April 20, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Andrew Raine, Travis Caldwell, George Ramsay, Jack Bantock, Laura Smith-Spark, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, April 21, 2022
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8:33 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

US defense secretary being regularly briefed on any potential Russian nuclear moves, officials say

From CNN's Barbara Starr

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on April 7.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on April 7. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States' military is keeping a constant watch on Russia's nuclear arsenal as the war in Ukraine continues.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is being briefed two or three times a week by the top US general who oversees US nuclear weapons and defenses, according to multiple defense officials.

The US has not seen any indication Russia has made any moves to prepare nuclear weapons for use during the war, but two sources familiar with recent intelligence assessments told CNN that US officials are more concerned about the threat of Russia using them than at any time since the Cold War.

The sources stressed, however, that it is still unlikely Russian President Vladimir Putin would use any kind of nuclear weapon and one of the sources put the chances of use at around 1%.

Adm. Charles Richard, head of the US Strategic Command, is providing Austin and other top Pentagon leaders with a highly classified operation and intelligence update on the status of Russia's arsenal and any moves that might cause concern, according to the defense officials.

It includes input from the intelligence community which closely monitors statements from Putin and other senior Russian leaders. The officials emphasized that if there are any sudden developments in between scheduled meetings, Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley would be quickly briefed before updating the White House.

Monitoring any possible nuclear activity has always been a high priority for the Pentagon but the urgency of efforts increased shortly after Russia launched its invasion in February when Putin put the country's deterrence forces, including Moscow's nuclear weapons, onto the highest state of alert.

On Tuesday, Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pushed back on a warning from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a CNN interview last week that Russia could be prepared to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, stressing that Russia historically has been against the use of such weapons.

Read more here:

8:08 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

It's 3 p.m. in Kyiv. Here's what you need to know

The escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine remains a central focus, as Russian forces continue their siege of Mariupol.

A port city said to be of critical strategic importance, Mariupol's fate rests on its Azovstal iron and steel plant, which remains under the control of Ukrainian forces despite relentless Russian attacks.

Officials say hundreds of civilians are sheltering in the basements of the plant, and a Mariupol police official told CNN that food and water supplies were dwindling amid the heavy bombardment. 

A corridor has been agreed on with Russia for evacuation of women, children and the elderly from Mariupol, according to the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister, but Russian forces are reported to be attempting an advance towards a city that forms part of the route.

Here are the latest developments in the Russia-Ukraine conflict:

Siege of Mariupol continues: Despite weeks of heavy attacks as Russia attempts to "close the circle" around Mariupol, Ukrainians continue to defend the city. However conditions may soon worsen, with a Ukrainian military commander telling CNN from one of the remaining holdouts that they may have "only a few days or even hours left."

Steel plant "completely surrounded": Ukrainian troops and civilians remain trapped in Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant under heavy Russian bombardment. An estimated 1,000 civilians, including women, children and the elderly were sheltering inside the plant, Myhailo Vershynin, chief of the Mariupol patrol police, told CNN earlier this week. The commander of Ukraine's 36th Separate Marine Brigade, Maj. Serhii Volyna, told CNN by phone Tuesday evening that the plant was "completely surrounded" and requested international assistance in evacuating hundreds of troops and civilians.

Evacuation corridor for Mariupol agreed: Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Wednesday that a corridor had been agreed on with Russia for the evacuation of women, children and the elderly from Mariupol. She said the convoy was set to move from the besieged city toward Manhush and then onward through the Russian-held city of Berdyansk, then north toward the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia.

Russian forces attempt advance on corridor city: Zaporizhzhia, part of the evacuation corridor, is in the direction of an attempted advance by Russian forces, the city's Regional Council said Wednesday. As fighting intensifies across the country's east, the council said that the Russian military was trying to advance "in the direction" of Zaporizhzhia "but suffers losses and focuses its main efforts on maintaining the occupied frontiers."

European officials highlight alleged war crimes: Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Tuesday that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is “comparable to the darkest pages in our European history” adding "that there can be no impunity for war crimes." On Wednesday, President of the European Council Charles Michel said that "history will not forget the war crimes" committed in Ukraine.

Russian billionaire blasts war: Russian billionaire Oleg Tinkov has blasted Russia's war in Ukraine, calling on the West to do more to "stop this massacre" in an Instagram post Tuesday. "I don't see a single beneficiary of this insane war," the founder of Tinkoff Bank wrote. Tinkov was among the 65 individuals and entities sanctioned by the United Kingdom for “supporting Russia's illegal invasion."

7:58 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

Germany will provide training and maintenance to Ukrainian military, foreign minister says

From CNN’s Benjamin Brown in London

Germany will provide training and maintenance to the Ukrainian military, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in Latvia Wednesday.

Baerbock said that while “other partners are now providing artillery,” Germany would “help with training and maintenance.” Baerbock said that Germany could not provide further weaponry as the country had no weapons it could “deliver quickly and without delay right now.”

Speaking at a news conference in Riga with her Latvian counterpart Edgars Rinkevics, Baerbock added that Germany had chosen not to make public all the weapons it had previously sent to Ukraine.

“We have supplied anti-tank weapons, Stingers [air defense systems] and many other weapons that we haven’t spoken about in public,” the foreign minister said.

9:38 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

More than 5 million people have fled Ukraine, says UN refugee agency

From CNN‘s Benjamin Brown

More than five million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion in late February, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Wednesday.

In addition to the 5,012,708 registered refugees, at least seven million people have been internally displaced in Ukraine having been forced to flee their homes, according to the latest International Organization for Migration (IOM) report from early April.

The majority of those fleeing Ukraine have traveled to neighboring Poland, while others have arrived in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Moldova, Russia and Belarus.

According to the UNHCR, 90% are women or children.

7:28 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

Russian billionaire slams war in Ukraine, urges West to "stop this massacre"

From CNN's Clare Sebastian and Chris Liakos

Oleg Tinkoff speaks at a conference during the Hong Kong Fintech Week event in Hong Kong, China, on October 31, 2018.
Oleg Tinkoff speaks at a conference during the Hong Kong Fintech Week event in Hong Kong, China, on October 31, 2018. (Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Russian billionaire Oleg Tinkov has blasted Russia's war in Ukraine, calling on the West to do more to "stop this massacre."

Tinkov, who was among the 65 individuals and entities sanctioned by the UK on March 24 for “supporting Russia's illegal invasion," made the comments in an Instagram post Tuesday.

"I don't see a single beneficiary of this insane war. Generals, waking up with a hangover have realized they have a s*** army. And how could the army be good when everything else in the country is mired in nepotism, groveling and servility," Tinkov said.

The Russian tycoon, who founded Tinkoff Bank in 2006, wrote that "90% of Russians" opposed the conflict.

"The Kremlin's civil servants are in shock that not only they but also their children won't go to the Mediterranean this summer. Businessmen are trying to save what's left of their property. Of course there are idiots that write the letter Z but there are about 10% idiots in all countries. 90% of Russians are AGAINST this war," he said.

The letter "Z" became a sign of popular support for the war among some Russians after Russian military vehicles were seen marked with the symbol just ahead of the invasion.

Switching to English at the end of his post, Tinkov called on the “collective” West to “give Mr. Putin a clear exit to save his face and stop this massacre.”

“Please be more rational and humanitarian,” he added.

Other Russian business leaders call for peace: In March, Russian oil firm Lukoil called for an end to the conflict in Ukraine.

Oligarchs Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska also spoke out against the conflict in late February following Russia’s invasion.

Fridman, who was born in western Ukraine, said in a letter to staff that he wanted the “bloodshed to end." Deripaska wrote in a post on Telegram: “Peace is very important! Negotiations need to start as soon as possible!”

Earlier this month, the chairman of the Russian metals firm Rusal called for an impartial investigation into the killing of civilians in Bucha.

7:01 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

"Everything has been strange to us," says couple who joined Ukraine's Territorial Defense Force

Russia’s invasion has turned the life of so many Ukrainians upside down -- including that of Oleksandr Zhugan and Antonina Romanova.

The couple previously worked in theater, but when Russia launched its invasion nearly two months ago, they decided to join Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force.

“Frankly speaking everything has been strange to us,” Zhugan told CNN's "Early Start" from the suburbs of Kyiv, where he and Romanova are currently stationed.

“The most unusual thing was holding a gun for the first time in my life. It was the same for Antonina too. We have compulsory military service, but Antonina and I didn’t go to the army due to health conditions and it was the first time here when we took guns and weapons in our hands.

“We were taught to shoot, how to disassemble it and clean it. We had some tactical training as well.”

Asked about handling weaponry for the first time, Zhugan added: “It's much more comfortable than it was at the beginning. We got the guns on the 25th [of February] and it’s been 56 days of war now. It’s much more comfortable now.”

Joining the Territorial Defense Force hasn’t been the only major change in their lives -- the couple also got engaged after Romanova proposed at a checkpoint during the war.    

Same-sex marriage is not currently allowed in Ukraine, but Zhugan says they hope to get married at some point in the future.  

Watch the full interview here:

9:32 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

"History will not forget the war crimes" committed in Ukraine, says European Council President

From CNN's Sharon Braithwaite

European Council President Charles Michel walks near damaged buildings in Borodyanka, Ukraine, on April 20.
European Council President Charles Michel walks near damaged buildings in Borodyanka, Ukraine, on April 20. (Dario Pignatelli/European Union/Reuters)

"History will not forget the war crimes" committed in Ukraine, President of the European Council Charles Michel said Wednesday.

Pictures posted to Michel's social media account showed the former Belgian Prime Minister visiting Ukraine, with one titled "In Borodyanka."

"Like Bucha and too many other towns in Ukraine. History will not forget the war crimes that have been committed here. There can be no peace without justice," Michel tweeted.

Russia has denied allegations of war crimes and claims its forces do not target civilians, but CNN journalists on the ground in Ukraine have seen firsthand evidence of atrocities at multiple locations across the country.

Earlier on Wednesday, Michel shared a picture of his arrival at a train station in the capital of Kyiv. "In the heart of a free and democratic Europe," he said.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Tuesday that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine was “comparable to the darkest pages in our European history.”

He added that it was “heart-breaking to see that something like this can still happen in Europe" and that "that there can be no impunity for war crimes."

6:21 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

Russian forces attempting advance toward southeastern Zaporizhzhia, say regional officials

From CNN's Nathan Hodge in Lviv

A Ukrainian tank on the road between Pokrovske and Zaporizhzhia on April 12 in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian tank on the road between Pokrovske and Zaporizhzhia on April 12 in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. (Wojciech Grzedzinski/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Russian forces are attempting an advance toward the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, said the city's Regional Council on Wednesday, as fighting escalates across the east of the country.

"The situation at the frontline suggests that the enemy is trying to advance in direction of Zaporizhzhia, but suffers losses and focuses its main efforts on maintaining the occupied frontiers," the council said in a statement.

"Russian troops continue to shell the positions of our troops and conduct offensive operations in the direction of Pokrovske - Huliaipole," the council added.

Zaporizhzhia lies north of the besieged city of Mariupol, and is set to form part of an evacuation corridor reportedly agreed on with Russia for Wednesday.

Women, children, and the elderly would be evacuated from the southeastern port city toward Manhush, onward through the Russian held-city of Berdyansk and then toward Zaporizhzhia, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

Russian forces occupy the southern part of the region, and according to the council they have established a base in the city of Melitopol, near residential areas.

Sham referendums: The council claims Russian forces are planning to hold sham referendums in occupied territory, similar to those carried out in the separatist-held parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014.

Earlier this week, Russian-backed separatist leader Denis Pushilin said that the separatist Donetsk People's Republic would support a Russian-occupied district in the Zaporizhzhia region.

Pushilin alleged that Zaporizhzhia had made "an appeal" to secede from Ukraine and join the breakaway republic.

Ukrainian officials have said Russian forces appear to be preparing for a similar sham referendum in southern Kherson region.

5:39 a.m. ET, April 20, 2022

Conflict in Ukraine comparable to "darkest pages" of European history, says Belgian Prime Minister

From CNN’s James Frater in Ghent, Belgium

Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo addresses the media in Ghent, Belgium, on April 19.
Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo addresses the media in Ghent, Belgium, on April 19. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has said that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is “comparable to the darkest pages in our European history” and that it is “heart-breaking to see that something like this can still happen in Europe.”

Speaking Tuesday evening in the Belgian town of Ghent, following a rare joint meeting of the Dutch and Belgian cabinets, De Croo added “that there can be no impunity for war crimes.”

He said that both Belgium and the Netherlands are “going to make efforts to ensure that everything is documented,” in the hope that “prosecutions can take place for the terrible stories we hear of rapes of women, rapes of girls.”

Russia has denied allegations of war crimes and claims its forces do not target civilians, but CNN journalists on the ground in Ukraine have seen firsthand evidence of atrocities at multiple locations across the country.

Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine's prosecutor general, said last week that her office was investigating 5,800 cases of alleged Russian war crimes, with "more and more" proceedings opening every day.

De Croo said that the Belgian Government was supporting the International Criminal Court and the Commission of Inquiry set up by the UN Human Rights Council and was “looking to be able to send forensic experts” to Ukraine.

“It is the first step to ensure that the barbarians who did this will be prosecuted,” he added.