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Russia-Ukraine updates: US privately warns Russia against using nuclear weapons

(NEW YORK) — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” into neighboring Ukraine began on Feb. 24, with Russian forces invading from Belarus, to the north, and Russia, to the east. Ukrainian troops have offered “stiff resistance,” according to U.S. officials.

The Russian military has since launched a full-scale ground offensive in eastern Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region, capturing the strategic port city of Mariupol and securing a coastal corridor to the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

Here’s how the news is developing. All times Eastern:

Sep 24, 1:55 PM EDT
Putin signs criminal code amendments raising penalties for looting, desertion, surrender

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law with amendments to the Russian Criminal Code imposing more severe punishments for the crimes of desertion, looting and surrender during periods of mobilization and martial law, according to the official portal of legal information.

The law introduces the notions of “mobilization,” “martial law” and “wartime” and adds a number of new articles to the Criminal Code.

This comes days after Putin announced a mobilization expected to draft more than 300,000 Russians with military expertise. Anti-war protests have broken out in response to news of the draft and many have tried to flee Russia.

The article criminalizing “looting” has been amended to provide for up to 15 years of imprisonment. Commission of the crime “during a period of mobilization or martial law, in wartime” is deemed an extenuating circumstance.

Failure by a subordinate to obey an order issued by a superior in due manner during a period of martial law, in wartime or in conditions of an armed conflict or the conduct of hostilities, as well as a refusal to participate in military action or combat, will be punished by imprisonment of two to three years. If severe consequences ensue, such actions will be punished by three to ten years of imprisonment.

Furthermore, reservists will be criminally liable for arbitrary abandonment of a unit or base and for failure to report for duty in due time without a good reason during their recruit military training. This acts will be punishable with up to 10 years of imprisonment, depending on the severity of the act.

The law also introduces a number of articles regarding a failure to execute a state defense order and a violation of the terms of a state contract.

Sep 23, 6:18 PM EDT
Biden vows to impose ‘swift and severe economic costs on Russia’

President Joe Biden issued a statement Friday evening again calling the referendums in Russian-controlled Ukrainian territory a “sham.”

“The United States will never recognize Ukrainian territory as anything other than part of Ukraine,” he said in his statement.

Biden added that the U.S. “will work with our allies and partners to impose additional swift and severe economic costs on Russia.”

He said the U.S. will join with other nations “in rejecting whatever fabricated outcomes Russia will announce.”

-ABC News’ Ben Gittleson

Sep 23, 4:44 PM EDT
White House responds to Russia’s nuclear threats

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment on reports that the U.S. has sent private warnings to Russia over its nuclear threats.

During her on camera briefing with reporters, Jean-Pierre she said the threats still haven’t given the U.S. reason to adjust its own nuclear posture.

“We obviously take these threats very seriously,” she said. “But we have not seen any reason to adjust our own nuclear posture at this time.”

Jean-Pierre also declined to say if the President Joe Biden would support providing asylum to Russians fleeing conscriptions.

“What we’re seeing in Russia, especially with the protests, and what we’re seeing with Russians leaving their country is that this is an unpopular war,” she said.

-ABC News’ Ben Gittleson

Sep 23, 9:39 AM EDT
Russia begins ‘sham’ referendums on whether to join Russia in occupied Ukrainian territories

Russia began holding its “sham” referendums in four Ukrainian regions it occupies on Friday, asking people to vote on whether they want to join Russia in an effort to legitimize its annexation of the regions.

The referendums are being held in Donetsk and Lugansk in the Donbas region and occupied territory in the southern Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions.

The referendums, announced three days ago, will be held for five days, with in person voting taking place on Tuesday. The majority of voting will be done at peoples’ homes or remotely.

Russia had previously done this in Crimea in 2014, but this vote is expected to have even less legitimacy.

Western countries have already rejected the referendums as illegal shams and only a tiny handful of authoritarian countries are likely to recognize them.

Sep 23, 8:47 AM EDT
US has been warning Russia privately about consequences of using nuclear weapons

The United States has been sending private warnings to Moscow about the consequences of using nuclear weapons, a U.S. official told ABC News.

President Joe Biden has also made the warnings publicly, most recently in his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday.

The warnings have been vague, a deliberate strategy designed to keep Kremlin officials guessing on what the U.S. response would actually be in the event of a nuclear strike, according to The Washington Post, which was the first to report on the private warnings.

It is not clear who has been delivering the messages to Moscow, or whether a message was sent after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most recent nuclear threat.

-ABC News’ Sarah Kolinovsky

Sep 22, 6:25 PM EDT
Zelenskyy: Russian citizens being ‘thrown to [their] death’ with mobilization

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke directly to Russian citizens in his latest nightly address in response to President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization of troops to fight in Ukraine.

Switching from Ukrainian to speak in Russian, he remarked that people are protesting the war across Russia because they “understand that they were simply thrown — thrown to [their] death.”

To those who are silent, “You are accomplices in all these crimes, murders and torture of Ukrainians,” he said, wearing a black T-shirt that said in English: “We Stand with Ukraine.”

Russians options to survive, he said, are to “protest, fight, run away or surrender to Ukrainian captivity.”

Sep 22, 2:04 PM EDT
Russian foreign minister accuses Ukraine, West of falsely changing the ‘narrative’ of the war

In an address to the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov fought back against what he described as a “propaganda operation” by Ukraine and its Western allies to change the “narrative” in the war.

“There’s an attempt today to impose on us a completely different narrative about a Russian aggression as the origin of all the tragedy,” Lavrov said.

He alleged that such a move comes after eight years of Ukrainian forces killing the inhabitants of the Russian-backed Dunbas region of eastern Ukraine “with impunity.”

Lavrov’s address to the Security Council came shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called planned referendums to allow residents of the Dunbas and other areas under Russian control to vote on joining the Russian Federation a “sham.” Blinken said it is part of a “diabolical” Kremlin plan to annex more Ukrainian territory.

Lavrov also accused Ukraine of treading on the “rights and freedoms” of residents in the Dunbas, including the right to speak Russian.

“They declared all those who don’t agree there as terrorists and for eight years the Kiev regime has been conducting a military operation against the peaceful civilians,” Lavrov said.

He then accused Ukraine’s Western allies, including the United States, of being a “party to the conflict” by supplying Ukraine with weapons.

“Their goal is obvious. They are clearly stating (it is) 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 said.

“The intentional fomenting of this conflict by the collective West remains unpunished,” Lavrov said. “Of course, you won’t punish yourselves.”

Sep 22, 11:42 AM EDT
Blinken calls referendums in Russia-backed regions of Ukraine ‘diabolical’

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday told the United Nations Security Council that referendums in Russia-backed regions of Ukraine are part of the Kremlin’s “diabolical” plan.

Blinken alleged that Russia plans to bus in Russians to replace Ukrainians in the eastern and southern regions still under its control and call for a vote. He warned that Russia will “manipulate the result to show near unanimous support for joining the Russian Federation.”

“This is right out of the Crimea playbook,” Blinken said of Ukrainian territory Russia annexed in 2014. “As with Crimea, it’s imperative that every member of this council, and for that matter every member of the United Nations, reject the sham referenda and unequivocally declare that all Ukrainian territory is and will remain part of Ukraine.”

He said no Russian claim to annexed territory “can take away Ukraine’s right to defend its own land.”

Sep 22, 10:52 AM EDT
Images emerge of POWs released in Russia-Ukraine swap

Images are emerging showing Wednesday’s prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia.

According to Ukrainian officials, the photos and videos surfacing Thursday show the prisoners of war exchange that occurred in Chernihiv, in northern Ukraine.

The prisoner exchange included two Americans who were being held captive by Russian-backed forces after volunteering to fight with Ukrainian forces, their families said.

Alexander Drueke and Andy Huynh, both military veterans from Alabama, were reported missing by their families following a fight in the Kharkiv area of Ukraine in June.

Drueke and Huynh were among 10 foreign prisoners of war released following a mediation by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi foreign ministry said.

“We are thrilled to announce that Alex and Andy are free. They are safely in the custody of the US embassy in Saudi Arabia and after medical checks and debriefing they will return to the States,” the families of Drueke and Huynh said in their joint statement.

Other images released by State Security Service of Ukraine showed Ukrainian soldiers smiling after they were released in the Chernihiv region.

Meanwhile, the Russian defense ministry press service released an image from a video of Russian war prisoners walking off a plane in an unspecified location in Russia. Russia said 55 of its troops were released in a prisoner exchange.

Ukrainian officials said 215 of its soldiers and foreign citizens were freed from captivity in Russia.

Sep 22, 8:00 AM EDT
What Blinken plans to say at Friday’s UN Security Council meeting

During Friday’s United Nations Security Council meeting in New York City, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to urge all members to send a clear message of opposition to Moscow over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent threats of nuclear warfare, according to a senior official with the U.S. Department of State.

The State Department official previewed what Blinken will say at the upcoming session, which his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov is expected to attend. While Blinken plans to tell the council that the United States takes Putin’s nuclear threats seriously, he is not expected to urge any specific action, given the obstacles that the council’s makeup presents. Rather, the official said Blinken sees Friday’s meeting as an opportunity to further shine a spotlight on the impacts of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

Furthermore, Blinken is expected to hit on the latest developments out of Russia, including the partial military mobilization and referenda. He also plans to reference evidence of atrocities uncovered in recent days, specifically in the eastern Ukrainian city of Izyum, stressing that these are not the actions of rogue units but a clear pattern emerging across Russian-occupied territory and must be met with accountability.

While Lavrov is expected to attend Friday’s meeting, there is of course no guarantee he will be in the room when Blinken speaks. Blinken, however, is expected to remain through the entirety of the session, where both Russia and China will also have an opportunity to address the room.

Sep 21, 6:27 PM EDT
Zelenskyy demands punishment for Russia in UN remarks

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy demanded punishment for Russia in his remarks to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday.

“A crime has been committed against Ukraine, and we demand just punishment,” he said in video remarks, the only state leader allowed to appear virtually this year.

Zelenskyy spelled out the alleged atrocities discovered in Izyum after Russian forces retreated. “The bodies of women and men, children and adults, civilians and soldiers were found there — 445 graves,” he said.

Zelenskyy vowed to other world leaders that Ukraine’s forces would ultimately emerge successful — and claimed any rhetoric from Russia about negotiating peace was a façade.

“We can return the Ukrainian flag to our entire territory. We can do it with the force of arms, but we need time,” he said. “Russia wants to spend the winter on the occupied territory of Ukraine and prepare forces to attempt a new offensive — new Buchas, new Izyums.”

He warned that Russia’s warfare near nuclear plants meant no one was safe and again made an appeal for Russia to be branded as a state sponsor of terrorism by all nations — something the Biden administration has so far said it is against.

“We must finally recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorists, at all levels, in all countries,” Zelenskyy urged. “This is the foundation for restoring global security.”

-ABC News’ Shannon Crawford

Sep 21, 6:15 PM EDT
More than 1,400 people detained at antiwar protests in Russia

More than 1,400 people were detained at antiwar protests that have erupted across Russia after President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of reservists to fight in Ukraine, according to the independent Russian human rights monitoring group OVD-Info.

At least 1,408 people have been detained at mobilization protests in nearly 40 cities on Wednesday, OVD-Info said in its latest update. Most were reported at protests in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

The protests followed a televised address Wednesday morning during which Putin announced the start of the first mobilization in Russia since World War II. The measure is expected to draft more than 300,000 Russian citizens with military experience, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Protesters could be seen holding “stop war” signs. One man shown being taken into custody in Novosibirsk had shouted, “I don’t want to die for Putin or for you,” according to Russian independent media outlet Mediazona.

Russia has criminalized protests against the war, and demonstrations held following its invasion have been met with a heavy police response.

Sep 21, 9:32 AM EDT
White House reacts to Putin’s partial military mobilization

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s partial military mobilization for his ongoing war in neighboring Ukraine is “definitely a sign that he’s struggling,” according to the White House’s National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

“And we know that,” Kirby told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos during an interview Wednesday on Good Morning America.

“[Putin] has suffered tens of thousands of casualties. He has terrible morale, unit cohesion on the battlefield, command and control has still not been solved. He’s got desertion problems and he’s forcing the wounded back into the fight,” Kirby added. “So clearly manpower’s a problem for him, he feels like he’s on his back foot, particularly in that northeast area of the Donbas.”

Some 300,000 Russian reservists are expected to be conscripted, which Kirby noted is “a lot.”

“That’s almost twice as much as [Putin] committed to the war back in February,” he said.

Kirby said Putin’s latest nuclear threats are “typical” but something the United States and its allies still take “seriously.”

“We always have to take this kind of rhetoric seriously,” he added. “It’s irresponsible rhetoric for a nuclear power to talk that way, but it’s not atypical for how he’s been talking the last seven months and we take it seriously. We are monitoring as best we can their strategic posture so that if we have to, we can alter ours. We’ve seen no indication that that’s required right now.”

And if Russia does use nuclear weapons, “there will be severe consequences,” according to Kirby.

While Moscow appears poised to annex Russian-held regions in Ukraine and attempt to politically legitimize it with sham referendums in the coming days and weeks, Kirby said the United States will still consider those areas Ukrainian territory.

“We’re going to continue to support Ukraine with security systems and other financial aid, as the president said, for as long as it takes,” he added. “That is Ukrainian territory. It doesn’t matter what sham referendum they put in place or what vote they hold, it is still Ukrainian territory.”

Sep 21, 7:47 AM EDT
Putin orders partial mobilization, says he won’t ‘bluff’ on nukes

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a partial mobilization of reservists in Russia, in an apparent admission that his war in neighboring Ukraine isn’t going according to plan.

In a seven-minute televised address to the nation that aired on Wednesday morning, Putin announced the start of the mobilization — the first in Russia since World War II. The measure is expected to draft more than 300,000 Russian citizens with military experience, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu.

The move comes as Moscow is poised to annex all the regions it occupies in Ukraine in the coming weeks, with plans to hold sham referendums this weekend to legitimize its actions. By declaring those areas officially Russian territory, Putin is also threatening that any continued efforts by Ukraine to retake them will be seen as a direct attack on Russia. In his speech Wednesday, the Russian leader raised the specter of using nuclear weapons if Ukraine continues to try to liberate the occupied regions.

“In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity to our country, for the protection of Russia and our people, we of course will use all means in our possession,” Putin said. “This is not a bluff.”

“Those who are trying to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the wind can turn in their direction,” he added.

It’s an attempt to regain the initiative after disastrous setbacks in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Russia has been suffering severe manpower shortages in Ukraine after months of heavy losses, mainly because the Kremlin has pretended it is fighting not a war but a “special military operation.” That, in part, allowed Ukraine’s spectacular counteroffensive in the country’s northeast two weeks ago, which led to the collapse of Russia’s frontline there.

Military experts and Russian commentators themselves had acknowledged that without a mobilization, Moscow is not capable of anymore offensive operations in Ukraine and in the longterm might well be unable to even hold the territory it has already taken.

Putin has balked at ordering a mobilization, until now, because of the huge political risks it carries for him at home. Russians have proved relatively supportive of the war while they have not been ordered to fight it, but this carries much bigger risks now of domestic unrest. It will bring up dangerous memories of the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Yet Putin has clearly decided he must take the risk, with losing the war in Ukraine seen as an existential danger to his regime.

The mobilization order has profound implications for not just Russia and Ukraine, but also for Europe and the United States. It means Putin is expanding the war in Ukraine even further, ready to throw hundreds of thousands more people into it — making the fight harder again for Ukraine, while also raising the threat of nuclear strikes on it. And at home, Putin is going to enter uncharted waters.

Sep 20, 3:50 PM EDT
US and Ukraine bolster efforts to prosecute Russia for war crimes

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland met Tuesday with Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin and signed a memorandum of understanding to strengthen their investigative partnership in pursuing prosecutions against Russians accused of committing war crimes in Ukraine.

“America and the world have seen the horrific images and the heart-wrenching reports of the brutality and death caused by the unjust Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Garland said following the meeting at the Department of Justice in Washington.

Garland said the DOJ’s War Crimes Accountability Team has provided Ukraine with a “wide variety” of technical assistance on criminal cases, including collecting evidence and forensic analysis.

The memorandum of understanding, Garland said, will allow the two countries to “work more expeditiously and efficiently” in their investigations of Russian war crimes.

Kostin also delivered somber remarks on war crimes uncovered by Ukrainian investigators since the start of the Russia’s invasion. He said that two hours before his meeting with Garland, a prosecutor in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine informed him of a village “where about 100 graves” were just discovered.

“This place is not safe at the moment since it needs de-mining,” Kostin said. “But this is a new example of mass atrocities by the aggressor. This is a sign that Russia uses not only prohibited means and methods of warfare, but this is a clear and intentional policy of Russia.”

-ABC News’ Alexander Mallin

Sep 20, 2:49 PM EDT
Ukraine conflict could increase food prices, food insecurity: Study

The impact on crop production due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will likely continue to increase global food prices and food insecurity, though not as much as initially feared, according to a new study.

The price of corn and wheat are expected to increase by 4.6% and 7.2%, respectively, and crops such as barley, rice, soybeans and sunflower are also anticipated to rise, according to a study from Indiana University published this week in Nature Food.

Nations with current existing food insecurity will be most impacted by the conflict, according to the study.

Other countries, including Brazil, have stepped up their production to fill the gap left by the lack of exports coming out of the region, offsetting some of the impacts on world food prices and food insecurity, the study found. Clearing more land and vegetation to grow crops could increase deforestation and carbon emissions, the study said.

-ABC News’ Tracy Wholf

Sep 20, 2:35 PM EDT
White House slams referendums in Russia-backed regions of Ukraine

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said referendums planned for this week in Russia-backed areas of eastern and southern Ukraine are a “sham.”

“Russia is throwing together sham referendums on three days notice as they continue to lose ground on the battlefield and as more world leaders have distanced themselves from Russia on the public stage,” Sullivan said in a briefing Tuesday at the White House.

He also slammed legislation being pushed through the Russian parliament to lay the ground for a general mobilization of men aged 17-27 as “scraping for personnel to throw into the fight.”

“These are not the actions of a confident country. These are not acts of strength, quite the opposite,” Sullivan said. “We reject Russia’s actions unequivocally.”

-ABC News’ Ben Gittleson

Sep 20, 12:24 PM EDT
Kremlin says referendums to be held in separatist regions of Ukraine

The Kremlin made a series of dramatic announcements Tuesday, signaling its response to its failing military campaign in Ukraine.

The Kremlin said referendums will be held later this week in Russian-backed regions of eastern and southern Ukraine for people to vote on whether to join Russia.

Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian minister of foreign affairs, called the proposed vote “sham referendums” in a post on Twitter.

“Russia has been and remains an aggressor illegally occupying parts of Ukrainian land,” Kuleba said. “Ukraine has every right to liberate its territories and will keep liberating them whatever Russia has to say.”

Depending on the results of the referendums, which critics say is a foregone conclusion, Russia will suddenly consider territory it has occupied in Ukraine as its own.

Meanwhile, legislation is being rushed through the Russian parliament, laying the ground for a general mobilization of men aged 17-27, an age range that could be expanded.

Russian state media reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his minister of defense will address the nation Tuesday night.

According to a Moscow-based military analyst, even parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas, which are not currently controlled by Russian forces, will be considered Russian territory.

After its apparently successful offensive in northeastern Ukraine, the Ukranian military now appears to be pushing further east and is contesting areas of the eastern Donbas region.

In a highly symbolic moment, Ukrainian forces claim they have retaken a village in Luhansk, in the northern part of the Donbas, an area the Kremlin took control of in July.

Sep 18, 4:01 PM EDT
Zelenskyy says preparation underway to liberate all of Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Sunday that he interpreted a lull in fighting after a series of victories by his country’s military forces as preparation for the liberation of all of Ukraine.

“Maybe now it seems to some of you that after a series of victories, we have a certain lull,” Zelenskyy said.

He went on to say, “this is not a lull. This is preparation for the next series. To the next series of words that are very important to us and must sound. Because Ukraine must be free … all of it.”

Ukrainian troops made good on Zelenskyy’s call to take back lands claimed by Russian forces with an aggressive counteroffensive over the past week in the country’s northeast region.

Ukrainian officials said their forces drove out the Russian in two key areas in the Kharkiv region and are not going to let up.

Sep 18, 1:59 PM EDT
Biden says China not supplying Russia weapons to use in Ukraine

President Joe Biden said in an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes that it does not appear China is sending weapons to Russia to use in Ukraine.

“Thus far there’s no indication that they’ve put forward weapons or other things that Russia has wanted,” Biden said in the clip from the interview released Sunday.

That’s consistent with the message his administration has repeatedly shared for months. But it doesn’t mean China has stopped helping Russia in other ways, including purchasing Russian oil.

Biden recounted how he had previously told China’s President Xi Jinping that if he thought “Americans and others are gonna continue to invest in China based on your violating the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia, I think you’re making a gigantic mistake. But that’s your decision to make.”

Biden also said he does not think there’s currently a “new, more complicated cold war” with China, as the interviewer, Scott Pelley, put it.

-ABC News’ Ben Gittleson

Sep 18, 12:06 PM EDT
‘True face of aggression’: Ukrainian ambassador condemns Russia over mass grave

Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, accused Russia on Sunday of committing “war crimes of massive proportions” after a mass grave was discovered in Ukraine.

“It’s tortures, rapes, killings. War crimes of a massive proportions,” Markarova claimed in an interview with ABC “This Week” co-anchor Jonathan Karl. “That’s why we need to liberate the whole territory of Ukraine as soon as possible because clearly Russians are targeting all Ukrainians. Whole families. Children. So, there is no war logic in all of this. It’s simply terrorizing and committing genocide against Ukrainians.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an address on Thursday that a mass grave was found in the recently recaptured territory of Izyum. Over 400 bodies could be buried in the site, according to Ukrainian officials.

Markarova said the majority of the bodies recovered from the site are Ukrainian, including entire families. She also said most of the remains showed “clear signs of torture.”

She said an investigation of the mass grave is underway and that with the assistance of the United States her country is continuing to prepare national and international criminal cases against Russia.

Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians, despite evidence otherwise.

“It’s so important for everyone to see the true face of this aggression and terrorist attack Russia is waging,” Markarova said.

-ABC News’ Kelly Livingston

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