December 20, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Eliza Mackintosh, Jack Guy, Rhea Mogul, Aditi Sangal and Leinz Vales, CNN

Updated 12:46 a.m. ET, December 21, 2022
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12:46 a.m. ET, December 21, 2022

Our live coverage of Russia's war in Ukraine has moved here.

7:49 p.m. ET, December 20, 2022

Biden to announce $1.8 billion in new assistance during Zelensky visit, including Patriot system

From CNN's Phil Mattingly

Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery from a Howitzer towards Russian targets in the Zaporizhzhia region on December 16.
Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery from a Howitzer towards Russian targets in the Zaporizhzhia region on December 16. (Dmytro Smoliyenko/Ukrinform/Future Publishing/Getty Images)

US President Joe Biden will announce an additional $1.8 billion in security assistance to Ukraine during President Volodymyr Zelensky’s expected visit the White House.

The significant boost in aid is expected to be headlined by the Patriot missile defense systems that are included the package, a US official told CNN. 

The new announcement will add to the nearly $20 billion in US security assistance provided to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February, and will come at the same moment US lawmakers are considering a sweeping government spending measure that includes an additional $45 billion in emergency assistance to Ukraine. 

Patriot missile defense systems: Ukraine has been calling for the US to send the advanced long-range air defense system that is highly effective at intercepting ballistic and cruise missiles as it comes under a barrage of Russian missile and drone attacks that have destroyed key infrastructure across the country.

It would be the most effective long-range defensive weapons system sent to the country and officials say it will help secure airspace for NATO nations in eastern Europe.

Previously, the US has sent Patriot batteries to NATO allies like Poland as a way to bolster their defenses, and sent other weapon systems to Ukraine to assist against the Russian invasion.

6:21 p.m. ET, December 20, 2022

Kremlin-linked hackers tried to spy on oil firm in NATO country, researchers say

From CNN's Sean Lyngaas

A Kremlin-linked hacking group known for focusing on Ukraine has stepped up its spying efforts against Ukraine's NATO allies in recent months — in part by trying to hack a big oil firm in a NATO country in August, according to US cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks.

It's the latest sign that Russia's various hacking teams are throwing out all the stops to try to get key intelligence on NATO members as Moscow tries to shift the tide of its bloody war in Ukraine.

The hacking group — which Ukraine has accused of working out of Crimea on behalf of Russian intelligence — unsuccessfully tried to break into the network of an oil refinery company based in a NATO country "that continues to import oil from Russia," Unit 42, Palo Alto Networks' threat intelligence group, told CNN on Tuesday.

Unit 42 declined to name the NATO country or the oil firm.

Data held by the oil firm could, in theory, be helpful to Russia as it deals with a slew of Western sanctions that followed its February full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The hackers' "shift in targeting represents a significant expansion of their mission," said Jen Miller-Osborn, Unit 42's director of threat intelligence. 

Throughout the war in Ukraine, Russian operatives — and those from other governments — have tried to use hacking to understand what's going on and off the battlefield, according to US officials and private researchers.

Multiple examples of that type of cyber-espionage against non-Ukrainian targets have spilled into the public eye in recent weeks.

Another set of suspected Russian hackers, for examples, tried to break into six military, technology or logistics firms in the US and Europe that do work with Ukraine, French cybersecurity firm reported this month. 

The hacking operations typically involve deception and subterfuge.

The Russia-linked hackers tracked by Unit 42 tried to cover their tracks by changing up the internet protocol (IP) addresses — the unique numbers that identify computers online — they used in their operations. In one case, the hackers made it appear as if their activity was coming from an IP address owned by the Pentagon. 

The Pentagon has been heavily involved in trying to help Ukraine defend itself from Russian cyber operations for the last year.

Cyber Command – the US military's offensive and defensive hacking unit — sent teams of personnel to Ukraine to study Russian hacking tools in advance of the Russian invasion. US and Ukrainian officials have shared thousands of dataset of malicious cyber activity with each other to bolster defenses during that time, according to Cyber Command.

5:02 p.m. ET, December 20, 2022

Plans underway for Zelensky to visit White House

From Phil Mattingly

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a press conference in Kyiv in June.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a press conference in Kyiv in June. (Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP/Getty Images/File)

Planning is underway for President Joe Biden to welcome Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the White House Wednesday. The surprise visit will coincide with the administration’s intent of sending a new defense assistance package that will include Patriot missile systems, according to two sources familiar with the planning. 

The visit, which hasn’t been finalized and has remained tightly held due to security concerns, would mark Zelensky’s first trip outside Ukraine since the Russian invasion began in February. 

The White House declined to comment on a potential visit, a Biden announcement or new security assistance announcements.

4:20 p.m. ET, December 20, 2022

Putin orders formation of working group on mobilization issues

From CNN's Uliana Pavlova and Radina Gigova

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday issued instructions for the creation of a so-called working group that would coordinate between various authorities issues related to mobilization preparation and mobilization, according to a statement by the Kremlin. 

Putin issued instructions "to form a working group to ensure the interaction of public authorities and organizations on issues of mobilization training and mobilization, social and legal protection of Russian citizens participating in a special military operation, and their families," the statement reads. 

On Nov. 25, Putin met with mothers of soldiers fighting in Ukraine and promised them to look into reports about irregularities related to training, food supplies and lack of proper uniforms for soldiers fighting in what Russia calls its "special military operation."

On Oct. 31, Russia's Defense Ministry announced that its “partial mobilization” of hundreds of thousands of citizens to fight in the country’s war on Ukraine has been completed. The ministry said that all partial mobilization activities had been suspended, along with “all activities related to conscription for military service.”

Russia's “partial mobilization” announcement sparked, at the time, protests and an exodus of men from the country. 

3:27 p.m. ET, December 20, 2022

Zelensky visited the frontline city of Bakhmut. Here's everything you need to know.

From CNN staff

A member of the Ukrainian military rides in the back of a pickup truck on Tuesday while patrolling the streets of Avdiivka, Ukraine, in the Donetsk region.
A member of the Ukrainian military rides in the back of a pickup truck on Tuesday while patrolling the streets of Avdiivka, Ukraine, in the Donetsk region. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the frontline city of Bakhmut Tuesday, where Ukrainian and Russian forces have been locked in a brutal battle for months.

Here are some of the latest headlines:

  • Ukraine military discovers ancient Roman settlement: Ukrainian border guards, who have been building fortifications on the bank of the Dnipro river, have discovered the remnants of an ancient Roman settlement, the Ukrainian Border Guard said in a statement Tuesday. 
  • Woman injured as Ukrainian shells land in Russia's Kursk region: A woman was injured when shells fired by the Ukrainian Armed Forces landed in Russia's Kursk region on Tuesday, the governor of Kursk region, Roman Starovoit, said in a Telegram post.
  • At least 200,000 civilians remain in Donetsk despite mandatory evacuation order: Ukraine's deputy prime minister said at least 200,000 civilians remain in Ukrainian-held areas of the eastern Donetsk region, despite a mandatory evacuation order. Iryna Vereshchuk, said that number included thousands still living in Bakhmut, despite it being shelled every day and Russian troops being on the outskirts of the city.
  • Putin will review military performance tomorrow: President Vladimir Putin will lead a meeting Wednesday at which the armed forces' performance in 2022 and its tasks next year will be addressed, state Russian news agency TASS says.
  • US to provide smart bomb converter kits: The United States is expected to send Ukraine electronic equipment that can convert unguided aerial munitions into “smart bombs," which offer a high degree of precision targeting, according to multiple US officials. The decision to ship the kits to Ukraine, first reported by the Washington Post, is expected to come in the next Ukraine security aid package as soon as this week, the sources said. 
3:21 p.m. ET, December 20, 2022

Russian state media: Putin visited the headquarters of "special military operation" last week

From CNN's Radina Gigova and Josh Pennington 

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the "headquarters" of what Russia calls its "special military operation" last week, Russian state media reported Tuesday quoting the Kremlin, without providing a specific location for the visit. 

Putin visited the Russian military "headquarters" of the so-called "special military operation" zone on December 16, Russian state news agency TASS reported, referencing reporting by Russian outlet Rossiyskaya Gazeta, which quotes Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. 

However, it remains unclear where those so-called "headquarters" were situated. Video released by Russian state outlet Ruptly showed Putin in a business suit, meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and others in a conference room.

Earlier on Tuesday, Russian State Duma lawmaker Andrei Gurulev wrote on his Telegram channel that the Supreme Commander of the Russian Armed Forces [Putin] was in the zone of the "special military operation." 

"If he [Gurulev] means the headquarters where he [Putin] was on Friday, then yes," Peskov said, answering a question about Putin's visit, according to TASS referencing Rossiyskaya Gazeta, without saying where the "headquarters" was.

Peskov had told reporters that Putin worked all day on Friday at the "joint headquarters of the military branches involved in the special military operation," according to TASS.

During the visit, Putin got familiar with the work of the headquarters, received a report on the progress of the operation, held a conference and separate meetings with the commanders, and listened to the proposals of military leaders regarding the immediate and medium-term actions of the military, according to TASS. 

The reporting by Russian state media about Putin visiting Russian military "headquarters" follows a visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier Tuesday to the city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, which has become the epicenter of Russian efforts to take territory. 

3:02 p.m. ET, December 20, 2022

President Zelensky recounts his visit to Bakhmut in message to Ukrainians

From Julia Kesaieva

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was struck by the state of cities and towns he passed through on the way to the front lines in Bakhmut on Tuesday.

Zelensky went to Bakhmut, the epicenter of fighting in Donetsk region, to meet troops and present medals.

"I was there today to support our soldiers, to present state awards, to thank them," he said in his daily video message.

"I have passed Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, Druzhkivka, Konstantinovka... Cities, villages nearby, which are now literally struggling for life."

He said Ukrainian heroes in Bakhmut would stop the "so-called Russian world."

"Every day that they withstood there, every strike that they endured there, every attack that they repelled and every counterattack that they carried out is life for Ukraine."

"We will do everything possible and impossible, expected and unexpected, so that our heroes have everything they need to win," Zelensky said, naming front line settlements in Donetsk and Luhansk.

 "This is our Luhansk region, this is our south of Ukraine, this is our Crimea. Ukraine will not leave anything of its own to the enemy."

2:55 p.m. ET, December 20, 2022

On 300th day of war, fighting rages in Donetsk region as stalemate prevails in many areas

From CNN's Tim Lister and Julia Kesaieva

A person walks past a destroyed building in Lyman, Ukraine, on December 14.
A person walks past a destroyed building in Lyman, Ukraine, on December 14. (Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images)

President Volodymyr Zelensky's visit to Ukrainian troops on the front lines in Bakhmut comes us Russian forces intensify their efforts to break Ukrainian resistance in several parts of Donetsk region.

With the conflict now exactly 300 days old, the Russians have been pushing some of their newly mobilized troops into fierce battles in both Luhansk and Donetsk, but the Ukrainian military consistently reports that Russian assaults have been rebuffed.

On Tuesday, the military's General Staff said: "The enemy continues to focus its efforts on conducting offensive actions in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka directions," both in Donetsk. The Russians were trying to recover ground lost in September along the borders of Donetsk and Luhansk, it said. They were also intensifying assaults immediately to the west of the city of Donetsk, the General Staff said. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to soldiers in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Tuesday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to soldiers in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Tuesday. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Much of the Russian fire comes from multiple rocket launchers. The Ukrainian General Staff said the Russians had carried out more than 80 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) attacks on Monday alone. Some of the most intense fighting has been in and around the ruined town of Mariinka, which the Russians are trying to secure to give them a foothold for further offensive action. The General Staff said that on Tuesday, "the enemy continues to conduct offensive actions, fired from tanks and all types of artillery at the positions of our troops in the areas of 24 settlements." 

Ukraine said its air defenses had brought down two Mi-8 helicopters.

Neither side has made decisive gains in the east since the Ukrainians' lightning offensive in September, partly because of wet weather, fog and mud but also because much of the front lines is heavily mined. Russian forces are on the eastern fringes of Bakhmut, according to geolocated video, but one Russian military blogger said Monday that Russian units of the Wagner group had lost some ground south of the city. It is difficult to confirm territorial changes around Bakhmut.

Remains of mines gathered by the Ukrainian National Guard sit in the grass in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on December 12.
Remains of mines gathered by the Ukrainian National Guard sit in the grass in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on December 12. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Further north, on the border of Luhansk and Kharkiv regions, the Ukrainian military says it has beaten back "small counterattacks" by Russian forces. Serhiy Hayday, head of Luhansk region military administration, said the Russians continued to shell recently liberated areas. 

"Now that it's getting colder and the ground is getting firmer, most probably the hostilities may become more active in the near future, as it will be easier for the equipment to move. Anyway, we do expect that some changes may come on this direction.