December 19, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Kathleen Magramo, Jack Guy, Eliza Mackintosh, Aditi Sangal and Leinz Vales, CNN

Updated 1:36 a.m. ET, December 20, 2022
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4:31 p.m. ET, December 19, 2022

Ukraine's military commander supports new law that toughens penalties for desertion among troops

From CNN's Tim Lister and Denis Lapin

The commander of Ukraine's military has expressed his support for tougher penalties against soldiers accused of desertion or refusing to carry out missions.

Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander in chief of the armed forces, said on Telegram Monday that he was "forced to raise a rather difficult topic — toughening responsibility for unauthorized abandonment of a military unit or duty station, desertion, unauthorized abandonment of the battlefield, refusal to use weapons, insubordination, failure to carry out combat missions."

Zaluzhnyi said he backed legislation adopted by the Ukrainian parliament.

"My opinion clearly mirrors the position of commanders of military units, who demanded a systemic solution to this set of issues. The army is based on discipline. And if the loopholes in the law are not enforced, violators can pay a fine of up to 10 percent of combat pay or get punished with probation. That's not fair," his post said.

Such indiscipline, he said meant that "bare frontline areas are forced to be covered by other troops. This leads to the loss of personnel, territory and civilians on them. Often lost positions have to be regained by assault, at a very, very high cost. This is not the way it should be."

Zaluzhnyi said he recognized the problems that lead to abandonment and was working to address them.

Some context: The legislature passed a law last week on "ensuring law and order and military discipline among the servicemen of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the places of deployment of military units and institutions." It said military police would have greater powers to combat the illicit trafficking of narcotic drugs, alcoholism in military units, and maintain an adequate level of military discipline and law and order.

3:25 p.m. ET, December 19, 2022

Putin says "Russia has no interest in absorbing" Belarus

From CNN's Uliana Pavlova

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia does not plan to “absorb” Belarus, in response to a question during a press conference in Minsk on Monday with his Belarus counterpart Alexander Lukashenko. 

"Russia has no interest in absorbing anyone. It is simply not advisable today," Putin said in response to a reporter's question about alleged rumors that Russia wants to absorb Belarus. 

"These unscrupulous critics from the outside either do not understand what they are talking about, or talk about it on purpose, misleading people who are not immersed in it. The issue is not a takeover. The issue is the coordination of economic policy," Putin said.

"Everything else is nonsense. These are attempts by our ill-wishers to slow down our integration process. And they do this only in order not to get effective and dangerous competitors in the world markets. That's all," Putin said.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that Putin claiming he does not intend to absorb anyone "has to be treated as the height of irony."

“We've heard these statements from President Putin, at the same time since the earliest days of this conflict and the weeks preceding this conflict, we've seen the Lukashenka regime essentially cede its sovereignty, cede its independence to Russia,” Price said.

2:36 p.m. ET, December 19, 2022

Russia and Belarus vow closer cooperation to overcome western sanctions

From CNN's Josh Pennington and Uliana Pavlova

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attending a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on December 19.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attending a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on December 19. (Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik/Pool/Reuters)

At the end of a visit to Minsk, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia and Belarus are working closely to mitigate the effect of western sanctions against both countries.

Speaking at a news conference with his Belarus counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, Putin said, "Russia and Belarus are working together to overcome the illegitimate steps and sanctions against Russia and Belarus," and were "working with great confidence in this direction."

Putin added: "Our countries are closest allies and strategic partners." 

He said there was joint defense planning between Russia and Belarus and that Russia "will do everything for the joint safety of our countries."

"Such measures are necessary because of the tense situation on the outer borders of the Union state," he said — an apparent reference to the conflict in Ukraine and possibly the fractious relationship of both countries with Poland.

Putin confirmed that Russia was currently conducting military exercises on the territory of Belarus and that Russia and Belarus were also jointly developing weaponry. 

The Russian Defense Ministry said earlier Monday, that "The final assessment of the combat capability and combat readiness of the units will be given by the command at the final stage of coordination — after the battalion tactical exercises have been conducted.'

Taking questions at the news conference, Putin said: "Russia and Belarus will create one unified defense space."

Russian-Belarusian relations: Russian forces have been based in Belarus for much of the year. In October, the Belarus defense ministry said that 9,000 Russian troops were moving to the country as part of a "regional grouping" of forces to protect its borders. Russian combat aircraft are stationed at or frequently visit several Belarus air bases. Some of the recent cruise missile attacks on Ukraine have originated in Belarus, according to Ukrainian officials. 

Putin said that Russia remains the largest investor in Belarus, to the tune of some $4 billion.

For his part, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said that 2022 had been a record for Russian-Belarusian relations on all levels and claimed that "sanctions had a painful boomerang effect on their initiators." 

The European Union and the United States have imposed a range of sanctions on Belarus, principally against senior officials of Lukashenko's government as well as air travel and some exports.

"Because the collective West has reared its ugly head at us, we must coordinate our efforts," Lukashenko said. 

Lukashenko added, "Russia can do without us, but we can't do without Russia."
1:39 p.m. ET, December 19, 2022

Putin says Russia is conducting military exercises in Belarus

From CNN's Radina Gigova and Uliana Pavlova 

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday the Russian military is currently conducting military exercises on the territory of Belarus as part of efforts to protect "the safety of our countries." 

Speaking alongside Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, Putin said Russia and Belarus will continue to cooperate closely in the military sphere, and exchange and develop military equipment and weapons. 

Putin said "such measures are necessary" because of the tense situation "on the outer borders of the Union state [of Russia and Belarus]."

1:25 p.m. ET, December 19, 2022

Russian drone strikes target key infrastructure in Kyiv. Here's everything you need to know. 

From CNN staff

A critical infrastructure facility burns after a Russian drone attack early Monday morning in Kyiv.
A critical infrastructure facility burns after a Russian drone attack early Monday morning in Kyiv. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty images)

At least two people were hurt and key infrastructure has been damaged in a Russian drone assault on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the latest attempt by Moscow to ravage Ukraine’s power supplies.

Here are the latest developments:

  • Russia strikes central Ukraine: Russian forces bombarded Ukraine's central Dnipropetrovsk region overnight using drones, Grad multiple rocket launcher systems and other heavy artillery, according to local authorities. Nikopol, which lies on the west bank of the Dnipro River across from the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, was struck by more than 60 Russian shells.
  • Ukraine fending off further drone attacks: The Ukrainian Air Force claims to have shot down 30 out of 35 drones launched by Russia from Sunday night into Monday, but those that dodged air defenses damaged power systems and civilian targets. The Iranian-made, self-detonating Shahed-136 and Shahed-131 drones were launched from the “eastern coast of the Sea of Azov," the Air Force said in a statement on Facebook.
  • Kyiv pushes for Patriot missile systems: A spokesperson for the Ukrainian Air Force said Ukraine would be better able to defend itself from drone and missile attacks by Russian forces if it were provided with fighter aircraft and Patriot missile defense systems. Last week, CNN exclusively revealed that the US was finalizing plans to send the Patriot missile defense system to Ukraine.
  • Weapons and air defense on Ukraine's Christmas list: Ukrainian children are asking St. Nicholas for weapons, air defense systems and “victory for all Ukrainians,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday. “They understand everything, our children. Let us act!” he added.
  • Russia shoots down US-made missiles: Russian forces shot down four US-made "HARM" missiles over the country's Belgorod region, the defense ministry said Monday. "HARM" missiles are air-to-surface anti-radiation missile designed to home in on electronic transmissions coming from surface-to-air radar systems.
12:04 p.m. ET, December 19, 2022

Ukraine struggles to restore power amid outages lasting hours and months

From CNN's Tim Lister and Denis Lapin

A woman shops for groceries during a blackout in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on December 16.
A woman shops for groceries during a blackout in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on December 16. (Sofiia Bobok/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Across Ukraine, power engineers are engaged in their daily battle to restore electricity to homes and public buildings after Russian missile and drone attacks — but they are also tackling much longer outages.

In the far north of Ukraine, the villagers of Tsirkuny in Kharkiv region have electricity for the first time since the day Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February. The regional power company said 100 consumers in the village are back online.

"As a result of hostilities, the damage to power grids and equipment here is enormous," the company said. "Transformer substations, poles, wires are damaged. The work is also complicated by the large amount of work on demining the territory. We have already replaced two power transformers, which allowed us to supply the first consumers. Another 10 transformers need to be replaced."

Elsewhere, more recent damage is being tackled.

Oleksandr Starukh, head of Zaporizhzhia Region Military Administration, told a briefing that the situation in the region is currently difficult. 

"Our power engineers have managed to restore the basic vital systems. People have warm radiators, water supply, the sewage system works. Electricity is supplied according to schedules," Starukh said.

"Critical issues have been resolved, except for the destroyed infrastructure, which requires time to restore. Equipment needs to be purchased and installed, it will take some time," Starukh said.

The energy crunch is exacerbated by the lack of nuclear generation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, where all six units are out of operation. "They are in partially cold and partially hot shutdown mode," Starukh said.

The plant has been occupied by the Russians since early March. Russian-appointed officials have repeatedly declared plans to connect the plant to the Russian grid through Crimea.

Earlier Monday state electricity company Ukrenergo said that "during the whole night, enemy UAVs have been trying at breaking through to power facilities across the country."

Several facilities had been hit, it said, with the most difficult situations in the central, eastern and Dnipro regions. 

11:14 a.m. ET, December 19, 2022

Elderly couple in rural Ukraine woken up by intercepted drone that landed in their yard

From CNN's Tim Lister

A Ukrainian firefighter and serviceman inspect damage caused by a Russian drone outside the home of Ivan and Olha Kobzarenko.
A Ukrainian firefighter and serviceman inspect damage caused by a Russian drone outside the home of Ivan and Olha Kobzarenko. (Felipe Dana/AP)

Ivan and Olha Kobzarenko were at home in their modest rural property when they had an unexpected visitor early Monday: an Iranian-made Shahed drone.

The drone fell into their yard after being intercepted by Ukrainian air defenses as it flew towards a target in Kyiv.

The Kobzarenkos — an elderly couple — live in the Obkuhiv district, an area of farms and lakes located south of the Ukrainian capital.

Ivan, who is in his late 70's, received facial injuries but declined to go to hospital. Olha was unhurt.

But doors, windows and the roof of their home were damaged.

Their summer kitchen, which is in a separate building, was destroyed, and their garage and car caught fire.

Olha Kobzarenko searches for her dog on Monday.
Olha Kobzarenko searches for her dog on Monday. (Felipe Dana/AP)

Olha was born in 1939, on the eve of another war, and seems undaunted. As she showed off the damage to visitors, she asked, "How the hell is Putin going to scare us?"  

Oleksiy Kuleba, head of Kyiv region military administration, pledged that the Kobzarenkos' home would be repaired. 

The entire drone fell into the Kobzarenkos' yard between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. local time, Darya Tverdokhlib, Kuleba's spokeswoman, visited the scene and told CNN. "They are feeling ok, they are strong," she said. "Their family [was] much more scared than Ivan and Olha."

10:16 a.m. ET, December 19, 2022

Putin and Belarusian President Lukashenko avoid mentioning Ukraine in public comments at Minsk summit 

From CNN's Uliana Pavlova

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko at a press conference in Minsk, Belarus, on Monday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko at a press conference in Minsk, Belarus, on Monday. (Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik/Kremlin/AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko avoided mentioning Ukraine in their public statements at a summit in Minsk.

In brief remarks, Putin said that Belarus was Russia's closest ally. He expected trade between the two countries to reach a record this year, at the equivalent of $40 billion.

Lukashenko said that despite "some rough edges" Belarus and Russia, find answers to all threats; and expressed the hope that the West will "listen to the voice of reason" so a dialogue on security could resume.

Belarus' role in the conflict: Russian forces are based in Belarus and used its territory in the initial invasion of Ukraine in February. But Lukashenko has gone to some lengths to ensure that Belarus troops do not become involved in Russia's "special military operation." 

Russia also has strike aircraft based in Belarus.

Lukashenko also mentioned economic relations, saying that "Thanks to joint work, Russia and Belarus managed to overcome the possible negative consequences of sanctions pressure."