Ukraine War Updates: U.S. Responds to Russia's Referendum

Live Updates
  • Russian-held regions in Ukraine began voting today on referendums to become part of Russia. The Kremlin organized the referendums to annex territories in the Luhansk, Kherson and partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions. The voting will continue for five days.
  • Ukraine and western leaders condemned the "sham" referendums as illegal attempts to seize Ukraine's sovereign land.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a new partial mobilization of about 300,000 more troops to fight with Russian forces in Ukraine this week.
  • Anti-war protests have erupted across Russia where about 1,300 people were detained by police, according to an independent rights group.
  • This comes as the United Nation's top human rights body shared its findings from an investigation into war crimes committed in Ukraine after Russia's invasion. The body found evidence of "credible allegations regarding many more cases of executions."
Russia Referendum
A Luhansk People's Republic serviceman votes in a polling station in Luhansk, Luhansk People's Republic, controlled by Russia-backed separatists, eastern Ukraine, Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. AP Photo

Live updates have ended.

U.S. Responds to Russia's Referendum

The White House released a statement from President Joe Biden late Friday rebuking Russia for its "sham" referendum in Ukraine.

"The United States will never recognize Ukrainian territory as anything other than part of Ukraine," Biden's statement said. "Russia's referenda are a sham – a false pretext to try to annex parts of Ukraine by force in flagrant violation of international law, including the United Nations Charter. We will work with our allies and partners to impose additional swift and severe economic costs on Russia."

Biden's statement continued by saying the U.S. "stands with our partners around the world – and with every nation that respects the core tenets of the UN charter – in rejecting whatever fabricated outcomes Russia will announce. We will continue to support the Ukrainian people and provide them with security assistance to help them defend themselves as they courageously resist Russia's invasion."

Ukraine Wants Safety Zone Around Nuclear Plant

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said a safety zone around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Ukraine "should be created" as Russia's war with Ukraine continues.

Shmyhal on Friday called for the establishment of a 30-kilometer safety zone around the plant. His calls echo those of the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has been working with Russian and Ukrainian officials to encourage the adoption of a safety zone.

"With its actions at the Zaporizhzhia NPP, Russia has put all of Europe on the brink of a nuclear disaster," Shmyhal told reporters. He referenced recent discussions about nuclear safety concerns that took place this week as the UN gathered in New York City for the 77th session of its General Assembly.

"Everyone understands the importance of the demilitarization of the ZNPP and the safe operation of the facility," Shmyhal said.

Ukraine's prime minister said Russian military action near Zaporizhzhia, which is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, has continued "almost every day" despite widespread concerns about the potential for a nuclear disaster to occur. Russia wants to "continue using the plant as a military base," Shmyhal said, which he added is why it is "so important that Russian troops are withdrawn not only from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, but also from Energodar."

"A 30-kilometer safety zone should be created," he said.

As world leaders gathered this week for the UN General Assembly, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said he had conversations with officials from Russia and Ukraine about the establishment of a nuclear safety zone but that an agreement had not yet been reached. New shelling by Russian troops on Wednesday made Grossi "gravely concerned," the IAEA said.

Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant
This photo taken on September 11, 2022 shows a general view of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Enerhodar (Energodar), Zaporizhzhia Oblast, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine. STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

More Than 400 Bodies Exhumed in Izyum

Ukrainian officials said 436 bodied were exhumed from a mass burial site in Izyum.

Oleg Sinegubov, the governor of the Kharkiv region where Izyum is located, said most of the bodies "have signs of violent death" and 30 have traces of torture.

"There are bodies hanging around their necks, with their hands tied, with broken limbs and with gunshot wounds," he said in a Facebook post Friday. "Several men have amputated genitals. All this is evidence of the terrible torture that the invaders have subjected the residents."

Сьогодні завершується ексгумація тіл з масового поховання в Ізюмі. Усього ексгумовано 436 тіл. Більшість з них мають ознаки насильницької смерті, а 30 - сліди катувань. Є тіла з мотузкою на шиї, зі...

Sinegubov added that most bodies are civilians and 21 are military.

This includes 202 women, 189 men and five children. There were also 11 bodies that were "unrecognizably charred," according to Ukraine's ambassador to Austria Olexander Scherba.

The cause of death is still under investigation, Sinegubov said, as authorities work to hold those responsible accountable.

"Each of the bodies found is a separate story," he said. "And we will find out the circumstances of the death of each person so that their family and loved ones know the truth, and the killers were punished."

This is only one of the mass graves found at Izyum. Sinegubov said authorities found at least three more sites in the area, as well as other spots located across the Kharkiv region.

This latest report comes at the United Nations announced it have evidence of war crimes committed in Ukraine during Russia's invasion.

The International Criminal Court is also continuing to investigation allegation of crimes and atrocities committed by Russian forces in Ukraine.

Russia Exempts Some From Military Service

Some Russians who may have been on a list to be called up for military duty may be eligible to receive an exemption, according to the Russian-owned television network RT.

Russia's defense ministry said Friday that workers with either a post-secondary degree or who work in finance, mass media, telecommunications or with information technology will be able to receive waivers excusing them from a mobilization call Russian President Vladimir Putin announced earlier this week, RT reported.

The network said any organization that employs people who qualify for an exemption needs to send those workers' names to defense officials before those names are called up for duty.

Putin said Wednesday he signed an executive order calling for the partial mobilization of military reservists as Russia's war with Ukraine continues. The order went into effect that day.

Defense officials later said an estimated 300,000 people would be covered by Putin's partial mobilization call. Many Russians began protesting once Putin's announcement was made, and elevated cross-border traffic levels were reported at some of Russia's land borders while tickets for flights out of Russia sold quickly.

Though some Russians appeared to be trying to leave the country before they could be called to duty, RT cited defense ministry data that said about 10,000 volunteers traveled to military recruitment centers earlier this week before the defense ministry began carrying out the draft order.

Petition Calls for Russia's Removal from the UN

A petition to remove and ban Russia from the United Nations has gained almost 140,000 signatures.

Civic Hub started the petition, that as of now has 138,986 signatures, to "end the biggest swindle in the history of international politics."

The petition's organizers argue that Russia is not actually a member of the U.N.

"The U.N.'s current charter says that the Soviet Union still exists, while Russia is not mentioned altogether," the petition states.

The Soviet Union was among the original members of the U.N. when the body's charter was adopted in 1945. After the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, it's seat was given to the Russian Federation. Therefore, Russia did not go through the normal admission procedures as other member states.

The petition's authors want U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM) to "exhibit documents certifying the Russian Federation's membership in the U.N."

"If such documents are absent — we demand an end of Russia's fictitious membership in the U.N.," the petition states.

Russia should be barred for joining the United Nations, the petition argues, because "only peace loving nations can be part of the U.N."

Russia is also a member of the U.N. Security Council and, as a member, has significant veto power. Many leaders, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, have argued the body should strip Russian of this power.

"A crime has been committed against Ukraine, and we demand punishment," Zelensky said during his address the the U.N. General Assembly this week. "So long as the aggressor is party to decision making in the international organization, you must be insulated from them, at least until aggression stops."

He called on the body to reject Russia's right to vote, "deprive delegation rights" and remove its right of veto as a Security Council member.

Mykhailo Podolyak, Zelensky's adviser said this "the right petition" asking "the right questions."

"How many more red lines are needed for UN to end the membership of the [Russian Federation], whose presence was never voted for?" Podolyak said in a tweet promoting the petition.

The petition said Russia's veto power has blocked "many peaceful resolutions" and prevents the restoration of peace and order to the international community.

"Russia must stop waging an [aggressive] war in Ukraine and return to its internationally recognized borders," the petition states.

Ukraine's parliament has even backed this petition, calling on the international community to "unite and help Ukraine in the war that Russia has unleashed on our territories."

Finland to Restrict Russian Entry

Finland announced Friday that it will place "significant restrictions" on visas issued to Russian citizens looking to cross the border.

Finland's President and the Ministerial Committee on Foreign and Security Policy decided that the Finnish government "would issue a resolution placing significant restrictions on the issuing of visas to Russian citizens and on their entry into the country."

The government cited a need to "prevent serious damage to Finland's international position."

This comes amid heavy traffic at Finland's border with Russia since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a new partial mobilization of troops to fight in Ukraine.

Matti Pitkäniitty, the Head of International Affairs at the Finnish Border Guard, said border traffic at the Finnish-Russian land border "stays at higher level than usual." He said 6,470 Russians entered Finland at the border Thursday. This includes three asylum seekers and zero illegal border crossings.

Incoming traffic is now greater than outgoing traffic, the Finnish Boarder Guard said, adding that some of the arrivals return to Russia, while other continue to other countries.

Despite some media reports, Pitkäniitty said the recent announcement from the government will not cause a "complete closure" at the border.

"Media has reported that Finland will decide to restrict the entry of Russian citizens, on the basis that their free tourism in this situation is a threat to our international relations," he tweeted. "Most likely there will be exceptions who can travel, so it's not a complete closure."

He added that European Union Border Law sets entry conditions for third-country nationals, "which we always check at the border" and noted that "border crossers are law obedient people, like most of us."

"We perform thorough border checks to each passenger," the Finnish Border Guard said in a tweet. "Finnish border guards have extraordinary powers to perform border checks, checking all documents, belongings and vehicles."

G7 to Pursue More Sanctions

The G7 countries are condemning Russia's decision to hold a "sham" referendum in occupied territories of Ukraine and said they will look into additional sanctions aimed at pressuring Russia politically and economically.

The G7, which includes foreign ministers from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the U.S., released a statement Thursday with its high representative from the European Union condemning the referendum.

"Any referenda held under conditions of Russian military presence, intimidation, and forced deportation cannot be free or fair," the statement said. "Any annexation of Ukrainian territory would be a gross violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and the UN Charter."

The referendum, which started Friday and is expected to last through September 27, is asking people in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine whether those territories should be annexed by Russia. Some Ukrainian political leaders reported that Russian proxies were traveling with armed soldiers to the doors of local residents and encouraging them to participate in the vote.

The G7's statement continued by encouraging UN member states to "unequivocally condemn" the referendum and any others like it that may follow. The statement also called upon those member states to reject whatever results come from the vote.

In addition to rebuking Russia for holding the referendum, the G7's statement said its members "will also pursue further targeted sanctions and are committed to sustained economic and political pressure on Russia." The statement later clarified that none of the sanctions that member countries have adopted target Russian agricultural products intended for shipment to other countries. Russian-owned media outlets have muddled the facts surrounding what the sanctions are targeting, the statement added.

The group reiterated its stance on Russia's referendum in a Friday post on Twitter.

"We will never recognise these referenda which appear to be a step toward Russian annexation and we will never recognise a purported annexation if it occurs," the post said. "We will stand firmly with Ukraine for as long as it takes."

Donetsk Village Liberated

A village in the Donetsk region of Ukraine was liberated by Ukrainian forces as part of their ongoing effort to push out Russian troops, military officials said Friday.

Oleksiy Hromov, the deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine's main operations arm, made the announcement of the newly-liberated territory during a Friday briefing, according to Ukraine's national news agency Ukrinform.

"In the course of conducting assault operations, units of the Defense Forces established control over the settlement of Yatskivka near Oskil town," Ukrinform quoted Hromov as saying. He reportedly added that the village was successfully retaken due to troops "improving their tactical position."

A Friday Facebook update from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Russia's efforts remain focused on full occupation of the Donetsk Oblast region, as well as retaining control of areas that are currently occupied by Russian forces. Russia "ires at our positions along the contact line, takes measures to regroup his troops, and constantly conducts aerial reconnaissance," the post said.

Air attacks remain a concern throughout Ukraine as the war reaches its seven-month mark on Saturday, military officials said.

Ukrainian troops' reported success in reclaiming parts of Donetsk happened days after a deadline Russian President Vladimir Putin is reported to have set for Russian troops. Ukrainian military officials said earlier this month that Putin was aiming for Russian troops to hold the full Donetsk Oblast region by September 15.

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Germany May Welcome Fleeing Russians

German leaders said they may be willing to take in people fleeing Russia amid President Vladimir Putin's partial military mobilization order.

"Deserters threatened with serious repression can, as a rule, obtain international protection in Germany," Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

She said anyone who "courageously opposes Putin's regime" puts themselves in great danger and can file for asylum on grounds of political persecution.

Germany Justice Minister Marco Buschmann said he will welcome any Russians fleeing Putin's authoritarian regime.

"Anyone who hates Putin's path and loves liberal democracy is warmly welcome in Germany," he said in a tweet.

Robin Wagener, a member of Germany' parliament, Bundestag, told DW that the west has always opened its borders to those fleeing from harsh regimes, like the former Soviet Union.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the Russian people to protest and fight their government or flee in a recent address. Wagener said there needs to be a place for those people to flee to.

"We should keep to that and have our arms open for those fleeing," he said.

He added that under European law, persons fleeing from military service that is also linked to war crimes have a right to claim asylum.

"Nobody should be forced to participate in this madness," Wagener said in a tweet. "That's why we should offer protection to Russian deserters."

"We should also offer protection and reception for democratic opposition members and journalists and enable them to continue their work for a democratic #Russland from here," he added.

Belarus Military on Alert

Belarus has not called for a new military mobilization in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent announcement of a partial mobilization of Russian forces, but the country's president said Belarusian troops should be on alert in case Russian soldiers need their support.

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko said earlier this week it might be necessary to put some troops "on alert," according to the Russian newspaper Pravda. He suggested it was Belarus' "obligation to our ally" to ensure Russian forces are not taken by surprise through potential attacks that could come from other forces within Belarus.

"As for support for Russia, I once again reaffirm: there must be no strike from the back, to the side, from the side, from the flanks at Russian troops via Belarus. And there will be none," the state-owned Belarusian Telegraph Agency (BelTA) quoted Lukashenko as saying.

Putin announced on Wednesday that he had signed an executive order calling for the partial mobilization of military reservists. Defense officials said an estimated 300,000 people will be called up, though there has been unconfirmed speculation about whether greater numbers of Russian troops will be added to the war effort.

OSCE Calls Vote 'Illegal'

An international security group condemned the referendums planned in Russia.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) called the vote "illegal."

"Any elections or referenda on the territory of Ukraine can only be announced and conducted by legitimate authorities in compliance with national legislation and international standards," the organization said in a statement. "Therefore the planned 'referenda' will be illegal."

OSCE addressed issues impacting common security, including arms control, terrorism, good governance, energy security, human trafficking, democratization, media freedom and national minorities. There work includes ensuring freedom. equality, transparency and accountability in democratic elections.

OSCE leadership said the "so-called 'referenda'" planned are a violation of international humanitarian law.

The outcome of these votes, the body said, "will therefore have no legal force."

Russian Soldiers Knock on Doors

Russian soldiers are reportedly knocking on residents' doors in Russian-occupied territories as a referendum for joining Russia takes place.

Luhansk Oblast Governor Serhiy Haidai said he has received reports that soldiers are going door to door with Russia's proxies in the area, encouraging people who live there to participate in the referendum and threatening violence if their knocks go unanswered.

"If a person doesn't open the door, [Russian forces] threaten to break in," Haidai said in a post on Telegram, according to The Kyiv Independent. "When a person ticks 'no' in the 'ballot,' they make notes."

Haidai also alleged that Russian forces were scouting for additional soldiers to join their war effort during visits to locals, the paper reported.

Russia's referendum has been criticized outside of Russia as a "sham" as Russia's war with Ukraine continues. Voting for the referendum began Friday and will continue through September 27 to determine whether Russian-held territories in Ukraine will be annexed to become part of Russia.

UN Finds Evidence of War Crimes

A panel of experts at the Unites Nations shared evidence of war crimes committed amid Russian's invasion of Ukraine.

The U.N. Human Rights Council directed the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine to investigate alleged war crimes in Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy.

"Based on the evidence gathered by the commission, it has concluded that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine," commission chairman Erik Mose told the Human Rights Council.

The commission visited 27 towns and settlements and interviewed more than 150 victims and witnesses. It inspected sites of destruction, graves, places of detention and torture and met with Government authorities, international organizations, civil society and other relevant stakeholders.

There were two instances of ill-treatment of Russian Federation soldiers by Ukrainian soldiers, the commission said, adding that it found "obviously significantly larger numbers of incidences that amount to war crimes on the part of the Russian Federation."

The commission found that the Russian federation's use of explosive weapons had wide area effects in populated areas and caused "immense harm and suffering for civilians."

"We observed first-hand the damage that explosive weapons have caused to residential buildings and infrastructure, including schools and hospitals. In Kharkiv city, explosive weapons devastated entire areas of the city."

The attacks, including cluster munitions or multi-launch rocket systems and airstrikes, were carried out without distinguishing between civilians and combatants.

There was a shocking amount executions in these areas.

"We were struck by the large number of executions in the areas that we visited," Mose said. "The commission is currently investigating such deaths in 16 towns and settlements."

More credible allegations of executions will be investigated, he 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, Mose reported.

Witnesses provided consistent accounts of ill-treatment and torture carried out during unlawful confinement. This included beatings, electric shock and forced nudity in detention facilities.

Some of the victims also reported that after initial detention by Russian forces in Ukraine, they were transferred to the Russian Federation and held for weeks in prisons. After being transferred to Russia, some victims reportedly disappeared.

There was also evidence the Russia soldiers committed sexual and gender-based violence crimes. This includes sexual violence, torture and "cruel inhuman treatment." The age of victims of sexual and gendered-based violence ranged from four to 82 years, the commission said.

There are also documented evidence of crimes committed against children, including cases in which children had been raped, tortured, unlawfully confined, killed and injured in indiscriminate attacks with explosive weapons.

Mose said investigations will continue. Issues of interest include filtration camps, alleged forced transfer of people, and the expedited adoption of children. It would also investigate the destruction of civilian infrastructure, the appropriation or destruction of economic resources, violations of the right to food and the legality of changes in local administration, depending on available evidence.

In addition to making recommendations regarding criminal accountability, the Commission would make recommendations about other dimensions of accountability. It looked forward to further cooperation with all relevant actors to pursue the task entrusted to it by the Human Rights Council.

Residents Protest Vote

Residents in the Russian-occupied village of Snihurivka in the Mykolaiv region are protesting the Kremlin-backed referendum vote to become part of Russia.

"We are the people of Snihurivka and we have gathered to protest against the illegal referendum in Snihurivka and nearby villages," one woman said in front of the group.

The woman said the Snihurivka territory has always been, and always will be, Ukrainian.

"We have never wanted to live on the territory of the Russian Federation," she said. "We urge the residents of Snihurivka and nearby villages not to come to this referendum and not to participate in its illegal holding."

Voting Begins in Russian-Held Areas of Ukraine

Russian-held regions of Ukraine began voting on referendums to become part of Russia Friday.

The votes are being held in the Luhansk, Kherson and partly Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions.

The referendum ballot in Zaporizhzhia asks: "Do you support Zaporizhzhia Oblast exiting from Ukraine, forming an independent state, and joining the Russian Federation on the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation?"

A similarly-worded question on the referendum in Donestsk will be written in Russian.

Residents will be asked in the referendums if they want to be part of Russia. If the voted goes Moscow's way, it will give the Kremlin a pretext to claim Ukraine's attempts to reclaim those territories as an attack on Russia and justify escalation.

"The long-awaited referendum has started, which is designed to restore the fair course of things in our land, to return peace to our homes, to consolidate the status of Donbas as part of our historical Motherland – Russia," Vladimir Bidyovka, the head of the People's Council of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, said in a Telegram post.

Ukraine and western leaders have condemned these votes as a "sham" election and a violation of the U.N. charter principle of uphold Ukraine's sovereignty.

Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine's ambassador to the U.N, said this vote is "a sign of desperation" as Russia is suffering major losses on the battlefield. He said the vote is "null and void" and the results will not be recognized by the greater international community.

"Defending Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity is about much more than standing up for one nation's right to choose its own path, fundamental as that right is," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the U.N. Security Council Thursday. "It's also about protecting an international order where no nation can redraw the borders of another by force."