December 11, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Matt Meyer, Maureen Chowdhury and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 1:39 a.m. ET, December 12, 2022
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4:02 p.m. ET, December 11, 2022

LGBTQ Russians fear for the future as Moscow toughens anti-gay law

From CNN's Anna Chernova and Sana Noor Haq

Young mothers Yana and Yaroslava don’t want to leave Russia with their 6-year-old son. But they fear a harsh new anti-gay law passed by Russian lawmakers will leave them little choice.

“We are citizens, same as everyone else. We pay taxes, support charities. But the government is doing everything to force us to leave the country. Honestly, it is scary to stay,” Yaroslava told CNN.

Russia’s upper house of parliament gave its final approval in late November to a new legislative package that toughens an existing law on so-called “LGBTQ propaganda,” and it was signed into law Monday by President Vladimir Putin. The added restrictions on “propaganda” seen as promoting “non-traditional sexual relations and/or preferences” carry heavy penalties – a move activists say will put LGBTQ communities under heightened scrutiny and surveillance.

As the Kremlin prepared to finalize the expansion of the 2013 discriminatory anti-gay law, members of the LGBTQ community in Russia told CNN they feared the uncertain future ahead.

“We are the most vulnerable category within LGBT. We have a child, and they (Russian authorities) can put pressure on us,” Yaroslava said.

Yana and Yaroslava, both self-employed marketing workers, are raising their child in Russia’s second-largest city of St. Petersburg. Both lesbians, they have asked not to disclose their last names for security reasons.

“Our mere existence is illegal for our state and even for our child,” Yaroslava said.

Read this full report here.

3:23 p.m. ET, December 11, 2022

As Brittney Griner returns to US, one of the "Citgo 6" says reintegration after captivity can be difficult

From CNN's Nouran Salahieh

Brittney Griner exits a plane after landing at the in San Antonio on Friday.
Brittney Griner exits a plane after landing at the in San Antonio on Friday. (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images)

As freed WNBA star Brittney Griner visits a Texas military medical facility following nearly 10 months of imprisonment in Russia, Jorge Toledo – one of the “Citgo 6” – spoke to CNN Saturday about how reintegration into society can take time and effort.

Toledo was released in October as part of a prisoner swap after being detained while on a 2017 business trip to Venezuela with other oil and gas executives from the Citgo Corporation.

Two months after his release, Toledo described the challenges he has faced with returning to regular daily life – hurdles he didn’t think about when he was first freed – and the advice he has for Griner.

“When I just landed in San Antonio … I felt great to taste the freedom and the smell of freedom. And you never think about any aspects as a consequence of your captivity. But as the time passed by, as you start getting into the normal life, you notice that reintegration means a challenge,” he told CNN’s Pamela Brown.

Having spent five years in captivity, Toledo has had to rebuild relationships with family members, including grandchildren who were only babies when he was detained.

Toledo also experienced trouble sleeping and other health issues after returning to the US, and saw minor, everyday tasks like driving become sources of anxiety.

His advice for Griner? “Take your time.”

Read more about this here.

2:11 p.m. ET, December 11, 2022

Russian shelling damaged several communities in southern Ukraine overnight, official says

From CNN's Olga Voitovych

Russia shelled Ukraine's Dnipropetrovsk region and surrounding territories with rockets and heavy artillery overnight, a local Ukrainian official said.

There were no casualties, according to the head of the region's military administration, Valentyn Reznichenko. He shared the update on Telegram Sunday.

The communities of Nikopol, Chervonohryhorivka and Marhanets were also hit, Reznichenko said, as Moscow's forces fired more than 50 shells.

The bombardment targeted Nikopol six times during the night, damaging a dozen private houses and outbuildings, plus administrative and office buildings, the Ukrainian official said.

Nikopol sits across the Dnipro River from the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. 

In Chervonohryhorivka, the shelling damaged gas pipelines and power lines, along with 15 houses, several outbuildings and cars.

Three villages in the area were left without electricity and water. Reznichenko said emergency crews have already started repair work.

1:29 p.m. ET, December 11, 2022

Diplomat says Brittney Griner immediately formed a personal connection with the crew that brought her home

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens speaks to CNN's Dana Bash on Sunday.
Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens speaks to CNN's Dana Bash on Sunday.

The top US hostage affairs official on Sunday reflected on conducting the prisoner swap that led to Brittney Griner's release, saying the WNBA star immediately thanked the crew returning her to the United States.

“When she finally got on to the US plane, I said, ‘Brittney, you must have been through a lot over the last 10 months. Here’s your seat. Please feel free to decompress. We’ll give you your space,’” Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”

“And she said, ‘Oh no. I’ve been in prison for 10 months now listening to Russian, I want to talk. But first of all, who are these guys?’ And she moved right past me and went to every member on that crew, looked them in the eyes, shook their hands and asked about them and got their names, making a personal connection with them. It was really amazing,” Carstens recalled. “And then later on, on an 18-hour flight, she probably spent 12 hours just talking and we talked about everything under the sun.”

Carstens, who led the mission to the UAE, provided CNN with new details about Griner’s trip home. Griner, who he described as “an intelligent, passionate, compassionate, humble, interesting person, a patriotic person — but above all, authentic,” seemed healthy and full of energy during the trip.

She was given a sense, he said, that she would be going home that day, and it felt real the moment he was able to board the other plane and tell her that “on behalf of the President of the United States, Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Tony Blinken, I’m here to take you home.”

“At that point, we have to go through a little more of the choreography to get her on the plane, it usually takes about three minutes,” Carstens said.

While he said Griner talked about her ordeal during the trip, he declined to elaborate on the details.

Read more about this here.

1:24 p.m. ET, December 11, 2022

Ukrainian official claims that an explosion rocked mercenary group's headquarters in Luhansk region

From CNN's Mariya Knight

An explosion rocked the Wagner mercenary group's headquarters in the eastern Luhansk region of Ukraine on Saturday, according to a regional official.

“They had a 'pop' (explosion), where the headquarters of Wagner were. And photos have already appeared online, and they don't even hide that there are huge losses there," Serhiy Hayday, head of the region's military administration, said in an interview with Ukrainian media Sunday.

Hayday said the headquarters was established at a building in the Russian-occupied city of Kadiivka. The city is located in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Reports out of Russia: The Russian state news agency TASS reported that an explosion occurred on Saturday in a "private hotel" building in Kadiivka, but did not specify Wagner's presence there.

CNN has not independently verified whether Wagner operated at the hotel.

“The hotel building was destroyed in the city of Stakhanov in the LPR due to the strike by the Armed Forces of Ukraine using HIMAR (rocket launchers), the blow shook the central part of the city,” TASS reported Saturday.

"The strike was at the private hotel, that is in the area of ​​the central market. The hotel wasn’t operating at the moment,” TASS' report continued. “Rescuers are already working on the scene, they are clearing the rubble.”

What is the Wagner Group?

The Wagner Group is a mercenary firm that has been heavily involved in the fighting in Ukraine. The group is often described as President Vladimir Putin’s off-the-books troops. It has expanded its footprint globally since its creation in 2014. The group has been accused of war crimes in Africa, Syria and Ukraine.

The group was founded by a Russian oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, which he admitted earlier this year. Prigozhin is so close to the Kremlin that he is known as Putin’s “chef.”

CNN's Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.

12:25 p.m. ET, December 11, 2022

Ukrainian prime minister says 40% of the country's high-voltage network facilities are damaged

From CNN's Kostan Nechyporenko

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on Facebook that after eight waves of missile attacks on the country, all thermal and hydroelectric power stations have been damaged to some degree.

Shmyhal also said that 40% of all high-voltage network facilities have been damaged “to varying degrees.”

"Each of us must realize that this winter we will have to live through with significant restrictions on electricity consumption,” he said. 
12:08 p.m. ET, December 11, 2022

National security official: US continues to work on securing Paul Whelan's release

From CNN's Sam Fossum

Paul Whelan stands inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow on January 22, 2019.
Paul Whelan stands inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow on January 22, 2019. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

John Kirby, a National Security Council spokesperson, said Sunday that the US is working to release American Paul Whelan from Russia.

Kirby said the deal that secured WNBA star Brittney Griner's release left the administration "more informed" on the Russians' view of Paul's case.

Remember: Russian authorities allege the former Marine was involved in an intelligence operation in Moscow. In 2020, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison in a trial US officials denounced as unfair.

Here's what Kirby said on "ABC This Week":

"They hold Mr. Whelan differently because of these espionage charges. And so, we're working through that now. We are now more informed. Clearly, having gone through this process over the last few months, we're more informed. We have a better sense of the context here, where the Russians expectations are, and we're just going to keep working at it."

Kirby also reiterated how the negotiations evolved this summer, adding that it was not until the last week when the Griner deal was finalized that they lost hope of securing the release of both Griner and Whelan together.

"There was a very serious, specific proposal made to the Russians to try to get both of them out together," Kirby said. "And it just didn't land anywhere. It didn't go anywhere with the Russians."

As negotiations progressed through summer and into the fall, Kirby said it was clear "that they were treating Paul very separately, very distinctly because of these sham espionage charges they levied against them."

Kirby acknowledged bipartisan criticism of the deal that secured Griner's release, but pushed back. 

"I understand the criticism. They weren't in the room. They weren't on the phone. They weren't watching the incredible effort and determination ... to try to get both Paul and (Griner) out together," he said. "I mean, in a negotiation you do what you can, you do as much as you can. You push and you push and you push, and we did. And this deal we got last week — that was the deal that was possible."

11:31 a.m. ET, December 11, 2022

Situation in Odesa is "controlled, although not easy" amid power outage, mayor says

From CNN's Mia Alberti

A power outage is seen in Odesa on Saturday.
A power outage is seen in Odesa on Saturday. (Gian Marco Benedetto/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Power and water supplies are gradually being restored around the key port of Odesa after the region was hit by drone strikes, Odesa Mayor Hennadii Trukhanov said in a statement on Telegram.

The number of people without power in the region decreased from 1.5 million on Saturday to 300,000 on Sunday.

"The situation is quite controlled, although not easy," he said.

Trukhanov said his administration is re-launching pumping stations and delivering water by truck to zones where shortages continue. Regarding power supply and heating, the official said 43 out of 140 boiler houses are still not working. 

"Power engineers are working to ensure that the electricity returns to the homes of Odesa residents as soon as possible," the mayor said.

The head of Odesa regional state administration, Maksym Marchenko, said in a statement that "power is gradually returning to Odesa".

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday that the damage was done by Iranian-made drones, which Russia launched overnight Friday into Saturday.

Why Odesa's stability is so important: The port of Odesa is Ukraine's key to exporting vital food products, including through its "Grain from Ukraine" initiative, which is aimed at addressing the global hunger crisis.