Ukraine live briefing: Russia vows to defend annexed territories ahead of staged referendums

Speaking at the U.N. on Sept. 21, President Biden said that the U.S. and the U.N. need to stand in solidarity against Russian aggression in Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

A senior Russian official vowed Thursday that Moscow would be willing to use “strategic nuclear weapons” to defend annexed territories on the eve of Russia’s planned referendums in occupied parts of Ukraine.

The pronouncement came as further details have emerged regarding Wednesday’s elaborate prisoner exchange between Moscow and Kyiv, in which nearly 300 people were released, including two American military veterans, leaders of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment and a pro-Kremlin politician.

Why the world is so worried about Russia’s ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

Prisoner swap freed Putin’s friend, Azov commanders and U.K. fighters

Key developments

  • Moscow-backed officials in occupied parts of Ukraine are preparing for referendums from Friday to Tuesday on the prospect of joining Russia. The moves indicated an escalation in Russia’s apparent plans to annex swaths of Ukraine. Officials in occupied Kherson are working to obtain “personal data from local residents” under the pretext of providing humanitarian aid, and authorities in the eastern city of Starobilsk are banning residents from leaving during the referendum, Ukraine’s general staff wrote on Facebook.
  • Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, now the deputy head of the country’s Security Council, said Donbas and other occupied regions “will be accepted into Russia,” warning that Moscow would be open to using strategic nuclear weapons for the “protection” of those territories. The U.S. has for months been sending private warnings to Russia about the grave consequences if it used a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, though it was unclear if any new messages were sent in recent days, The Washington Post reported Thursday.
  • Thousands of Russians took to public spaces to protest Russia’s partial military mobilization, and authorities arrested at least 1,300 people on Wednesday, according to the human rights group OVD-Info. Video footage from rallies across the country shows police officers pushing protesters to the ground, stuffing them into buses and, in at least one instance, attempting to punch an apparent protester in the head on a busy street.
Protesters gathered in Moscow on Sept. 21 after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization in Russia. (Video: AP)
  • Speaking in Russian, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Russians to resist the mobilization in his nightly address Thursday. “Fifty-five thousand Russian soldiers died in this war in six months. 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,” he said.
  • Two U.S. military veterans and five Britons were among the nearly 300 people freed Wednesday as part of the prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine. The deal, brokered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also led to the release of 215 Ukrainians and 55 Russians. Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Kremlin opposition politician from Ukraine who is considered a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was also freed.
  • The prisoner exchange sparked anger on Russia’s far right.

Battleground updates

  • Russia struck two Ukrainian cities with Iranian-made attack drones, according to Ukraine’s southern military command. The so-called kamikaze drones struck a tugboat in the southern city of Ochakiv and a nonresidential building in Kryvyi Rih in the country’s heartland, but no one was injured, the military command said on Facebook. Ukrainian officials reported their first encounter with the Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones last week, after Iran began sending them to Russia in August.
  • Five people were injured and at least one person died in overnight strikes on the city of Zaporizhzhia, regional governor Oleksandr Starukh said Thursday on Telegram. Residential buildings were destroyed by rockets, he said, adding that the extent of the damage was still being clarified. Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the Ukrainian president’s office, said nine rockets hit a hotel, trapping people under the rubble. He said a power station was also struck, leaving people in the south of Zaporizhzhia without electricity.
  • Mykolaiv, in southern Ukraine, was “subjected to massive rocket fire” overnight into Thursday, Vitaliy Kim, the regional governor, said. While no one was injured or killed in the strikes, largely carried out with S-300 antiaircraft missiles, residential and government buildings were damaged, as well as gas and water pipes, a cinema and a theater, Kim said. Air raid sirens were reportedly still blaring around 10 a.m. local time.
  • “Russia is likely to struggle with the logistical and administrative challenges of even mustering the 300,000 personnel,” Britain’s Defense Ministry said Thursday following Putin’s announcement of a military mobilization. The ministry assessed that those called up to serve “are unlikely to be combat effective for months.”

Global impact

  • Diplomats clashed over alleged Russia war crimes at a heated U.N. Security Council meeting Thursday. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia’s withdrawal from the Ukrainian cities of Izyum and Bucha revealed gruesome torture and murder of Ukrainian civilians that could not be dismissed as the actions of a few bad actors. In a brief appearance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied the charges and repeated Moscow’s baseless claims that Ukrainian forces are killing civilians in the eastern Donbas region.
  • European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell denounced Russia’s plans for the next phase of the war, vowing at an emergency meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers that member states would increase E.U. military support to Ukraine and study a new set of sanctions against Russia. Borrell condemned Russia’s plan to stage sham referendums, as well as Putin’s plan for a partial military mobilization.
  • Finland is considering banning Russian tourists amid elevated border crossings after Putin’s partial mobilization order, according to Reuters. Finland has kept its border with Russia open but drastically cut tourist visas since the war began. Traffic at the border was at a “higher level than usual” Thursday, but still far below pre-pandemic levels, Matti Pitkäniitty, a spokesperson for the Finnish Border Guard, wrote on Twitter. Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania closed their borders to Russian tourists on Monday.
  • North Korea has denied claims that it exported weapons or ammunition to Russia and said it has “no plans” to do so, according to a statement released Thursday by the government-run Korean Central News Agency. A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about a newly declassified intelligence report, told The Post this month that Moscow was suffering from severe supply shortages and was preparing to buy “millions of rockets and artillery shells” from Pyongyang.
  • Americans express “less concern” than they did in the spring about Ukraine’s defeat in its war against Russia, according to new data released by Pew Research Center. Some 38 percent of U.S. adults are “extremely/very” concerned about Ukraine’s potential loss — down 17 percentage points from the 55 percent of people who submitted the same response in May. However Pew noted an increase in U.S. adults who are “somewhat concerned” — recording 28 percent in May and now 34 percent.

From our correspondents

As mobilization begins in Russia, sold-out flights, protests and arrests: Within hours of Putin’s speech declaring a partial military mobilization, men all over Russia started receiving written notices and phone calls summoning them to duty, writes Post reporter Mary Ilyushina. Some men, mostly reservists under age 35, spoke to Ilyushina on the condition of anonymity about receiving the calls they had been dreading for months.

Meanwhile, Google search trends showed a spike in queries like “How to leave Russia” and even “How to break an arm at home,” as protests erupted in some cities and an online petition against mobilization, initiated last spring, suddenly had more than 292,000 signatures.