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Latest Developments in Ukraine: Sept. 23

Ukrainian soldiers fire in recently retaken Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine, Sept. 22, 2022.
Ukrainian soldiers fire in recently retaken Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine, Sept. 22, 2022.

For full coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, visit Flashpoint Ukraine.

The latest developments in Russia’s war on Ukraine. All times EDT.

10:16 p.m.: Russian President Vladimir Putin was "pushed" into invading Ukraine and wanted to put "decent people" in charge of Kyiv, former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi has said, Reuters reported, drawing fierce criticism just ahead of Italy's election.

The Italian leader, whose Forza Italia party belongs to a right-wing coalition expected to win Sunday's parliamentary election, is a long-time friend of Putin and his comments are likely to alarm Western allies.

"Putin was pushed by the Russian people, by his party, by his ministers to come up with this special operation," Berlusconi told Italian public television RAI late on Thursday, using the official Russian wording for the war.

"I haven't even understood why Russian troops spread around Ukraine while in my mind they should have only stuck around Kyiv", said the 85-year-old Berlusconi, who once described Putin as being like a younger brother.

8 p.m.: Two U.S. military veterans who disappeared three months ago while fighting Russia with Ukrainian forces arrived Friday at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport after their release by Russian-backed separatists as part of a prisoner exchange, The Associated Press reported.

"We're looking forward to spending time with family and we'll be in touch with the media soon," Alex Drueke said after arriving at the airport with Andy Huynh around noon. "Happy to be home."

Drueke, 40, and Huynh, 27, went missing in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine near the Russian border on June 9. They had traveled to Ukraine on their own and bonded over their shared home state.

Their families announced their release Wednesday in a joint statement from Dianna Shaw, an aunt of Drueke.

7:12 p.m.:

Russia launched referendums on Friday aimed at annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine, Reuters reported, but some Ukrainians are calling it bluster and say they will never accept Russian territorial takeovers.

"It's all nonsense, bluff and political manipulation to frighten us and the Western countries with their nuclear stuff," said Oleksandr Yaroshenko, 65, a resident in the capital Kyiv.

Russia previously used a referendum as a pretext for annexation in Ukraine's Crimea in 2014, which the international community has not recognized.

6:27 p.m.: Helsinki announced Friday that it would "significantly restrict the entry of Russian citizens" in the "coming days" after Finland saw an influx over its eastern border following Russia's mobilization orders, Agence France-Presse reported.

"Those crossing the border on tourism grounds alone will be barred from entering," Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told reporters on Friday.

This applies both to Russians traveling on tourist visas issued by Finland and tourist visas issued by any other Schengen country, Haavisto said.

Haavisto said that the decision would be finalized in the "coming days."

5:45 p.m.: Kyiv said on Friday it has decided to reduce Iran's diplomatic presence in Ukraine over sending weapons to its foe Russia.

Ukraine's foreign ministry said "the temporary charge d'affaires of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Ukraine was summoned" over the issue.

A ministry statement said the envoy was told the supply of Iranian weapons to Russia "directly contradicts the position of neutrality, respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine" and was "an unfriendly act that deals a serious blow to Ukraine-Iran relations."

"In response to such an unfriendly act, the Ukrainian side decided to deprive the ambassador of Iran in Ukraine of accreditation, as well as to significantly reduce the number of diplomatic personnel of the Iranian embassy in Kyiv," the ministry said.

4:45 p.m.:

4:10 p.m.: Ukraine said on Friday that it had downed four Iranian-made drones used by Russia's armed forces, prompting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to complain that Tehran was harming Ukrainian citizens.

Military authorities in southern Ukraine said in a statement they had shot down the Shahed-136 unmanned aerial vehicles over the sea near the port of Odesa.

Ukraine and the United States have accused Iran of supplying drones to Russia, something Tehran has denied. Zelenskyy has asked his foreign ministry to respond to the use of Iranian equipment, spokesman Serhii Nykyforov said.

"Such actions by Iran are considered as steps against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and also against the lives and well-being of Ukrainian citizens," he said in a statement.

Military experts say the drones would be useful to Russia for both reconnaissance and as loitering munitions that can bide their time in locating and engaging suitable targets.

3:15 p.m.:

2:30 p.m.: The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) on Friday said it is concerned about recent events restricting humanitarian access in Ukraine.

2:20 p.m.: In poor, rural Buryatia, Russia's partial mobilization is hitting hard, Reuters reported.

A day after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization to boost the armies fighting in Ukraine, officials arrived at Alexander Bezdorozhny's house with draft papers ordering him to present himself for service.

But they were calling on a dead man.

Bezdorozhny, who suffered from chronic inflammation of the lungs, died aged 40 in December 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, while on a ventilator at a hospital in his Siberian hometown of Ulan-Ude, just north of Mongolia, his sister Natalia Semyonova told Reuters.

"It hurts me that the state only remembered him after he was dead," Semyonova, a professional musician and activist in Ulan-Ude, told Reuters, recounting the call-up for her brother.

"He was an invalid, and had never served in the army."

2:10 p.m.:

1:40 p.m.: NATO will ramp up its help for Kyiv in response to Russia's "sham" referendums in occupied territories of Ukraine, the alliance's Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, said on Friday, according to Reuters.

He spoke as Moscow launched the votes on the four regions joining Russia, in what Kyiv and its allies say is a ruse to annex the territories and escalate the seven-month-old war.

"Our answer, NATO's answer, is to step up support," Stoltenberg told CNN in an interview.

1:25 p.m.:

12:20 p.m.: The Kyrgyz Embassy in Moscow has warned Kyrgyz men and women with dual Kyrgyz-Russian citizenship that they are considered Russian citizens while residing in the Russian Federation, and thus could face military service after President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization to boost troop levels during the war with Ukraine, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.

Hours after Putin announced the partial military mobilization on September 21, the Kyrgyz Embassy in Moscow issued a statement saying that any form of participation by Kyrgyz citizens in military activities on the territory of foreign countries is considered to be mercenary activity and will be punished by up to 10 years in prison.

However, embassy spokeswoman Nazgul Jusubakunova told RFE/RL on September 23 that, while reports Russian authorities were forcing Kyrgyz citizens to mobilize for the war in Ukraine were not true, she did note that "according to Russian federal law on migration, Kyrgyz citizens who obtained Russian citizenship, and therefore have dual citizenship, are considered Russian citizens only."

12 p.m.: Kharkiv region governor Oleh Synyehubov said on Friday that 436 bodies have now been found at a mass grave site in Izium, which until recently had been under Russian military control. Most of them, he said in a post on his Telegram messaging app, apparently died a violent death, with many victims found with their hands tied behind their backs, ropes around their necks, broken bones and gunshot wounds. Some men, he said, were found with their genitalia cut off. (The total number of bodies exhumed was later updated to 447, according to a Facebook post by Ihor Klymenko, head of Ukraine's National Police.)

11:15 a.m.: Traffic into Finland over its border with Russia was heavy on Friday, with the number of Russians crossing rising steadily since President Vladimir Putin ordered a military mobilization, as authorities mulled imposing fresh entry restrictions, Reuters reported.

The number of Russians who had entered the previous day was more than double the amount who arrived the week before, the border guard said.

Max, a 21-year-old Russian student who declined to give his last name, said he was going to Finland to catch a flight to Germany to visit relatives.

“Technically, I’m a student so I should not be afraid of being drafted but we have seen that things are changing very quickly so I assume there is a chance,” he told Reuters after crossing the border at Vaalimaa.

“I just wanted to be safe,” he said.

Finland is considering barring most Russians from entering, with an announcement expected by government officials later on Friday.

10:35 a.m.:

10:10 a.m.: Russia launched referendums on Friday aimed at annexing four occupied regions of Ukraine, raising the stakes of the seven-month-old war in what Kyiv called a sham that saw residents threatened with punishment if they did not vote, Reuters reported.

Ukrainian officials said people were banned from leaving some occupied areas until the four-day vote was over, armed groups were going to homes to force people to cast ballots, and employees were threatened with the sack if they did not participate.

Serhiy Haidai, Ukraine's Luhansk governor, said that in the town of Starobilsk, the population was banned from leaving and people were being forced out of homes to vote.

In the town of Bilovodsk, a company director told employees voting was compulsory and anyone refusing to take part would be fired and their names given to security services, he added.

Calling the event "elections without elections," Haidai said people were being forced to fill out "pieces of paper" without privacy in kitchens and yards, with towns sealed off.

"The mood of the Russians is panicky because they were not ready to carry out so quickly this so-called referendum, there is no support, there's not enough people," Kherson region official Yuriy Sobolevsky said on messaging app Telegram.

Reuters could not immediately verify reports of coercion.

9:20 a.m.:

8:55 a.m.: The U.N. food chief warned that the world is facing “a perfect storm on top of a perfect storm” and urged donors, particularly Gulf nations and billionaires, to give a few days of profits to tackle a crisis with the fertilizer supply right now and prevent widespread food shortages next year.

“Otherwise, there’s gonna be chaos all over the world,” World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley said in an Associated Press interview.

Beasley said that when he took the helm of WFP 5 1/2 years ago, only 80 million people around the world were headed toward starvation. “And I’m thinking, `Well, I can put the World Food Program out of business,’” he said.

But climate problems increased that number to 135 million. The COVID-19 pandemic, which began in early 2020, doubled it to 276 million people not knowing where their next meal was coming from. Finally, Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, sparking a war and a food, fertilizer and energy crisis that has pushed the number to 345 million.

“Within that are 50 million people in 45 countries knocking on famine’s door,” Beasley said. “If we don’t reach these people, you will have famine, starvation, destabilization of nations unlike anything we saw in 2007-2008 and 2011, and you will have mass migration.”

8:40 a.m.: The European Union said Friday that it is responding to an unprecedented food crisis caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine.

8:25 a.m.: War crimes including rape, torture and confinement of children have been committed in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, the head of a U.N.-mandated investigation body said Friday, which was reported by Reuters.

"Based on the evidence gathered by the Commission, it has concluded that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine," Erik Mose, who heads the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

He did not specify who was to blame but the commission has focused on areas previously occupied by Russian forces such as Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy.

Investigators from the commission, created by the rights council in March, visited 27 places and interviewed more than 150 victims and witnesses.

They found evidence of a large number of executions including bodies with tied hands, slit throats and gunshot wounds to the head, Mose said.

He said investigators had identified victims of sexual violence who were between the ages of four and 82. While some Russian soldiers had used sexual violence as a strategy, the commission "has not established any general pattern to that effect," Mose added.

Russia denies deliberately attacking civilians during what it calls its "special military operation."

Russia was called on to respond to the allegations at the council meeting but its seat was left empty. There was no immediate official reaction from Moscow.

7:57 a.m.: A U.S. envoy said Russia has forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainians, Reuters reported. U.S. Ambassador Michele Taylor urged a U.N.-mandated commission of inquiry to investigate.

"Numerous sources indicate that Russian authorities have interrogated, detained and forcible deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens," said Taylor who is a U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

"We urge the commissioners to continue to examine the growing evidence of Russia's filtration operations, forced deportations and disappearances," Taylor told the Human Rights Council, referring to a commission of inquiry into Ukraine.

Moscow has denied intentionally targeting civilians.

7:40 a.m.: The European Union’s humanitarian agency said Friday that it is providing help to displaced families in Ukraine who need to make home repairs.

7:25 a.m.: Ukrainian farms have started the 2022 corn harvest, threshing 92,200 metric tons of the commodity from 0.5% of the sown area, the agriculture ministry said on Friday, according to Reuters.

The ministry said in a statement that the corn yield stood at 4.41 metric tons per hectare. The ministry has said Ukraine could harvest 25 to 27 million metric tons of corn this year versus 42.1 million metric tons in 2021 and the Russian invasion was the main reason for the decrease in the harvest.

It said the country had completed its 2022 wheat harvest with output at 19.2 million metric tons in bunker weight and the yield at 4.1 tones per hectare.

Farms also harvested 5.5 million metric tons of the barley from 100% of the area and 250,700 metric tons of peas from 98% of the sown area.

7:05 a.m.:

6:45 a.m.: For 90 years, Engelbert Schlechtrimen’s family has been baking wheat rolls, rye bread and chocolate cakes in this western German city. Next month, they will turn off the ovens for good, because they can no longer afford rising energy prices resulting from Russia’s war in Ukraine, The Associated Press reported.

Schlechtrimen’s grandparents founded the bakery in Cologne before World War II. The 58-year-old took over the business 28 years ago from his father and turned it into an organic store that uses traditional recipes and bans chemical additives in the bakehouse.

Still, even these innovations won’t save him from closing down the family business — consisting of a bakery and two stores that employ 35 people — after almost a century. It’s one victim of a European energy crisis driven by Russia’s cutbacks of natural gas, used to heat homes, generate electricity and power factories.

The resulting hikes in energy and power prices have squeezed businesses already struggling with a rise in other costs as inflation rises.

“For some time now, we have been juggling several crises at the same time: job vacancies, lack of personnel, closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, extreme increases in raw material costs, and now the explosion of energy costs and the further increase in personnel costs,” Schlechtrimen said this week.

6:30 a.m.: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said he was not planning a mobilization after his close ally Russia announced it was calling up hundreds of thousands of reservists for the war in Ukraine, Reuters reported.

"The mobilization is in Russia. ... There will be no mobilization (here)," state media quoted Lukashenko as saying.

The president, in power since 1994, said he was commenting on rumors that he planned to announce new measures in Belarus to support Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

6:25 a.m.:

6:15 a.m.: Voting began on Friday in four Ukrainian regions mostly held by Russian forces, the start of a plan by President Vladimir Putin annex a big chunk of Ukraine in what the West says is violation of international law that significantly escalates the war, Reuters reported.

After nearly seven months of war that has killed tens of thousands and left some eastern cities of Ukraine wastelands, Putin signaled he will annex the regions if the people in the Russian-controlled areas vote to join Russia.

The voting, which the West and Ukraine says is a sham conducted under military occupation, began on Friday and will end on Tuesday, with results expected soon afterwards.

Outcomes that support joining Russia are almost certain, as is a swiftly choreographed legal annexation along the lines of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, which took just days.

Though Russia recognized Ukraine's post-Soviet borders under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Putin considers swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine to be Russian possessions that were lost due to mistakes by Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Nikita Khrushchev.

Ukraine says it will never accept Russian control of any of its territory and will fight until the last Russian soldier is ejected.

5:55 a.m.: The United Nations on Friday provided an update on the number of people displaced by fighting in Ukraine.

5:30 a.m.: Russia’s mobilization campaign is not likely to generate effective soldiers and is creating a public backlash, according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War.

“Russian authorities are forcibly recruiting Russian citizens to fight in Ukraine on flimsy pretexts, violating the Kremlin’s promise to recruit only those with military experience,” ISW reported. “Russian authorities are also demonstrably mobilizing personnel (such as protesters) who will enter the war in Ukraine with abysmal morale,” it said.

“Western and Russian opposition media outlets reported instances of Russian military commissars administering draft notices to protesters in Moscow and Voronezh. Russian opposition outlets also reported on a bank IT specialist who had received a draft notice despite never having served in the army or attended military-education courses in university,” ISW said.

“A university student in Buryatia released footage of Rosgvardia and military police pulling students from lessons, reportedly for mobilization, despite Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu repeatedly stating that Russian students will not be mobilized” the ISW reported.

“Russian enlistment officers and police are also reportedly enforcing unscrupulous mobilization practices (as ISW previously observed during their crypto-mobilization campaigns) by calling up men by phone, issuing notices in the middle of the night, and notifying men of their mobilization via state social benefits websites,” the report noted.

“The declaration of partial mobilization and blatant disregard for even the government-dictated parameters for the mobilization may alienate concerned swathes of the Russian public who were previously more tolerant of the less personally impactful Russian invasion of Ukraine,” it added.

5:15 a.m.:

5:07 a.m.: The latest intelligence update from the U.K. defense ministry said that in the last three days, Ukrainian forces have secured bridgeheads on the east bank of the Oskil River in Kharkiv Oblst. Russia has attempted to integrate the Oskil into a consolidated defensive line following its forces' withdrawals earlier this month.

4:05 a.m.: The Russian military said Thursday that at least 10,000 people had volunteered to fight in Ukraine, Agence France-Presse reported, some 24 hours after President Vladimir Putin ordered a mobilization of reservists.

"During the first day of partial mobilization, about 10,000 citizens arrived at recruitment offices of their own accord without waiting for a summons," Vladimir Tsimlyansky, a military spokesperson, told Russia's Interfax news agency.

Amateur footage posted on social media since Putin made the announcement has purported to show hundreds of Russian citizens across the country responding to military summons.

The footage could not be independently verified by AFP.

3:03 a.m.: The latest Ukraine assessment from the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank, said Ukrainian forces likely continued limited counteroffensive operations along the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast border and continued attacks toward Lyman on Sept. 22. Russian forces, meanwhile, conducted limited ground attacks along the front lines in Donetsk Oblast.

2:13 a.m.: The Associated Press reported that voting began Friday in Moscow-held regions of Ukraine on referendums to become part of Russia.

The Kremlin-orchestrated referendums, which have been widely denounced by Ukraine and the West as shams without any legal force, are seen as a step toward annexing the territories by Russia.

1:18 a.m.: Germany is ready to take in Russian deserters, ministers signaled Thursday, Agence France-Presse reported, amid reports of people fleeing the partial mobilization ordered by President Vladimir Putin.

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

Separately, Justice Minister Marco Buschmann tweeted that "apparently, many Russians are leaving their homeland — anyone who hates Putin's path and loves liberal democracy is welcome in Germany."

Germany has taken in around a million Ukrainians fleeing Russia's invasion, but also welcomed Russian dissidents.

12:02 a.m.: The Czech Republic said Thursday it would not issue humanitarian visas to Russians fleeing their homeland to avoid mobilization, taking a different stance than some of its European Union peers.

"I understand that Russians are fleeing from the increasingly desperate decisions taken by Putin," Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky said in a statement obtained by Agence France-Presse.

"But those who are running away from their country because they do not want to fulfill a duty imposed by their own state do not meet the criteria for receiving humanitarian visas," he added.

Some information in this report came from Agence France-Presse, Reuters and The Associated Press.