss relations between Ukraine and China,” Kuleba wrote. “My counterpart reaffirmed China’s respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as its rejection of the use of force as a means of resolving differences.”

Wang Yi met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.

What China says: The Chinese news agency Xinhua provided Beijing's account of the meeting between Wang and Kuleba.

"Chinese President Xi Jinping has pointed out that sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected, the purposes and principles of the UN Charter must be fully observed, the legitimate security concerns of all countries must be taken seriously, and all efforts that are conducive to the peaceful settlement of the crisis must be supported," it quoted Wang as saying.

Wang said that "China has always been committed to promoting peace talks, never stands idly by, never adds fuel to the fire, and never takes advantage of the situation for self-interest," Xinhua reported. 

Analysis: Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan last week — but the mood was noticeably different from their triumphant meeting in Beijing, weeks before Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Putin conceded that Beijing had "questions and concerns" about his faltering invasion, in a subtle nod to the limits of China's backing and the growing asymmetry in their relationship.

The shift in tone is unsurprising given Russia's string of humiliating defeats on the battlefield, which has exposed Putin's weakness to his friends and enemies alike. 

Read more here:

CNN's Tim Lister contributed reporting to this post.

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.