Long lines of traffic seen at Russia land borders after Putin order

2 days ago 9
ARTICLE AD

Graphic shows rate of people fleeing Russia after news of Putin's partial mobilization

02:34

More than 1,300 people have been detained across Russia in a crackdown on anti-war protests, according to a monitoring group, after President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization.” Demand for flights out of Russia has sharply increased following the order. A prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine, brokered by Saudi Arabia, resulted in the release of two American veterans and five British citizens. They had been held by Russian-backed forces for months. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky urged the United Nations to punish Russia for its invasion and strip Russia of its veto power on the UN Security Council.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday called on Russians to protest against the “partial mobilization” ordered this week by Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

In his daily video address to Ukraine, Zelensky said that thousands of Russian soldiers have already died in the nearly seven-month-old war.

“Tens of thousands are wounded and maimed. Want more? No? Then protest. Fight back. Run away. Or surrender to Ukrainian captivity. These are options for you to survive,” Zelensky said.

Between 70,000 and 80,000 Russians have been killed or wounded during the war in Ukraine, according to an August estimate from the Pentagon.

Addressing the ongoing anti-war protests across Russia, the Ukrainian leader said, “(Russian people) understand that they have been cheated.”  

The protests in Russia are an indicator of the mood among the public in the country, he said.  

“You are already accomplices in all these crimes, murders and torture of Ukrainians. Because you were silent,” Zelensky said, addressing the Russian people.  

“For men in Russia, this is a choice to die or live, to become a cripple or to preserve health. For women in Russia, the choice is to lose their husbands, sons, grandchildren forever, or still try to protect them from death, from war, from one person,” Zelensky said. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers asked the Pentagon to send advanced drones to Ukraine in a letter sent to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Sept. 21 and obtained by CNN.

“Ukraine could better confront Russian threats” with advanced Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or drones, “like the MQ-1C Gray Eagle or the MQ-9A Reaper,” a group of 17 bipartisan lawmakers wrote in the letter to Austin.

“These advanced UAS systems, which could be staged far from the war’s front lines, would provide the continuous surveillance and long-range precision tracking and targeting needed to counter Russian rockets and missiles,” the lawmakers wrote. 

Lawmakers stressed in the letter that it is important to complete the assessment of whether to send MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones “in a timely manner.”

“While important, thorough risk assessment and mitigation should not come at the expense of Ukrainian lives,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the letter. 

The Pentagon is aware of Ukraine’s request for MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon Thursday.

“We are aware that Ukrainians have asked for Gray Eagles, or have an interest in Gray Eagles, no decisions have been made in that regard,” Ryder said.

The US has, throughout the conflict, given Ukraine other weapons that include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities like Puma drones, ScanEagle drones, Switchblade drones and Phoenix Ghost drones, Ryder said. 

“We continue to maintain a robust dialogue with Ukraine and the international community about what we, the international community, can do to support Ukraine, but that’s where we’re at, at this point,” Ryder added.

Vehicles drive past advertising boards, including panels displaying pro-Russian slogans, in a street in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Luhansk, Ukraine on September 20.

Vehicles drive past advertising boards, including panels displaying pro-Russian slogans, in a street in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict in Luhansk, Ukraine on September 20.

(Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

NATO on Thursday condemned plans to hold referendums in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, calling them a “sham” that the alliance will not recognize.  

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the plan to hold so-called ‘referenda’ on joining the Russian Federation in the Ukrainian regions partly controlled by the Russian military,” the North Atlanta Council, NATO’s principle decision-making body, said in a statement.  

The referendums were called suddenly at the beginning of this week by pro-Russian officials in occupied regions of Ukraine. They will ask the people of the occupied areas whether they wish to join the Russian Federation.  

“Allies do not and will never recognize Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea. Sham referenda in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions of Ukraine have no legitimacy and will be a blatant violation of the UN Charter. NATO Allies will not recognize their illegal and illegitimate annexation,” the council said.  

“These lands are Ukraine. We call on all states to reject Russia’s blatant attempts at territorial conquest,” according to the statement.

The council also accused Russia of escalating its “illegal war” by ordering what Russian President Vladimir Putin called a “partial mobilization” of its military.

“We continue to reject Russia’s irresponsible nuclear rhetoric,” it added, referring to Putin’s speech on Wednesday in which he threatened the use of nuclear weapons and warned he was “not bluffing.” 

“NATO Allies remain resolute in providing political and practical support to Ukraine as it continues to defend itself against Russia’s aggression,” the council said.  

Pentagon spokesman U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Thursday, September 22.

Pentagon spokesman U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Thursday, September 22.

(Alex Brandon/AP)

The Defense Department said that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric threatening the possible use of a nuclear weapon would not affect the aid the US is providing to Ukraine.

“In terms of the statements or the announcements coming out of Russia, it does not affect the department’s commitment to continue working with our international partners and our allies on providing Ukraine with the support that it needs in their fight to defend their country,” said Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder at a briefing.

Putin on Wednesday spoke about the possibility of using nuclear weapons. “The territorial integrity of our homeland, our independence and freedom will be ensured, I will emphasize this again, with all the means at our disposal. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction,” he said.

Ryder said that Putin’s threats would not affect discussions on the kinds of lethal aid the US would provide.

“We will continue to have those conversations and we’ll continue to think through not only what they need in the medium to long term, but also what they need now,” said Ryder. “So I don’t see those conversations being impacted by this situation.”

Voting begins Friday in referendums called in four regions of Ukraine that are occupied by Russian forces and their militia allies. 

The votes take place over five days through Sept. 27, and in Donetsk and Kherson regions, in-person voting will only take place on the last day. 

Observers say it seems unlikely that such a rushed process, in areas where many voters live close to the front lines of the conflict, can be successful or fair. Additionally, because of widespread internal displacement since the beginning of the conflict, voting databases are likely out of date. In Kherson, for example, Ukrainian officials have said that about half the pre-war population have left.

The plans have been condemned by both the government of Ukraine and its allies in the West as “illegitimate” and “a sham.” The European Union has said it won’t recognize the results and has indicated it is preparing a new package of sanctions against Russia. 

In Donetsk, the question will only be presented in Russian. The chair of the People’s Council — an unelected body — in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Vladimir Bidyovka, called Russian is the “state language.”

The questions on the ballot vary slightly depending on the region. 

In the Donetsk People’s Republic, the question will be: “Are you in favor of joining of the DPR to the Russian Federation on the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation?” The self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic uses the same phrasing. In Kherson, the question will be: “Are you in favor of the secession of the Kherson region from state of Ukraine, the formation of an independent state by the Kherson region and its joining the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation?” In occupied Kherson, Marina Zakharova — who chairs the election commission — said about 750,000 are expected to vote. And in occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia, the question is in both Russian and Ukrainian, and it reads: “Do you vote FOR the secession of Zaporizhzhia Oblast from Ukraine, the formation of Zaporizhzhia Oblast as an independent state and its accession to the Russian Federation as a sub-entity of the Russian Federation?”

The Central Election Commission of Russia said it will take part in monitoring the referendums in all four areas.

In both Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions, local authorities have urged people to vote from home, saying that ballot boxes can be brought to them. A video from the Luhansk election commission says, “You can vote directly from home! From 23 to 27 September you can vote at home.”

Ahead of the votes, pro-Russian authorities are trying to enthuse voters. Russian state news agency RIA Novosti showed a poster being distributed in Luhansk, which read “Russia is the future.” 

“We are united by a 1,000-year history,” it says. “For centuries, we were part of the same great country. The break-up of the state was a huge political disaster. … It’s time to restore historical justice.”

(Telegram)

Social media videos show the first phase of Russia’s partial mobilization getting underway in several Russian regions, especially in the Caucasus and the Russian Far East.

Telegram videos showed one newly mobilized group of men awaiting transport, purportedly in Amginskiy Uliss in the region of Yakutiya, a vast Siberian territory — where the caption on one video read, “50 mobilized guys are going to the special operation zone.”

Another shows a group of about 100 newly mobilized soldiers waiting at Magadan Airport in the Russian Far East, next to a transport aircraft. The group receives instructions on no smoking and other rules inside the plane and are warned that it will be cold inside the aircraft and that there are no toilets on board.

Still in the Russian Far East, in the city of Neryungri, a community video channel posted video of families saying goodbye to a large group of men, as they board buses. The video shows a woman crying and hugging her husband goodbye, while he reaches for his daughter’s hand from the bus window.

Neryungri is six time zones east of Ukraine.

CNN has not been able independently to geolocate or date all the videos posted. 

The republic of Buryatia has already supplied hundreds of volunteers to the conflict in Ukraine. The central Asian region may be about to send many more. According to a community Telegram channel called The People of Baikal, “they might mobilize up to 6-7 thousand people in Buryatia. The authorities do not name the exact number.”

“Buses with mobilized people are arriving in Ulan-Ude [Buryatia’s capital] in the morning. The men are taken to the assembly point of the Military Commissariat…,” it said.

The channel, which has just under 5,000 subscribers, describes itself as independent. It quotes a local official as saying, “we were given a verbal order to raise the mobilized from their beds, put them in cars and immediately bring them to the military registration and enlistment office.”

It’s not possible to verify the channel’s reporting. 

In Dagestan in the Caucasus, a furious argument broke out at one enlistment office, according to one video. A woman said her son had been fighting since February. Told by a man that she should not have sent him, she replied, ” Your grandfather fought so that you could live,” to which the man responded: “Back then it was war, right now it is politics.”

Much nearer the Ukrainian border, a crowd was gathered near the city of Belgorod to see off a batch of newly mobilized men. As they get on a bus, a boy shouts out, “Bye, Daddy!” and starts crying.

Other moves are underway to increase the flow of troops.

The Human Rights Council of Russia has proposed that immigrants from central Asian countries who have had Russian citizenship for less than 10 years will undergo compulsory military service in Russia for a year, according to the Russian news agency TASS.

Ukraine and the United Kingdom — as well other European countries — have been formally invited to attend the first meeting of the “European Political Community” in the Czech capital Prague on Oct. 6, a senior European Union official told journalists in Brussels Thursday.   

“The European Political Community constitutes a platform for political coordination for European countries across the continent,” the senior official said. 

The aim of the high-level meeting is to foster “political dialogue and cooperation to address issues of common interest so as to strengthen the security, stability and prosperity of the European continent,” the official said. 

At the summit, a series of roundtable discussions are planned to cover “peace and security, energy and climate, the economic situation, migration and mobility.” 

All of the EU’s 27 member states and the European Free Trade Association countries of Norway, Lichtenstein, Iceland and Switzerland have been invited, alongside neighboring non-EU countries, including Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Turkey, Serbia, Ukraine and the UK. 

The EPC will not replace current institutions and doesn’t plan to create new ones for now, the official added. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks during the UN Security Council meeting to discuss the conflict in Ukraine on September 22.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks during the UN Security Council meeting to discuss the conflict in Ukraine on September 22.

(Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday dismissed Western condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, instead accusing Ukraine of being the country violating international law.

Speaking to the United Nations Security Council session on Ukraine, Lavrov claimed Ukrainian forces made “illegal” attacks on the “peaceful citizens of Donbas.”

He also accused Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the “Kyiv regime” of “racist” and “anti-Russian” motivated aggression.

Lavrov claimed Zelensky made “Russo-phobic” comments in an August interview and that they motivated people living in Russian occupied areas of Ukraine to hold referendums on the prospect of joining Russia.

“I think the decisions that have been adopted by a whole range of the regions of Ukraine about conducting referendums are the result of his [Zelensky’s] comments,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov also condemned the “cynical” way Western nations are supplying weapons to Ukraine and said the “policy means the direct involvement of the West in the conflict and makes them a party to the conflict.”  

In his speech, Lavrov claimed the West was primarily motivated to supplying weapons to Ukraine in order to “drag out the fighting as long as possible in spite of the victims and destruction in order to wear down and weaken Russia.” 

Lavrov ended his speech by dismissing the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court, “We have no confidence in the work of his body,” he said, adding, “and we don’t expect anything more from this institution or a whole range of other international institutions.” 

“Everything I’ve said today simply confirms that the decision to conduct the ‘special military operation’ was inevitable,” Lavrov added.

Some context on those referendums: This week, Russian-appointed leaders in the occupied regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic all said they planned to hold “votes” beginning Friday.

The expected referendums run counter to international law upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty. Ukrainian officials dismissed the announcement as a “sham” stemming from the “fear of defeat.”

US ambassador to Ukraine Bridget A. Brink echoed that sentiment on Twitter Wednesday.

A US official criticized Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for only being at the United Nations Security Council meeting on Ukraine for a short time and skipping the Russian criticism from Western diplomats.

“Lavrov apparently couldn’t bear to hear the clear and repeated messages of condemnation of Russia’s war against Ukraine. He walked into the chamber just before his speaking slot and left shortly after,” the US official said. 

The official said it was a sign of Russian weakness. 

“It’s another sign of weakness and a testament to the fact that Russians recognize they are increasingly isolated on the world stage,” the official said.

CNN has reached out to Russian officials to explain why Lavrov was only in the chamber for his own remarks.

Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin attends a press conference in Kongens Lyngby, outside of Copenhagen, Denmark on August 30.

Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin attends a press conference in Kongens Lyngby, outside of Copenhagen, Denmark on August 30.

(Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP/Getty Images)

Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin told parliament Thursday that her government is ready to take action to put “an end” to Russian tourism and transit through Finland, according to Finnish public broadcaster Yle. 

“We have to put an end to Russian travel and tourism, how to do this is a more complicated question,” Marin told reporters after the parliament session, Yle reported. 

“The assessment has to be done very quickly,” Marin said. 

This comes as traffic on Finland’s eastern border with Russia intensified overnight on Thursday after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization.”

Social media video from Russia’s land borders with several countries shows long lines of traffic trying to leave the country. 

“If the security situation at border crossings is assessed to have deteriorated, new solutions are possible to limit visas, for example restricting border crossings from Russia to Finland,” Marin said, according to Yle. 

Family visits will still be allowed under any new restrictions, the broadcaster reported. 

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks at the UN Security Council meeting on September 22.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks at the UN Security Council meeting on September 22.

(Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke more vaguely than his counterparts at the United Nations Security Council Thursday, calling for “neutrality” from UN agencies and adding that any investigation into war crimes in Ukraine be “based on facts, not assumption of guilt.”

He laid out several proposals, calling for Russia and Ukraine to commit to “dialogue without preconditions,” and for all parties to prevent attacks on civilians and civilian facilities (an accusation levied by Russia, as well as by Ukraine and the West).

Wang Yi also said that China supports the International Atomic Energy Agency amid concerns over nuclear posturing in the conflict and over the safety of the Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

“There is no room for trial and error” when it comes to nuclear issues, he said.

Some context: In recent months, China has offered Russia tacit support and stepped up economic assistance to its neighbor, boosting bilateral trade to a record high.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin conceded last week that Beijing had “questions and concerns” over the invasion, in what appeared to be a veiled admission of their diverging views on the military assault.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the UN Security Council meeting amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine on September 22.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the UN Security Council meeting amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine on September 22.

(Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

At a United Nations Security Council meeting Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “the very international order we’ve gathered here to uphold is being shredded before our eyes” by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The world “can’t let President (Vladimir) Putin get away with it,” Blinken told his fellow diplomats.

His remarks came amid a week of escalatory actions by Moscow, including the mobilization of tens of thousands of troops and planned “sham referenda” in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.

“That President Putin picked this week, as most of the world gathers at the United Nations, to add fuel to the fire he started shows his utter contempt and disdain for the UN Charter, the UN General Assembly, and this Council,” Blinken said.

“President Putin is making his choice. Now it’s up to all of our countries to make ours. Tell President Putin to stop the horror he started,” Blinken continued. “Tell him to stop putting his interests above the interests of the rest of the world, including his own people. Tell him to stop debasing this Council and everything it stands for.”

Blinken said the areas of Ukraine that were occupied by Russia offered a view into that “less peaceful world,” noting, “wherever the Russian tide recedes, we’ve discovered the horror that’s left in its wake” — Bucha, Irpin, Izyum, where mass graves have been discovered, survivors have recounted acts of torture.

The top US diplomat called on Russia to cease its nuclear saber rattling, calling Putin’s threat to use “all weapon systems available” to Russia “all the more menacing given Russia’s intention to annex large swaths of Ukraine in the days ahead.”

Blinken also stressed the impact the war was having globally on food security, and called out Russian disinformation on WHO-approved vaccine effectiveness.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrives to the UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine on September 22.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrives to the UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine on September 22.

(Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov walked into the UN Security Council meeting at approximately 11:30 a.m. ET and took his seat at the table, nearly 1.5 hours late.

The council is discussing the maintenance of peace and security in Ukraine.

The bodies of civilians killed by russian soldiers were found near the village of Myrotske in Bucha, Ukraine on June 13.

The bodies of civilians killed by russian soldiers were found near the village of Myrotske in Bucha, Ukraine on June 13.

(Anna Opareniuk/Ukrinform/Abaca/Sipa USA)

International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan on Thursday said that he believes alleged war crimes have been committed in Ukraine after he visited the country three times to investigate the war.

“One has seen a variety of destruction of suffering, and that fortifies my determination. And my previous finding that there are reasonable grounds to believe the crimes within the jurisdiction of the court have been committed,” Khan said to members of the United Nations Security Council during their meeting Thursday.

During his update to the Security Council, Khan spoke candidly of the brutal horrors he had seen in Ukraine.

“When I went to Bucha and went behind St. Andrew’s Church, the bodies I saw were not fake. When I walked the streets of Borodyanka, the destruction that I saw of buildings and schools was all too real,” Khan said. “When I left Kharkiv, the bombs I heard land, gave a somber insight and a very small insight into the awful reality that is faced by well many of our brothers and sisters and children that are in a war zone.”

Making reference to the Nuremberg trials that prosecuted defeated Nazis after World War II, Khan said, “The echoes of Nuremberg should be heard today.” 

“Failure to uphold the promises of Nuremberg, we have seen over the last many decades to act as a reproach on all of us as leaders, not to despair or to despondency, but acts as a catalyst for further action to galvanize us as a council as international organizations and as humanity.” he said.

The European Union is planning to establish a joint position on requests for entry made by Russian citizens fleeing their own country, a spokesperson for the European Commission said during a news conference Thursday.

The European Commission also noted that for now, each member state will need to assess entry requests on a case-by-case basis, adding that external border management of the EU must be carried out in line with EU law and comply with “fundamental rights and all of the legislation in place for asylum procedures.”

Another spokesperson, the EU’s lead for external affairs Peter Stano, said the EU is watching what is happening right now in Russia following Putin’s announcement of so-called “partial mobilization.”

“There have been protests in a number of cities across Russia. During these protests, more than 1,300 people have been detained,” Stano told reporters, according to EU monitoring. “And this is showing that the Russians are voting with their feet, basically, on Putin’s regime and on Putin’s actions.”

“We take also note of the reports that are indicating that a lot of Russians are leaving the country in a legal pathway, in a legal way. They go on train on car, and they leave through the borders, or they take flights to Turkey to Serbia to Emirates. This is what we are seeing is happening,” Stano said.

“We as European Union, in principle, we stand in solidarity with the Russian citizens who have the courage and bravery to show their opposition to what the regime is doing, especially when it comes to this illegal war in Ukraine,” he said, adding that concrete decisions when it comes to visa policy is in the hands of individual members states.

Asked about the numerous requests for entry from Russia, another European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer said, “We will need to have a joint position at the EU level.”

Cars coming from Russia wait in long lines at the border checkpoint between Russia and Finland near Vaalimaa, on September 22.

Cars coming from Russia wait in long lines at the border checkpoint between Russia and Finland near Vaalimaa, on September 22.

(Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images)

Social media video from Russia’s land borders with several countries shows long lines of traffic trying to leave the country on the day after President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization.”

There were queues at border crossings into Kazakhstan, Georgia and Mongolia. One video showed dozens of vehicles lining up at the Zemo Larsi/Verkhny Lars checkpoint on the Georgia-Russia border overnight Wednesday. That line appears to have grown longer Thursday. One video showed a long queue stretching into the mountains behind the crossing, with a man commenting that it was five to six kilometers long.

Another posted Thursday showed long lines at the Khaykhta crossing into Mongolia.

One man spoke over video recorded at the Troitsk crossing into Kazakhstan, where dozens of cars were lined up Thursday morning. “This is Troitsk, queues of trucks and passenger vehicles … you can’t see the start or the end of this queue … everyone, everyone is fleeing Russia, all sorts.”

A senior Kazakh official, Maulen Ashimbaev, had said Kazakhstan could not restrict the entry of Russian citizens into the country, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported earlier Thursday. But Ashimbaev, the speaker of the upper house of the Kazakh parliament, said that in order to obtain a residence permit, applicants must have a set of documents that comply with the law.

It is difficult to compare the current flow of traffic to the average in the absence of official data.

Flights from Russia to countries that do not require visas continue to be very busy and frequently sold out. A search on the Aviasales website showed there were no seats available on Moscow-Istanbul one-way economy flights until Sunday — with the lowest price almost $2,900.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Thursday dismissed reports of airports crowded with people trying to leave Russia following the announcement, calling it “exaggeration” and “fake news.”

French President Emmanuel Macron gives an interview to CNN's Jake Tapper on September 21.

French President Emmanuel Macron gives an interview to CNN's Jake Tapper on September 21.

(CNN)

French President Emmanuel Macron called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision on “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens a “mistake.”

Macron also said it was a missed opportunity to “go to a way towards peace.”

“A few months ago Vladimir Putin conveys a message: ‘I was aggressed by NATO, they triggered the situation and I just reacted.’ Now, it’s clear for everybody that the leader who decided to go to war, the leader who decided to escalate is President Putin,” Macron said in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper.

“And I have no rational explanation,” he added, calling the invasion the “strategy of Germany intervention” and a “post-Covid-19 consequence” due to Putin’s isolation during the pandemic.

Aeroflot Russian Airlines Airbus A320 civil jet aircrafts at Moscow-Sheremetyevo International Airport, Russia, on September 16, 2021.

Aeroflot Russian Airlines Airbus A320 civil jet aircrafts at Moscow-Sheremetyevo International Airport, Russia, on September 16, 2021.

(Leonid Faerberg/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Russian state carrier Aeroflot announced on Thursday that it would return money for tickets purchased before Wednesday to those Russians who were mobilized. 

“Citizens subject to conscription who purchased tickets before September 21, 2022 (inclusive) are entitled to an involuntary [outside the control of the customer] refund on the ticket,” the company said in a statement. 

“To do this, you must personally contact the place of purchase of the ticket and present any of the documents confirming the right to terminate the contract and receive a return of the funds,” it said. 

Flights leaving Russia sold out within hours of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of partial mobilization on Wednesday, while costs for the few available tickets soared in price, according to Russian aggregator websites. 

More than 1,300 anti-war demonstrators have been arrested across Russia following President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilization Wednesday, according to OVD-Info, an independent protest monitoring group. Some detainees have been directly conscripted into the Russian military, OVD-Info spokeswoman Maria Kuznetsova told CNN.

Meanwhile, the UK government has confirmed the release of five British nationals who were freed alongside two US veterans, as more details of the Ukraine-Russia prisoner swap emerge.

Here are the latest headlines:

Prisoner swap: The UK government confirmed that five British nationals have been released as part of the prisoner swap between the Ukraine and Russia. Brokered by Saudi Arabia, the deal also saw nationals from the United States, Morocco, Sweden and Croatia leave detention by Russian-backed forces.

More than half of anti-war demonstrators are women: Over 1,300 anti-war protesters were detained in Russia Wednesday, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info. The watchdog said 51% of the publicly named detainees were women, with nine journalists and 33 minors also among those held.

Partial mobilization still a ‘special military operation,’ Kremlin insists: The protests followed President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilization, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisting Russia’s actions in Ukraine remain a “special military operation” as opposed to a “war.”

Kremlin denies reports of people crowding airports to leave Russia: Flight sales websites and Google trends have indicated a spike in people seeking to fly out of Russia following the partial mobilization announcement. On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called reports of citizens crowding airports to leave the country an “exaggeration” and “fake news.”

International officials voice fears over Ukrainian nuclear facilities: Foreign ministers and senior officials from Europe, North America and South Korea expressed “grave concern” regarding threats to the safety of Ukrainian nuclear facilities. In a joint statement, the officials criticized Russia for their seizure of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, as well as their “sham referenda.”

Wives of some of the scores of Ukrainian fighters released by Russia in a prisoner swap have described to CNN the disbelief and joy of hearing their loved ones had been released.

Alina Volovyk, speaking with CNN via WhatsApp, described getting a phone call from a man she did not recognize at first as her husband, Artem Volovyk, a Ukrainian Marine who fought at the Azovstal Steel Plant earlier this year, before all of Mariupol was captured by Russian forces.

“At first, I didn’t understand what was going on and where he was,” Alina Volovyk recalled. “But he said, ‘Honey, I’m already in Ukraine! There was a swap.’”
“I just started screaming, my hands were shaking,” she said. “Now I am the happiest woman in the world.”

Russia on Wednesday released 215 people from its custody, including some foreign nationals who had been fighting for Ukraine. In exchange, Ukraine released 55 people, as well as Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician and oligarch, whose daughter is goddaughter to Vladimir Putin.

Among the 215 people released by Russia were “188 heroes of Azovstal and Mariupol,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said overnight.

The release of the Azovstal and Mariupol fighters is a major coup for Ukrainian morale, given the huge role the defense of Mariupol played in the Ukrainian psyche early in the war. 

This is the largest single release of fighters from Mariupol. In a June prisoner swap, Russia released 144 soldiers, among whom 95 had defended the Azovstal plant. 

Ruslana Volynska, whose husband Serhii “Volyna” Volynskyi, was acting commander of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, told CNN via text message that she found out about the swap on the Internet.

“Later Serhii called himself, and I heard him. It was boundless joy, shock, happiness! All emotions were mixed! I cried with happiness, and could not believe that this day had come,” she said.

An advisor to Mariupol’s Ukrainian mayor, Petro Andriushchenko, who was forced to leave his city as Russia advanced, said on Telegram that Mariupol “rejoices the return of its Heroes to Ukrainian soil. Even in the occupation!”

“Only two hours ago, when I was doing some shopping, I realized that my husband was at home and started to cry. The only thing I want now is to hug him as soon as possible,” she added.

Christine Lambrecht, Minister of Defense, gives a press conference in Berlin, Germany, on September 22.

Christine Lambrecht, Minister of Defense, gives a press conference in Berlin, Germany, on September 22.

(Carsten Koall/picture alliance/Getty Images)

Russia’s “partial mobilization” and planned referendums in occupied parts of Ukraine will not deter Germany’s military support for Ukraine, the country’s Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht announced Thursday.

“Rather, this reaction from Putin to Ukraine’s successes spurs us on to continue to support Ukraine and send this clear signal,” Lambrecht told reporters in Berlin following a meeting with her French counterpart.

“We see that Ukraine has achieved great successes,” she said, highlighting the support it received from Germany and France.

Lambrecht also said the announced referendums by Kremlin-backed officials in Ukraine ”will have no impact on us,” noting they will not change the level of support Ukraine will receive from Germany. 

French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu said France will also continue its support for Ukraine in terms of arms and training, adding that France needed cooperation within NATO to do so.

Foreign nationals, left to right, Vjekoslav Prebeg from Croatia, Dylan Healy and John Harding from Britain, Mathias Gustafsson from Sweden and Andrew Hill from Britain, who were captured by pro-Russian forces while allegedly fighting for Ukraine, during a court hearing in Donetsk in August.

Foreign nationals, left to right, Vjekoslav Prebeg from Croatia, Dylan Healy and John Harding from Britain, Mathias Gustafsson from Sweden and Andrew Hill from Britain, who were captured by pro-Russian forces while allegedly fighting for Ukraine, during a court hearing in Donetsk in August.

(Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Five British nationals have been released as part of a prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia, the UK government confirmed on Thursday.

Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner, John Harding, Dylan Healy and Andrew Hill have all been released, according to the government.

Two American veterans and three further nationals from Morocco, Sweden, and Croatia have also been released as part of a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia.

All five citizens are “back safely in the UK”, non-profit organization the Presidium Network – which has been supporting Healy’s family – told the BBC Thursday.

The Presidium Network’s co-founder Dominik Byrne added that the released Brits – captured while fighting alongside Ukrainian forces – were “looking forward to normality with their families after this horrific ordeal.”

The UK government has not yet confirmed the process that brokered the group’s release, the report from the BBC added.

The confirmation follows British Prime Minister Liz Truss announcement of the group’s release on Wednesday.

“Hugely welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine are being safely returned, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families,” she said in a tweet.

Truss thanked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for “for his efforts to secure the release of detainees” and Saudi Arabia for its “assistance.”

Read more here:

Russia continues to call its actions in Ukraine a “special military operation” following the announcement of partial mobilization, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday. 

When asked by CNN during a daily call with journalists whether the actions carried out by Russia in Ukraine should be referred to as a “special military operation” or a “war” in view of the partial mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, Peskov said, “No, this is a special military operation.”

When asked whether, in this sense, the status of hostilities has changed, Peskov said, “No, it hasn’t.”

In this handout photo taken from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu appears on television in Moscow, Russia, on September 21.

In this handout photo taken from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu appears on television in Moscow, Russia, on September 21.

(Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP)

The decree signed on Wednesday by Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to allow for wider mobilization than he suggested in his Wednesday morning speech. 

“We are talking about partial mobilization,” President Putin said on Wednesday in his televised address. “In other words, only military reservists, primarily those who served in the armed forces and have specific military occupational specialties and corresponding experience, will be called up.”

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, too, said that “there is no question of any mobilization of university students and there will be none under no circumstances.”

The first paragraph of the decree signed by President Putin talks about a “partial mobilization.”

But it does not define those eligible as narrowly as Russia’s leader did in his address. Instead, it says that the only people to which it does not apply are those who are ineligible because of age, sickness, or imprisonment.

In paragraph two, it says that the president has decided “to call up citizens of the Russian Federation for military service by mobilization into the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Citizens of the Russian Federation called up for military service under mobilization shall have the status of enlisted military personnel performing military service in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on a contractual basis.”

Ekaterina Schulmann, a Russian political scientist and associate fellow at Chatham House, said on Telegram that while the decree “describes the mobilization as partial,” it “sets no parameters of this partiality, either territorial or categoric.”

“According to this text, anyone can be called up except for those working in the military-industrial complex who are exempt for the period of their employment. The fact that the mobilization applies only to reservists or those with some particularly necessary skills is mentioned in the address, but not in the decree,” she said.

Russian human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov, also on Telegram, said that the decree sets out mobilization “in the broadest terms.”

“The president is leaving it at the Defense Minister’s discretion. So in fact it is the Russian Defense Ministry that will decide who will be sent to war, from where and in what numbers.”

Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank in Novoselivka, Ukraine, on September 17.

Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank in Novoselivka, Ukraine, on September 17.

(Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia’s military is divided over how best to counter Ukraine’s unexpected battlefield advances this month, according to multiple sources familiar with US intelligence, as Moscow has found itself on the defensive in both the east and the south.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is himself giving directions directly to generals in the field, two sources familiar with US and western intelligence said — a highly unusual management tactic in a modern military that these sources said hints at the dysfunctional command structure that has plagued Russia’s war from the beginning.

Intelligence intercepts have captured Russian officers arguing amongst themselves and complaining to friends and relatives back home about decision-making from Moscow, one of these sources told CNN.

And there are significant disagreements on strategy with military leaders struggling to agree on where to focus their efforts to shore up defensive lines, multiple sources familiar with US intelligence said.

The Russian Ministry of Defense has claimed that it is redeploying forces towards Kharkiv in the northeast — where Ukraine has made the most dramatic gains — but US and western sources say the bulk of Russian troops still remain in the south, where Ukraine has also mounted offensive operations around Kherson.

So far, Russia has responded to Ukraine’s advances by launching attacks against critical infrastructure like dams and power plants — attacks that the US sees as largely “revenge” attacks rather than operationally significant salvos, a source said.

Putin’s mobilization order is significant because it is a direct acknowledgment that Moscow’s “special military operation” wasn’t working and needed to be adjusted, military analysts said.

CNN’s Barbara Starr and Tim Lister contributed to this reporting

Read the full report here.

Police officers detain a person in Moscow, Russia, on September 21.

Police officers detain a person in Moscow, Russia, on September 21.

(Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

Over half of the anti-war demonstrators detained across Russia on Wednesday are women, according to the independent protest monitoring group OVD-Info, making it the biggest anti-government protest by share of women in recent history.

Of the names made public, women made up 51% of those held in the anti-war protest crackdown, though the watchdog specified the full scale of arrests remains unknown.

The monitoring group estimate that more than 1,300 people – including nine journalists and 33 minors – have so far been detained. One underage protester has been “brutally beaten” by law enforcement, the watchdog added on its Telegram feed.

Some detainees have been directly conscripted into the Russian military, OVD-Info spokeswoman Maria Kuznetsova told CNN in a phone call.

Traffic across the Finland-Russia border intensified overnight, according to Finnish officials, following the Kremlin’s announcement of a partial mobilization on Wednesday.

Some 4,824 Russians arrived in Finland via the country’s eastern border on Wednesday, the Finnish border guard’s head of international affairs Matti Pitkaniitty said in a tweet, an increase of 1,691 compared to the same day last week.

However, Pitkaniitty continued that the number of people crossing the border Wednesday was lower than on a normal weekend.

Border traffic on Thursday morning has remained busy, the Border Guard of Southeast Finland added in a tweet Thursday.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen said Finland is closely monitoring the situation in Russia

A Russian serviceman guards an area of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in territory under Russian military control in southeast Ukraine, on May 1.

A Russian serviceman guards an area of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in territory under Russian military control in southeast Ukraine, on May 1.

(AP)

Foreign ministers and senior officials from Europe, North America and South Korea have expressed their “grave concern” regarding threats posed to the safety of nuclear facilities in Ukraine.

The officials – who include the foreign Ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and Ukraine, as well as senior officials from the Republic of Korea, Switzerland, the United States and the European Union – released a joint statement released following a high-level meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday.

The statement detailed their “grave concern regarding the threats posed to the safety and security of nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes in Ukraine and their personnel, significantly raising the risk of a nuclear accident.”

Continuing, the statement voiced support for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s mission to Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), before criticizing Russia’s occupation and “sham referenda.”

“We emphasize that Russia’s seizure and militarization of the ZNPP is the root cause of the current threats in the field of nuclear safety and security,” the statement added.

“We recall that the heightened risks of a nuclear incident will remain dangerously high as long as Russia remains present on the site of ZNPP. The Russian Federation must immediately withdraw its troops from within Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders and respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

“Should the Russian Federation conduct any sham referenda within occupied territories of Ukraine, we reiterate that these would have no legal and political effect, including on the status of the ZNPP,” the statement continued.

The officials also highlighted the importance of uploading the UN nuclear watchdog’s resolutions regarding “armed attacks or threats against nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes” and the agency’s pillars of nuclear safety. The statement also highlighted the importance of complying with international humanitarian law.

Press briefing Josep Borrell, Vice-President of the European Commission, on the situation in Ukraine at the UN Headquarters in New York on September 21.

Press briefing Josep Borrell, Vice-President of the European Commission, on the situation in Ukraine at the UN Headquarters in New York on September 21.

(Lev Radin/Sipa USA/Reuters)

European Union foreign ministers agreed in New York to push forward with a new round of sanctions against Russia, EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell told reporters late Wednesday night.

“We will continue and increase our military support, continue providing arms to Ukraine, and we will study, we will adopt, new restrictive measures – both personal and sectorial,” Borrell said.

The exact details on those new sanctions must still be determined, he said. The agreement reached in New York, which he said was unanimous, was a “political” one.

“Some hours after Putin’s speech, it was a matter of sending a powerful political message,” he said. “They will not shake our determination. They will not shake our resolve, our unity, to stand by Ukraine.”

He said that he was confident that “unanimous agreement” would be possible for the new sanctions package.

“It’s clear that Putin is trying to destroy Ukraine,” he said.

“In line with the United Nations charter, and international law, Ukraine is exercising its legitimate right to defend itself against Russian aggression, to regain full control of its territory, and has the right to liberate occupied territories within its internationally recognized borders. And for that, we will continue supporting Ukraine’s efforts, the provision of military equipment, as long as it takes.”

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov delivers a speech as he meets with heads of diplomatic missions in Moscow, Russia, on September 19.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov delivers a speech as he meets with heads of diplomatic missions in Moscow, Russia, on September 19.

(Alexander Zemlianichenko/Reuters)

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Wednesday, according to statements from both sides.

On the issue of Ukraine, Wang stressed that China would continue to “maintain its objective and impartial position” and “push for peace negotiations,” according to a readout from the Chinese Foreign Ministry released Thursday.

A summary of the meeting from Russian state media agency TASS noted that the two sides discussed subjects including Ukraine, but did not provide details on what was said about the issue, which looms large at the opening of this year’s assembly.

It was unclear whether the two discussed the “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens announced by Russian leader Vladimir Putin in an address Wednesday morning Moscow time, or his endorsement of referendums on joining Russia that Russian-appointed leaders in four occupied regions of Ukraine announced they would hold this week. Both actions were decried by Ukraine and its allies.

When asked about the referendums in a regular scheduled press briefing on Wednesday, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry in Beijing said China’s position on Ukraine had been “consistent and clear.” 

“We believe that all countries deserve respect for their sovereignty and territorial integrity, that the purposes and principles of the UN Charter should be observed, that the legitimate security concerns of any country should be taken seriously,” said spokesperson Wang Wenbin.

“China stands ready to work with members of the international community to continue to play a constructive part in de-escalation efforts,” he said, before declining to respond further when asked specifically about the mobilization. 

Some context: China has refused to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine and has decried Western sanctions on Moscow, while boosting its own purchases of Russian energy. During a face-to-face meeting between Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan last week, Putin praised China’s “balanced position” on the Ukraine war, though conceded Beijing had “questions and concerns” over the invasion.

A billboard promoting contract army service with an image of a serviceman and the slogan reading "Serving Russia is a real job" sits in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on September 20.

A billboard promoting contract army service with an image of a serviceman and the slogan reading "Serving Russia is a real job" sits in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on September 20.

(Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)

An analysis by researchers from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) concludes that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilization is unlikely to “dramatically shift the tide of the war.”

The analysis says that it will take weeks or months to bring reservists up to combat readiness, that Russian reservists are “poorly trained to begin with,” and that the “deliberate phases” of deployment outlined by Russia’s Defense Minister are likely to preclude “any sudden influx of Russian forces that could dramatically shift the tide of the war.”

“Putin’s order to mobilize part of Russia’s ‘trained’ reserve, that is, individuals who have completed their mandatory conscript service, will not generate significant usable Russian combat power for months,” the analysis reads. “It may suffice to sustain the current levels of Russian military manpower in 2023 by offsetting Russian casualties, although even that is not yet clear.”

“Russian mandatory military service is only one year, which gives conscripts little time to learn how to be soldiers, to begin with. The absence of refresher training after that initial period accelerates the degradation of learned soldier skills over time.”

The analysis downplays any “explicit threat” of the use of nuclear weapons by President Putin.

“Putin emphatically did not say that the Russian nuclear umbrella would cover annexed areas of Ukraine nor did he tie mobilization to the annexation,” the analysis reads.

“He addressed partial mobilization, annexation referenda in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, and the possibility of nuclear war in his speech – but as separate topics rather than a coherent whole. The fact that he mentioned all three topics in a single speech was clearly meant to suggest a linkage, but he went out of his way to avoid making any such linkage explicit.”

The ISW researchers say that they do not believe that the speech should be read “as an explicit threat that Russia would use nuclear weapons against Ukraine if Ukraine continues counter-offensives against occupied territories after annexation.”

The Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia was shelled early Thursday, a city council official has reported.

Zaporizhzhia City Council Secretary Anatoliy Kurtiev said on his Telegram Channel that “civil infrastructure has been destroyed” and that “there are casualties.” 

There have been claims of five explosions from both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian media, but CNN cannot independently verify the claims. 

The shelling comes on the heels of a turbulent 24 hours for the region, after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would back a referendum for Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia to join the Russian Federation. 

Police officers detain a person in Moscow on Wednesday, September 21.

Police officers detain a person in Moscow on Wednesday, September 21.

(Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

More than 1,300 people have been detained in dozens of cities across Russia in a crackdown on anti-war protests, according to the independent protest monitoring group OVD-Info.

The group said the figure includes at least 502 people in Moscow and 524 people in St Petersburg. 

Russian servicemen take part in a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade in downtown Saint Petersburg on June 20, 2020.

Russian servicemen take part in a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade in downtown Saint Petersburg on June 20, 2020.

(Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin can call up all the troops he wants, but Russia has no way of getting those new troops the training and weapons they need to fight in Ukraine any time soon.

With his invasion of Ukraine faltering badly, the Russian President on Wednesday announced the immediate “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Russian television that the country will call up 300,000 reservists. 

If they end up facing Ukrainian guns on the front lines, they are likely to become the newest casualties in the invasion Putin started more than seven months ago and that has seen the Russian military fail at almost every aspect of modern war.

“The Russian military is not currently equipped to rapidly and effectively deploy 300,000 reservists,” said Alex Lord, Europe and Eurasia specialist at the Sibylline strategic analysis firm in London.

“Russia is already struggling to effectively equip its professional forces in Ukraine, following significant equipment losses during the war,” Lord said.

The recent Ukrainian offensive, which has seen Kyiv recapture thousands of square meters of territory, has taken a significant toll.

The Institute for the Study of War earlier this week said analysis from Western experts and Ukrainian intelligence found Russia had lost 50% to 90% of its strength in some units due to that offensive, and vast amounts of armor.

And that comes on top of staggering equipment losses over the course of the war.

The open source intelligence website Oryx, using only losses confirmed by photographic or video evidence, has found Russian forces have lost more than 6,300 vehicles, including 1,168 tanks, since the fighting began.

But even if they did have all the equipment, weapons and motivation they need, getting 300,000 troops quickly trained for battle would be impossible, experts said.

Reforms in 2008, aimed at modernizing and professionalizing the Russian military, removed many of the logistical and command and control structures that had once enabled the forces of the old Soviet Union to rapidly train and equip vast numbers of mobilized conscripts.

Read more

Released British PoWs Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin on home-bound airplane on September 22

Released British PoWs Shaun Pinner and Aiden Aslin on home-bound airplane on September 22

(Джонни Johnny/Instagram)

Shaun Pinner is among five British nationals to be released in a Ukraine-Russia prisoner exchange on Wednesday, after being held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine for months, according to Ukraine’s Coordinating Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

Fellow Briton Aiden Aslin was also released as part of a prison swap deal, said the Ukrainian government institution.

Both men were sentenced to death by courts in the pro-Russian, self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in June.

in what appears to be a cell-phone video, the pair are seen seated side-by-side in an airplane, discussing their release and thanking “everyone that’s been supporting us.”

“We want to let everyone know we’re now out of the danger zone and we’re on our way home to our families,” Aslin said. “By the skin of our teeth,” Pinner then interjected. 

US President Joe Biden’s historic mission is now clear — shepherding the world through the most alarming nuclear brinkmanship since the darkest days of the Cold War.

All of Biden’s other challenges – from high inflation, Covid-19, climate change and the building showdown with China – pale against the peril posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fresh escalation of the war in Ukraine.

Putin’s implied threat that he could use nuclear weapons, delivered in a speech on Wednesday – and his warning that he was not bluffing – made Biden’s own speech at the UN General Assembly seem all the more grave.

“This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state and Ukrainians’ right to exist as a people,” Biden said, branding the invasion as a direct assault on the rule-based order epitomized by the UN.

“That should make your blood run cold,” he added.

Putin’s announcement of a partial national mobilization is being seen outside Russia as an admission of failure for his Ukraine operation so far, and of rising domestic political pressure. But forthcoming referendums in captured Ukrainian territory on joining Russia, that are described by the West as a sham, take the war to a tense new stage. 

If these areas do join Russia, Ukrainian attacks on them using Western arms could in theory be interpreted as an assault on the Russian motherland itself. 

This potentially makes Putin’s threat to use nuclear arms to defend Russian territory a significant escalation.

The Russian leader is clearly seeking to scare Western publics and to make Washington and allied capitals think again about their support for Ukraine, which has helped turn his invasion into such a disaster. 

Putin could well be bluffing about the possible use of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. But then again, maybe he’s not.

Fugitive oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk sits in a chair with his hands cuffed after a special operation was carried out by Security Service of Ukraine on April 12.

Fugitive oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk sits in a chair with his hands cuffed after a special operation was carried out by Security Service of Ukraine on April 12.

(Office of President of Ukraine/Getty Images)

Pro-Kremlin Ukrainian opposition politician Viktor Medvedchuk, who was captured back in April, is being exchanged with Russia as part of a prisoner swap, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Zelensky said 200 Ukrainian prisoners had returned home in exchange for Medvedchuk. 

“At first, we were offered to return 50 of our people in exchange for one of those in the detention center of the Security Service of Ukraine. We talked. We insisted. The number of 50 increased to 200,” Zelensky said during his nightly address.

Vasyl Maliuk, the acting head of the Ukrainian security service, said Medvedchuk “is not just a godfather to Putin’s child, but also a documented by us as a traitor.”

“Moreover, while working on the Medvedchuk case, we have neutralized multiple agent networks, detained multiple traitors, and received a lot of valuable information that we are using for counterintelligence and will bring us closer to our victory,” Maliuk added.

Five Ukrainian commanders were included in the prisoner swap, as were 55 prisoners to be sent to Russia, according to Zelensky.

It’s unclear whether the 55 prisoners are all Russians or pro-Russians, but Zelensky described them as people “who fought against Ukraine, and those who betrayed Ukraine.” 

According to Andrii Yermak, head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, a total of 215 prisoners of war have been released as part of an exchange of POWs between Russia and Ukraine, including ten foreign prisoners.

Yermak also said 10 foreigners were among those swapped.

“Based on the requests of our international partners, we have also returned 10 foreign defenders of Ukraine. These are the representatives of those countries, who assist us the most – the United States, Great Britain, Croatia, Sweden and Morocco,” Yermak said.

The head of the State Property Fund, Rustem Umerov, said, “They are safe and liberated from captivity. We are currently in the Saudi Arabia capital – Riyadh. The further safe transfer is planned from here to their countries with our partners.” Yermak added.

The Coordinating Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War (CHTPW), a government institution under the Defense Intelligence, said five British and two Americans are among the ten foreign prisoners.

“It should be noted that the release of foreign soldiers from captivity took place as part of the largest exchange since the full-scale invasion of Russia,” CHTPW said Thursday.
“The liberated heroes are waiting for rehabilitation and adaptation; they will receive the necessary treatment,” CHTPW added. 

North Korea has denied exporting weapons or ammunition to Russia – and blamed the United States for “circulating the rumor.”

“We have never exported weapons or ammunition to Russia before and we will not plan to export them,” the Vice Director General of the General Bureau of Equipment of the Ministry of National Defense said in a statement that ran in state media outlet KCNA.

KCNA said North Korea condemned the US “for thoughtlessly circulating the rumor against (North Korea) to pursue its base political and military aim” and said the US should keep its mouth shut.

Earlier this month, a US official told CNN that Russia is purchasing millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea for use in Ukraine. The New York Times first reported the purchases.

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear Power plant in southeastern Ukraine is seen on September 11.

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear Power plant in southeastern Ukraine is seen on September 11.

(Str/AFP/Getty Images)

Cables providing electricity to one of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant’s reactors were damaged by shelling on Wednesday, the UN nuclear watchdog said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said the shelling had temporarily forced reactor number six “to rely on emergency diesel generators for the power it needs for essential safety functions.”

The five other reactors were not affected and continued ” to receive power directly from the plant’s off-site power line that was restored last week,” IAEA added.

The plant in southern Ukraine, with six reactors, is the largest nuclear power station in Europe. It was mostly built in the Soviet era and became Ukrainian property after its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

“Work is underway to repair the damaged cables,” the IAEA’s statement said.

“This once again demonstrates the urgent necessity to establish such a zone around the ZNPP. Until yesterday, there seemed to be less shelling at or near the plant, but this latest episode shows that the danger remains very real, It hasn’t gone away, and we can’t afford to lose any more time,” IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday called for a special tribunal to be created to punish Russia for invading Ukraine during his pre-recorded speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

“This will become a signal to all would be aggressors, that they must value peace or be brought to responsibility by the world,” Zelensky said in his speech.

“A crime has been committed against Ukraine and we demand just punishment. The crime was committed against our state borders. The crime was committed against the lives of our people,” Zelensky said. “Ukraine demands punishment for trying to steal our territory” and for the murder of thousands of people.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the United Nations on Wednesday September 21.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the United Nations on Wednesday September 21.

(Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday addressed the United Nations, urging world leaders to unite against Russia’s war in Ukraine and strip Moscow of its veto power on the UN Security Council, among other actions.

“A crime has been committed against Ukraine, and we demand punishment,” Zelensky said, wearing his now-customary fatigues in a prerecorded message that was met with a standing ovation from scattered delegates in the hall in New York.

Russia’s invasion of a fellow member state had upturned the world order, he said, echoing assessments made by several world leaders on the same stage earlier that day, including US President Joe Biden

In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Zelensky said:

“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. 

“Reject the right to vote. Deprive delegation rights. Remove the right of veto – if it is a member of the UN Security Council.”

Some context: Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is one of five countries that have the right to veto.

Read more

Some of the protesters being arrested following nationwide protests against the Ukraine war and Putin’s announcement Wednesday of a partial mobilization are being drafted directly into Russia’s military, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info.

Protesters detained by Russian riot police on Wednesday, and who were being held in at least four police stations, were being conscripted directly, said spokeswoman Maria Kuznetsova of OVD-Info, an independent monitoring group, in a phone call with CNN.

One of the detainees has been threatened with prosecution for refusing to be drafted, she said. 

The government has said that punishment for refusing the draft is now 15 years in jail. 

Riot police detain a demonstrator during a protest against mobilization in Moscow on Wednesday, Sept. 21.

Riot police detain a demonstrator during a protest against mobilization in Moscow on Wednesday, Sept. 21.

(Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

At least 1,045 people have been detained across Russia in a crackdown on anti-war protests across two dozen cities in Russia, according to the independent monitoring group OVD-Info on Wednesday. 

Arrests took place in Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk, Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Novosibirsk, Ulan-Ude, Tomsk, Ufa, Perm, Belgorod and Moscow, according to the OVD-info tally. 

Moscow prosecutor’s office published a statement on Wednesday warning citizens against participation in protests, threatening them with up to 15 years in jail.

Almost one hundred people were detained in St Petersburg on Wednesday after President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilization to increase the availability of troops for the war in Ukraine. 

Photos released on OVD-Info’s Telegram channel showed police in Saint Petersburg using batons against protestors. Videos show police attempting to contain behind barriers a crowd gathering at Isakiivskiy Cathedral, amid chants of “no mobilization.”

Videos from Moscow show several protesters being carried away by the police at a demonstration in the center of the city.

One video posted by a journalist from the Moscow internet publication The Village shows dozens of people in Arbatskaya street chanting “Let him go” as one man is carried away.

There was also video from the city of Yekaterinburg of a struggle between police officers and protesters.

As of 8 p.m. Moscow time, 535 people had been detained in 30 cities across Russia, according to OVD-Info.

Most protests appear to have attracted a few dozen people. 

Tim Lister, Gianluca Mezzofiore and Anastasia Graham-Yooll contributed reporting.

Passengers from the Moscow-Belgrade flight, operated by Air Serbia, pass through the airport building in Belgrade, Serbia on Wednesday, Sept. 21.

Passengers from the Moscow-Belgrade flight, operated by Air Serbia, pass through the airport building in Belgrade, Serbia on Wednesday, Sept. 21.

(Darko Vojinovic/AP)

Flight sales websites in Russia indicate that all direct flights to countries that do not require Russian visas are sold out through Friday at least.

Direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul, Yerevan in Armenia and Baku in Azerbaijan are among those that are full, according to ticket aggregator sites.

The term “leaving Russia” saw a sharp spike in searches among Russians over the past 24 hours, according to Google Trends.

Google Trends also shows there has been a sharp rise in people searching “Aviasales,” which is a leading Russian flight sales engine. The number has quadrupled in the last 24 hours.

According to Aviasales, a ticket aggregator, one-way tickets on Friday out of Moscow to Istanbul are starting at $2,715 per ticket. Before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization announcement, the tickets cost about $350.

A survey of one-way fares in coming days to Belgrade, Tel Aviv and Istanbul shows a doubling and tripling of prices. 

Russian state carrier Aeroflot’s website showed that only business-class tickets were available for flights to Armenia Wednesday. According to the Aviasales website late Wednesday, one-way tickets from Moscow to the Armenian capital of Yerevan were available Thursday for $4,241, with multiple stops. All economy-class tickets to Armenia are sold out until Sept. 28. 

“Due to inquiries from passengers and the media, we would like to inform you that Aeroflot Group airlines are operating as usual. There are no restrictions on ticket sales,” Aeroflot said in a statement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier announced the immediate partial mobilization of Russian citizens.

Foreign ministers of European Union member states, currently in New York attending the United Nations General Assembly, will hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday night to discuss the recent developments related to Russia’s war in Ukraine, the EU’s top diplomat announced at a press briefing. 

High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said the meeting was called after a speech from Russian President Vladimir Putin, which Borrell described as the Russian leader’s implicit threat to use nuclear weapons. 

Borrell said Putin looked “like he [was] speaking with … panic and desperation” in his announcement of an immediate partial mobilization of Russian citizens.

“He is doubling [down] on a failing strategy. By the threat of using nuclear weapons, he is trying to intimidate Ukraine and all countries that support. But he will fail,” Borrell said. 

In response to a question about what will happen at tonight’s emergency meeting, he said:

“I think ministers have to discuss this threat to reiterate continuous support for Ukraine and to alert the international community about the unacceptable situation in which Putin is putting all of us. The ministers will discuss how to continue military support to Ukraine, how to continue putting pressure on Russia.”  

He also said that new EU sanctions against Russia would be “on the table.” 

“I will start proposing what to do with sanctions. And we will reinforce our reach out to all states in the world in order to share with them our strong concern for this situation,” Borrell said. 

Borrell said he does not have plans to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who is also in New York to attend the UN meeting.

Read Entire Article