Occupied Ukrainian regions plan ‘vote’ on joining Russia

The referendums could pave the way for Russian annexation of the areas, allowing Moscow to frame the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive there as an attack on Russia itself, thereby providing Moscow with a pretext to escalate its military response.

In what appeared to be a coordinated announcement, 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 on September 23.

Together the four regions that have announced their referendum plans make up around 18% of Ukraine’s territory. Russia does not control any of the four in their entirety.

The expected referendums, which run counter to international law upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty, have been announced as world leaders have descended on New York for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, where the war and it impacts were already poised to loom large.

Ukraine has dismissed the announcement of referendums in the occupied regions as a “sham” stemming from the “fear of defeat,” while the the country’s Western supporters signaled they would not alter their support for Ukraine.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield condemned the expected referendums during a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Tuesday, and reiterated the US would not recognize any attempt by Russia to “claim annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.”

The Pentagon said on Tuesday that the referendums would have no credibility and would not impact US support for Ukraine.

Potential for escalation

The potential referendums have not been fully endorsed by the Kremlin, with Russian President Vladimir Putin having yet to comment on the plans. On Tuesday, reports circulated Putin was preparing to address the nation, but the address never materialized, and instead, analysts close to the Kremlin suggested it had been delayed until Wednesday morning local time.

But the announcements have received swift support from Russian politicians. Former Russian President and vice-chairman of Russia’s National Security Council Dmitry Medvedev has publicly endorsed referendums in the self-declared Donbas republics, saying this would have “huge significance” for “systemic protection” of the residents.

“Encroachment on Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defense,” Medvedev said on his Telegram channel, in an apparent allusion to the potential for the military escalation.

It’s unclear what form an escalation could take, but concerns have been raised throughout the conflict over whether Russia would resort to using its nuclear stockpile in the Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden addressed these concerns in a 60 Minutes interview earlier this week, when a reporter asked what he would say to the Russian leader regarding the use of chemical or tactical nuclear weapons.

“Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. You will change the face of war unlike anything since World War II,” Biden said, adding that the US response to such actions would be “consequential.”

Putin endorsed a new “deterrent” strategy in June 2020 that allowed for the use of nuclear weapons in response to a non-nuclear attack on Russia that threatened its existence.

The announcement of the referendums also comes amid changes and proposals to shift how Russia codifies military service, at a time when analysts have said its faces significant shortages of manpower.

Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, amended the law on military service on Tuesday, toughening the punishment for violation of military service duties — such as desertion and evasion from service — according to state news agency TASS.

Separately, State Duma deputies and senators have prepared amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, proposing to introduce liability of up to five years of jail time for the destruction or negligent damage of weapons and military equipment during wartime, state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

The deputies have also introduced concepts of “mobilization,” “martial law,” “wartime,” and “armed conflict” into the Criminal Code of Russia, which will now be regarded as aggravating factors in criminal sentencing.

Josh Pennington, Uliana Pavlova and CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Anna Chernova and Tim Lister contributed to this report.

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II died at Balmoral Castle on September 8.
Queen Elizabeth II died at Balmoral Castle on September 8. Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Few people alive remember a time before Queen Elizabeth II.

Her seven-decade reign began in the aftermath of World War II; it persevered through the last throes of Britain’s empire, the insecurity of the Cold War and the dawn of a new millennium, providing a counterweight to the relentless pace of change.

For each of those 70 years, the Queen remained the central fixture in Britain’s collective psyche. Her death, at the age of 96, plunged the country into mourning and an unfamiliar new age.

But on Monday, the nation will say its final goodbye. Britain has ground to a halt for Elizabeth II’s state funeral, expected to be one of the most-viewed events in recent history. 

Crowds will line the streets of London to glimpse the procession, and leaders from countries in every part of the world have descended on the British capital.

The first state funeral in Britain since Winston Churchill’s death in 1965, Monday marks the climax of a lengthy mourning period that has seen Britons turn out in droves to join commemorations for Elizabeth. Thousands queued for several hours to see her lying-in-state, and memorial events were held in towns, cities and villages across the country.

King Charles III, Elizabeth’s son and heir who assumed the throne amid a wave of national mourning, will be joined by the rest of the royal family at Westminster Abbey as he pays respects to his mother later. 

After the service, the Queen will undertake her final journey as her coffin is driven to Windsor and the late monarch is privately buried — the end of a somber period of transition, and the last act of Britain’s long and momentous second Elizabethan age.

The state funeral begins at 11 a.m. (6 a.m. ET).

Stay with us as we take you through this historic moment for the British royal family and the nation.  

3 ways China and Russia are forging much closer economic ties

Hong Kong
CNN Business

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, will meet face-to-face this week for the first time since Moscow sent troops into Ukraine earlier this year.

When they last met, in February in Beijing during the Winter Olympics, they proclaimed their friendship had “no limits.” Since then, Russia has sought ever closer ties with China as Europe and the United States responded to the invasion with wave after wave of sanctions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a photo at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Qingdao in eastern China's Shandong Province on June 10, 2018.

Beijing has carefully avoided violating Western sanctions or providing direct military support to Moscow. This balancing act, experts say, is a sign that Xi won’t sacrifice China’s economic interests to rescue Putin, who arrived at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan this week with his army retreating from large swathes of Ukrainian territory.

But the trading relationship is booming, in a lopsided way, as Russia desperately seeks new markets and China — an economy 10 times the size — scrambles for cheap commodities.

Trade in bilateral goods is at record levels as China snaps up oil and coal to tackle an energy crisis. Russia, meanwhile, has become a top market for China’s currency, and Chinese companies are rushing to fill the vacuum left by departing Western brands.

China’s spending on Russian goods soared 60% in August from a year ago, hitting $11.2 billion, according to Chinese customs statistics, surpassing July’s 49% gain.

Its shipments to Russia, meanwhile, jumped 26% to $8 billion in August, also accelerating from the previous month.

For the first eight months of this year, total goods trade between China and Russia surged 31% to $117.2 billion. That’s already 80% of last year’s total — which stood at a record $147 billion.

“Russia needs China more than China needs Russia,” said Keith Krach, former Under Secretary of State for Economic growth, Energy and the Environment in the United States.

“As the war in Ukraine drags on, Putin’s losing friends fast and increasingly becoming more and more dependent on China, whose economy is 10 times the size of Russia’s,” he added.

For China, Russia now accounts for 2.8% of its total trade volume, slightly higher than the 2.5% share at the end of last year. The European Union and United States have much bigger shares.

China was already Russia’s largest single trading partner before the war, and accounted for 16% of its total foreign trade.

But the world’s second biggest economy has assumed much greater significance for Russia, which has plunged into a recession because of the Western sanctions.

The Russian central bank stopped publishing detailed trade data when the war in Ukraine started. But Bruegel, a European economic think tank, analyzed statistics from Russia’s top 34 trading partners recently and estimated that China accounted for roughly 24% of Russia’s exports in June.

“China-Russia trade is booming because China is taking advantage of the Ukraine crisis to buy Russian energy at a discount and replace Western firms that have exited the market,” said Neil Thomas, a senior analyst on China at Eurasia Group.

Russia displaced Saudi Arabia in May as the top supplier of oil to China. Moscow has held onto that top spot for three straight months through July, according to the latest Chinese customs data.

China’s coal imports from Russia also hit a five-year high of 7.42 million metric tons in July.

Coal in freight wagons ahead of shipping at Tomusinskaya railway station near Mezhdurechensk, Russia, on Monday, July 19, 2021.

The Ukraine war has also sent demand for the Chinese yuan soaring in Russia, as Western sanctions largely cut Moscow off from global financial system and restricted its access to the dollar and euro.

Yuan trade on the Moscow stock exchange amounted to 20% of the total trading volumes by major currencies in July, up from no more than 0.5% in January, according to Russian news media outlet Kommersant.

Daily trading volumes in the yuan-ruble exchange rate also hit a new record last month, surpassing ruble-dollar trade for the first time in history, according to Russian state-controlled media RT.

According to statistics published by SWIFT, the messaging system used by financial institutions globally to process international payments, Russia was the third biggest market in the world for payments made in yuan outside mainland China in July, after Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. The country didn’t even appear on SWIFT’s list of top 15 yuan markets in February.

Russian companies and banks are also increasingly turning to the yuan for international payments.

Last week, Russia’s Gazprom said it would start billing China in yuan and ruble for natural gas supplies, while Russia’s VTB bank said it was launching money transfers to China in yuan.

For Beijing, it’s a boost to its ambitions to make the yuan a global currency.

“Increased Russian use of the yuan also helps to inch forward China’s long-term goals to make the redback a global currency, to insulate itself from Western financial sanctions, and to enhance its institutional power in international finance,” said Thomas from Eurasia Group.

For Russia, this partnership with China “is born of desperation,” said Krach.

“Because Russia has been severely weakened, in part by sanctions, Putin is willing to do a deal with a predatory power so long as it gains access to capital,” he added.

Chinese companies are also filling the vacuum after Western brands left Russia.

Chinese smartphones accounted for two-thirds of all new sales in Russia between April and June, Reuters reported, citing Russia’s top electronics retailer M.Video-Eldorado. Their total share in Russia has steadily increased from 50% in the first quarter, to 60% in April, and then to more than 70% in June, M.Video said.

Xiaomi was the best-selling smartphone maker in Russia in July, holding 42% of the market, according to Russian media Kommersant. Samsung, once the market leader, had only 8.5% of the market in July. Apple held 7%. The two companies had accounted for almost half of the Russian market prior to the Ukraine invasion, but suspended sales of new products in the country after the war began.

Chinese cars have also flooded Russia.

Passenger cars by Chinese manufacturers accounted for almost 26% of Russia’s market in August, the highest on record, according to Russian analytical agency Autostat. It compared with just 9.5% in the first quarter.

Major global auto players, including Ford and Toyota, have pulled back from Russia this year.

But there are also significant limits in the China-Russia partnership, analysts said.

China is not providing military, commercial, or technological support that would “risk significant US sanctions on China,” said Thomas at Eurasia Group.

“Beijing will not sacrifice its own economic interests to support Moscow,” he said.

Fearing a US backlash, China has so far “steadfastly” refused to violate international sanctions against Russia, forcing Moscow to request military support from North Korea, said Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the DC-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Beijing’s refusal to violate US and international sanctions reflects its begrudging acceptance that China remains reliant on Western capital and technology to sustain its ongoing development, even though Xi is personally inclined to assist Putin’s war effort,” he said.

Moreover, China’s rapid economic slowdown this year will further constrain Xi’s willingness to help Putin. The Chinese president won’t want to risk anything that further destabilizes the economy mere weeks before he’s poised to secure an historic third term at the Communist Party’s congress.

Future relations will likely remained strained, and China will want to keep its options open, analysts said.

“There’s always been mistrust between the two regimes, which historically treated each other as rivals,” Krach noted.

The current Sino-Russia partnership is mainly a “defensive” one, enhanced by Beijing and Moscow’s shared view that NATO and the United States pose a “palpable national security threat,” said Susan Thornton, senior fellow and visiting lecturer at Yale Law School.

“Russia’s war in Ukraine is not in China’s interest, but given Western hostility, China will not oppose Russia,” she added.

Live updates: Russia’s war in Ukraine

The president of Ukraine’s state nuclear company — Energoatom — told CNN that the power units at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant remain in a cooling state while work continues to restore power lines from the plant.

Speaking to CNN via Skype, Petro Kotin, said all seven lines connecting to the plant were damaged, and it had switched to what he called the “island mode” — where the plant supplied electricity solely for itself.

“We tried to prolong the operation of one of our power units for as long as possible, even in the conditions when it was operating in island mode. It worked for us for three days,” he told CNN. 

Kotin said just one of the six power units remained working, and was supplying the needs of the plant — the electricity necessary for the pumps that cool the nuclear material. The reactors “are full of nuclear material, fuel and also there are six pools that are located near the reactors at each power unit. They need to be constantly cooled,” he said.

“The hazard is that if there is no power supply, the pumps will stop and there will be no cooling, and in about one and a half to two hours you will have a meltdown of this fuel that is in the reactor,” he added. 

Kotin reiterated that when there is no external power supply, the diesel generators could kick in. “As of today the diesel generators can work there for ten days.”

“We are also doing our best to secure additional supplies. But we understand that it is very difficult to bring anything in there. The railway is damaged, so it can only be done by vehicles,” he said. 
“If there is now a loss of external power, then we will have only one option. The diesel generators,” he added. 

Kotin said representatives of the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), remained at the plant. “They have meetings with the plant management twice a day, so they have all the current information on the plant’s operation,” he said. 

As for the IAEA proposal for a safety zone around the plant, Kotin said: “We don’t fully understand what this safety zone means exactly.”

He repeated the Ukrainian government’s line that the plant should be returned to Ukrainian control and the power plant itself and zone around it should be demilitarized.

Hong Kong court sentences speech therapists to 19 months in prison over ‘seditious’ children’s books

Hong Kong

A Hong Kong court on Saturday sentenced five speech therapists to 19 months in prison over children’s books deemed to be seditious, in a case that rights defenders say marks a major blow to free speech amid a tightening of civil liberties in the Chinese territory.

On Wednesday, Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Marco Fong were found guilty of “conspiracy to print, publish, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications.”

Judge W. K. Kwok called the defendants’ actions “a brainwashing exercise with a view to guiding the very young children to accept their views and values, i.e. (Beijing) has no sovereignty over (Hong Kong).”

Yeung said in court on Saturday that her “only regret was that she had not published more picture books before her arrest,” according to court documents.

The charges center around a set of books telling the stories of a village of sheep resisting a pack of wolves invading their home – a storyline that the government prosecutors alleged was meant to provoke contempt of the local government and China’s central government in Beijing.

In one book, the wolves tried to takeover a village and eat the sheep, in another, 12 sheep are forced to leave their village after being targeted by the wolves, which the court believed alluded to the case where 12 Hong Kong activists attempted to flee the city to Taiwan as fugitives, but were intercepted by Chinese law enforcement.

In a ruling Wednesday, a Hong Kong District Court judge sided with the prosecution, expressing his view that the images had a correlation to events in city, and finding that the authors had the intention to “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection” against the local and central government, or both.

“By identifying (the People’s Republic of China) government as the wolves … the children will be led into belief that (the PRC government) is coming to Hong Kong with the wicked intention of taking away their home and ruining their happy life with no right to do so at all,” the judge Kwok Wai Kin wrote in a 67-page document outlining his thinking on the verdict.

“The publishers of the books clearly refuse to recognize that (China) has resumed exercising sovereignty over (Hong Kong),” Kwok wrote in his decision, referring to the transfer of Hong Kong, a former British colony, to Chinese rule in 1997.

The case has become a proxy for looming questions about the limits of freedom of expression in the city, coming amid a larger crackdown on civil liberties as part of Beijing’s response to wide-scale, months-long anti-government protests in 2019.

Those protests, which were sparked in response to a proposed bill which could send Hong Kongers to be tried for crimes across the border, transformed in to a larger pro-democracy movement that was also linked to popular concern about Beijing’s growing influence in the semi-autonomous city.

The defense for the accused, who were all executive council members of the now defunct General Union of the Hong Kong Speech Therapists, had argued that the charges leveled against them were unconstitutional, given that they were inconsistent with their freedoms of expression protected under Hong Kong law.

But Kwok, who is also one of a small cohort of judges hand-picked by the city’s leader to hear cases related to national security, struck down that challenge, saying instead that limited restrictions on freedom of expression were necessary for the protection of national security and public order.

In a document outlining reasons for the guilty verdict, Kwok disputed that the books were merely fables promoting universal values, another argument raised by the defense, pointing to a foreword in one of the books that references an “anti-legislation movement” in 2019 and the “One Country, Two Systems” mechanism governing Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland.

The case was thrown into the public eye following their arrest, when police accused the group in a Tweet of “sugarcoating protesters’ unlawful acts” and “glorifying fugitives fleeing,” with officials raising specific concerns given that the target audience was children. Beijing and local leaders have sought to encourage national pride among Hong Kong youth, including by bolstering national education in local curricula.

The verdict has been met with outcry from rights defenders. Human Rights Watch in a statement accused the Hong Kong government of using the “very broad” sedition law “to penalize minor speech offenses.”

“Hong Kong people used to read about the absurd prosecution of people in mainland China for writing political allegories, but this is now happening in Hong Kong,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch in a statement. “Hong Kong authorities should reverse this dramatic decline in freedoms and quash the convictions of the five children’s book authors.”

In July, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee also called on Hong Kong to repeal its colonial-era sedition law, saying it was concerned about its use to limit citizens’ “legitimate right to freedom of speech.”

In a reply, the government said use of the law was “not meant to silence expression of any opinion that is only genuine criticism against the government based on objective facts.”

The law, part of a 1938 Crimes Ordinance unused for decades, has been revived alongside Beijing’s introduction of a National Security Law to Hong Kong in 2020, which targets secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist activities – with a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Last year a court ruled that parts of the original sedition law which referenced the monarch could be converted to mean references to the central government or the Hong Kong government. A conviction carries a maximum two-year sentence.

Other recent cases have included the sentencing of a 75-year-old activist to nine months in jail for planning to protest against the Beijing Winter Olympics earlier this year. Last month, two men were arrested under suspicion of violating the law in connection with a Facebook group they are said to have managed.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II: Live updates

As a new era dawns in Britain, arrangements for a final farewell to Queen Elizabeth II are underway. Her son, King Charles III, has asked for a period of Royal Mourning to be observed from Friday, Sept. 9, until seven days after the Queen’s funeral, according to a Buckingham Palace statement.

The date of the funeral will be confirmed “in due course,” the statement added. Here’s what you can expect to happen in the coming days.

Here are some of the answers to common questions:

How will the Queen’s coffin return to London?

The coffin will first leave Balmoral, the Queen’s Scottish rural retreat, for the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. The property is the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. It will then likely travel in procession to Edinburgh’s St Giles’ Cathedral where the Queen will lie in rest before being moved down to London.

How can the public pay their respects?

Historical precedent suggests that once in London, the Queen will likely lie in state at Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster. Past monarchs’ coffins have rested on a raised platform — or catafalque — in the middle of the hall, guarded around the clock by units from the Sovereign’s Bodyguard, Foot Guards or the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment.

The coffin is likely to remain there for several days and it’s at this point that members of the public will be able to file past the platform and view the monarch’s coffin. Thousands are expected to queue, with some potentially sleeping out overnight in a bid to pay their respects.

What might the Queen’s funeral look like?

As monarch, Queen Elizabeth will automatically be granted a publicly funded state funeral. It will take place at Westminster Abbey sometime in the next two weeks, though the exact day will be confirmed in due course.

We’re still a few days away from a guest list, but heads of state and dignitaries from around the world will likely make their way to the British capital to celebrate the Queen’s life and 70-year service to the nation. Other familiar faces will be some of the Queen’s 15 former prime ministers and senior lawmakers.

Read more.

Russian gamers race to prevent nuclear ‘war’

Story highlights

Latest craze in Moscow is war game in which players race to find nuclear codes

Russian officials are playing on fears, staging a mass nuclear drill


“Attention! Attention!” blares the Russian voice from a loudspeaker. “The nuclear bombs will be launched in one hour.”

Inside a room styled as a Soviet-era nuclear bunker, a couple of Russians race to prevent a catastrophic strike on the United States.

Their quest – the latest craze in Moscow – is to find the nuclear launch codes and deactivate a hidden red button, which has already been pressed by a mad Russian general.

It’s complete fantasy; just an interactive game hosted in a building in a former industrial area of the city, harking back to the fears of the Cold War.

But amid the current tensions with Russia, in which potential nuclear confrontation with the West has again been raised, it feels a little unsettling.

A mad Russian general has pushed the nuclear button - and gamers must stop missiles launching

“I’m worried because there is very stupid information from both sides,” said Maxim Motin, a Russian who has just completed the Red Button Quest game.

“I know that normal people all over the world don’t want any war,” he added.

But Russian officials have been preparing the nation for the possibility of conflict, stoking deep-seated concerns about a standoff with the West, Russia’s old Cold War rival.

Russian television has been broadcasting a mass training exercise, involving up to 40 million people across the country. It is designed to prepare responses, the government says, for a chemical or nuclear attack.

The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry issued this picture from a nationwide civil defense drill

The video shows emergency workers with protective suits and gas masks leading the civil defense rehearsal, the biggest of its kind since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It suggests the Kremlin wants Russians to take the threat of war very seriously.

Of course, all-out conflict between Russia and the West remains highly unlikely.

Analysts say the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction – or MAD – still holds as a deterrent, just as it did during the Cold War.

But with tensions growing over Syria, Ukraine, and the Baltic states, analysts say a small risk of contact, misunderstanding and escalation between the nuclear superpowers has become very real.

“I don’t think nuclear war is likely,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a prominent foreign policy journal.

“But when two nuclear superpowers are operating with their military machines in the same area, very close to each other and they don’t have proper coordination, any unintended thing can happen,” he told CNN.

It is a risk the Kremlin seems keen to play up, with state television upping its hardline rhetoric in recent weeks.

In its flagship current affairs show, Russia’s top state news anchor, Dmitry Kiselyev – dubbed the Kremlin’s propagandist-in-chief by critics – recently issued a stark warning of global war if Russian and US forces clash in Syria.

“Brutish behavior towards Russia could have nuclear dimensions,” he declared.

The Russian defense ministry has also released details of the latest intercontinental ballistic missile being added to its nuclear arsenal.

The Satan 2, as it’s known, will be the world’s most destructive weapon, guaranteeing Russia’s place as a top nuclear power.

It is an apocalyptic vision that adds a further sense of realism to the fantasy quest being acted out by gamers in Moscow.

“I know that now in schools in Russia they tell the children that our main enemy is the US,” said Alisa Sokoleva, another Moscow gamer.

“But it sounds ridiculous to me and I’m totally sure that war is impossible,” she adds.

The quest game players - pretending to be a special ops team - are the only ones who can avert war

Back in the fake Cold War bunker, the Russian gamers have cracked the launch codes and deactivated the missile launch. The United States, it seems, has again been saved from this virtual Russian nuclear attack.

Hopefully, the real world will be spared such a confrontation too.

Barack and Michelle Obama make first joint return to the White House for unveiling of official portraits

The history-making portraits of the Obamas stand in contrast to those of other US presidents and their spouses hung on the White House walls, depicting the first Black President and first lady through the perspectives of contemporary artists working outside many of the conventions of traditional political portraiture.

McCurdy told the White House Historical Association in an interview that his process focused on working off of a photograph of the former President. The photorealistic image of the former President, dressed in a black suit with a gray tie, is painted against a minimal white backdrop — a signature of McCurdy’s artworks. McCurdy said his paintings take at least a year to complete.

The former first lady’s portrait was painted by Sprung, who describes her work as “contemporary realism.” The image depicts Michelle Obama in a blue dress, seated on a sofa in the Red Room of the White House. The artwork was painted from photographs taken in different locations on the White House’s State Floor.

The long-awaited return of a White House tradition

Wednesday’s ceremony in the East Room marked a rare occasion for a celebration among two presidential administrations, where President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden convened a who’s who of administration officials past and present — from the unique vantage point of having served in both.

The pieces, which will hang inside the White House for decades to come, are the first official portraits added to the White House Collection since then-President Obama held a bipartisan unveiling ceremony for George W. Bush and Laura Bush in 2012.

Biden used the unveiling ceremony to reflect on the Obamas’ accomplishments in the White House, saying that the former first couple “made history.”

“You both generated hope for millions of people who were left behind for so long — and it matters. You both did it with such grace and such class. You dreamed big and secured lasting wins for the American people, helping lift their burden with a blessing of hope,” he continued. “It’s so underestimated … just having hope. This is the gift of the Obama presidency to the country and to history.”

The former President subsequently led a standing ovation for Biden, saying in the East Room, “Thanks to your decency and thanks to your strength — maybe most of all thanks to your faith in democracy and the American people — the country’s better off than when you took office. And we should all be deeply grateful for that.”

Stewart McLaurin, the president of the WHHA, told CNN that the Covid-19 pandemic played a factor in the timing of the unveiling. The WHHA, a nonprofit organization, facilitates and funds the creation of the portraits.

“Covid impacted us two-and-a-half years ago, and I do think it’s important for these (portraits) to be revealed at a time when the public does have access to the White House and they can be seen,” McLaurin said.

While there’s no hard-and-fast rule for when a White House portrait ought to be unveiled, ceremonies have often been hosted by a former president’s immediate successor. And when in office, President Donald Trump never held a ceremony for the Obama portraits.

‘An evolution of art’

Details about the pieces being unveiled on Wednesday were a tightly held secret, with artists and art movers signing confidentiality agreements to keep things under wraps before the big day.

But the Obamas have often used art as a tool to express their tastes, so it should come as no surprise that their White House portraits are doing the same.

McCurdy’s depiction of the former President is minimalist, eschewing the conventional props typically associated with a presidential portrait, like a desk or a bookcase, for an entirely blank background.

The former President said during the unveiling that he liked that McCurdy “paints people the way they are, for better or worse.”

“He captures every wrinkle on your face, every crease in your shirt. You’ll note that he refused to hide any of my gray hairs, refused my request to make my ears smaller. He also talked me out of wearing a tan suit, by the way,” Obama quipped. “His work is so precise that at first glance it looks like a photograph.”

While past presidents attain a form of “mythical status” after leaving office, Obama said he hoped future generations would look at the portraits and “get a better, honest sense of who Michelle and I were.”

“And I hope they leave with a better understanding that if we could make it here, maybe they can too. They can do remarkable things, too,” he continued.

Sprung’s interpretation shows the former first lady appearing to take a brief moment to get comfortable inside one of the the most formal rooms in the White House. Unlike her predecessors’ portraits, Michelle Obama is wearing a strapless gown in her portrait — perhaps a marker of the country’s evolving style.

In her portrait, the former first lady is wearing a custom Jason Wu Collection gown, a person familiar with the details told CNN. Wu is a full-circle choice of designer for Obama, and he designed both of her inaugural gowns. Obama’s choice of Wu back then essentially launched his career as a globally recognized fashion designer.

Michelle Obama said during the ceremony that though she “never could have imagined” being first lady would be part of her story, she recognized that “traditions like this matter, not just for those of us who hold these positions, but for everyone participating in and watching our democracy.”

“Too often in this country, people feel like they have to look a certain way or act a certain way to fit in, that they have to make a lot of money or come from a certain group or class or faith in order to matter. But what we’re looking at today — a portrait of a biracial kid with an unusual name and the daughter of a water pump operator and a stay-at-home mom — what we are seeing is a reminder that there is a place for everyone in this country,” the former first lady said.

“That is what this country is about. It’s not about blood or pedigree or wealth. It’s a place where everyone should have a fair shot,” she continued.

Ahead of Wednesday’s reveal, McLaurin called the Obama portraits “an evolution of art.”

Jill Biden pays tribute to one of America's most iconic first ladies

“We’re now heading towards the first third of the 21st century. And I think in the mind’s eye of most Americans, we see presidential portraits as these very traditional, 19th-century-looking-and-feeling portraits. But art and taste in art evolves and changes,” he continued.

While living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Obamas opted to highlight several contemporary and modern artists.

A Robert Rauschenberg painting replaced a portrait of a Roosevelt in the family dining room. Mark Rothko and Josef Albers works were installed. And Michelle Obama brought in work from Alma Thomas — the first Black female artist in the White House Collection.
Since leaving the presidency, the Obamas have staked some of their post-White House careers in taste-making — producing podcasts and award-winning films, as well as curating playlists and book lists each year.
For their portraits unveiled in 2018 at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (which are not to be confused with new official White House portraits being unveiled this week), the Obamas chose two Black artists with unique perspectives on African-American portraiture.

Amy Sherald, who painted the first lady’s Smithsonian portrait, challenges conventions about race by depicting her figures’ skin in shades of gray. Kehinde Wiley, who painted the former President, re-imagines Old Master paintings with Black subjects.

Wednesday’s ceremony at the White House

The Obamas’ return to the White House marked a rare moment for the current and past administrations to converge and look back on a presidential legacy in the same room where President Obama awarded then-Vice President Biden a surprise Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2017.

Unlike the 2012 Bush portraits unveiling, Wednesday’s event mostly hosted attendees from the same political party — with some attendees having connections to both administrations.

The Obamas were joined by family, friends, former Cabinet members and top staffers from the administration during the unveiling, acknowledging former staff in the room as well as staff from the White House residence.

Marian Robinson, the mother of Michelle Obama who lived in the White House residence during their presidency, attended the ceremony.

Biden's summer vacation allows time for White House renovations

Other attendees included Obama’s former chief of staff (and the current US Ambassador to Japan) Rahm Emanuel, former senior adviser David Axelrod, former Treasury Secretaries Jack Lew and Timothy Geithner, former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, former Attorney General Eric Holder, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former Director of the US Office of Management and Budget Shaun Donovan, and former White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

Shortly after Wednesday’s ceremony, the portraits were hung inside the White House.

Barack Obama’s portrait is now hanging in the Grand Foyer at the base of the main White House staircase, replacing the portrait of former President Bill Clinton. Michelle Obama’s is hanging one floor below, along the ground floor hallway.

The Bidens also hosted the Obamas and Robinson for a private lunch at the White House ahead of the East Room event. The conversation was more focused on nostalgia, an official said, rather than a strategy session on midterm elections or pending policies.

Former President Obama has visited the White House since Biden took office, but Wednesday’s event marked Michelle Obama’s first time back in the building since the Trumps arrived in January 2017.

While former President Obama and President Biden like to play up their relationship in public, there are limits to their friendship, officials have said.

They speak occasionally, but they are not in daily or weekly contact, people familiar with the matter have said.

After two terms working in Obama’s shadow, Biden has, at moments, differentiated himself from his predecessor. Officials have said there is also a degree of competition between the two men.

Their history, while one of partnership, has also been colored by various slights, real or perceived, that still linger.

Obama declined to endorse Biden over other Democrats in the 2020 primary, a step both men insisted was necessary to allow a true contest within the party. Four years earlier, Obama had viewed Hillary Clinton as his Democratic successor instead of Biden, who decided not to run as he grappled with his son’s death.

Trump portraits are up next

The White House Historical Association is in the “beginning stages” of the portrait processes for former President Trump and former first lady Melania Trump, McLaurin said.

“There’s focus on specific artists that will likely be doing their portraits,” McLaurin added.

A source familiar with the situation told CNN that chatter about the portraits started in the last six months at Mar-a-Lago — Trump’s Florida residence — and that the former president recently sat for photographs. However, it’s not clear whether Trump has posed for the White House portrait artist or for photographs specifically for the portraits.

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to say whether Biden would extend an invitation to Trump should his portrait be completed during the Biden administration.

While the official White House portraits are typically funded by the WHHA, the other set of portraits being created for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery are being underwritten by Trump’s political donors.

Trump’s political action committee donated $650,000 to the Smithsonian Institution in July to help underwrite the portraits of the Trumps, according to Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian.

The donation from Trump’s Save America leadership PAC marks the first time that funds have come from a political action committee since the institution began raising private funds for presidential portraits — a practice that started with the portraits associated with former President George H. W. Bush, St. Thomas said.

St. Thomas said another private donation of $100,000 also is helping to pay costs associated with the portraits. The funds, totaling $750,000, will go to artists’ fees, shipping, framing, installation and events.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify where President Donald Trump had the portraits of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton moved during his time in the White House.

The Obamas’ official portraits have been hung in the White House.

President Obama’s is hanging in the Grand Foyer at the base of the main White House staircase, replacing the portrait of former President Clinton. It hangs above a small red sofa.

Mrs. Obama’s is hanging one floor below, along the ground floor hallway. It’s hanging within one of the recessed archways that line the hallway.

CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Kate Bennett, Fredreka Schouten, Gabby Orr, Betsy Klein and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.

Space travel: Going to space is a real pain in the back

Story highlights

Astronauts can temporarily gain 2 inches in height but suffer muscle loss and back pain

More countermeasures involving exercise may help mitigate pain and muscle loss


A six-month stay on the International Space Station can be a pain in the back for astronauts. While they may gain up to 2 inches in height temporarily, that effect is accompanied by a weakening of the muscles supporting the spine, according to a new study.

In 1994, astronaut Mark Lee had his height measured by fellow astronaut Jerry Linenger as part of a study on back pain.

Astronauts have been reporting back pain since the late 1980s, when space missions grew longer. Their flight medical data show that more than half of US astronauts have reported back pain, especially in their lower backs. Up to 28% indicated that it was moderate to severe pain, sometimes lasting the duration of their mission.

Things don’t improve when they return to Earth’s gravity. In the first year after their mission, astronauts have a 4.3 times higher risk of a herniated disc.

“It’s sort of an ongoing problem that has been a significant one with cause for concern,” said Dr. Douglas Chang, first author of the new study and associate professor of orthopedic surgery and chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation service at University of California San Diego Health. “So this study is the first to take it from just an epidemiological description and look at the possible mechanisms for what is going on with the astronauts’ backs.”

Much attention has been focused on intervertebral discs, the spongy shock absorbers that sit between our vertebrae, as the culprit for the back issues that astronauts face. But the new study runs counter to that thinking. In this research, funded by NASA, Chang’s team observed little to no changes in the discs, their height or swelling.

What they did observe in six astronauts who spent four to seven months on the ISS was a tremendous degeneration and atrophying of the supporting musculature in the lumbar (lower) spine, Chang said. These muscles are the ones that help us stay upright, walk and move our upper extremities in an environment like Earth, while protecting discs and ligaments from strain or injury.

In microgravity, the torso lengthens, most likely due to spinal unloading, in which the spinal curvature flattens. Astronauts also aren’t using the muscle tone in their lower backs because they aren’t bending over or using their lower backs to move, like on Earth, Chang said. This is where the pain and stiffening occurs, much like if the astronauts were in a body cast for six months.

MRI scans before and after the missions revealed that the astronauts experienced a 19% decrease in these muscles during their flight. “Even after six weeks of training and reconditioning here one Earth, they are only getting about 68% of their losses restored,” Chang explained.

Chang and his team consider this a serious issue for long-term manned missions, especially when considering a trip to Mars that could take eight or nine months just to reach the Red Planet. That trip, and the astronauts’ potential time spent in Martian gravity – 38% of the surface gravity on Earth – creates the potential for muscle atrophy and deconditioning.

The team’s future research will also look at reported neck issues, where there can be even more occurrences of muscle atrophy and a slower recovery period. They are also hoping to partner with another university on inflight ultrasounds of the spine, to look at what happens to astronauts while they are on the space station.

Because nobody likes back pain and muscle loss, Chang suggested countermeasures that should be added to the already two- to three-hour workout astronauts have on the space station each day. Though their exercise machines focus on a range of issues including cardiovascular and skeletal health, the team believes that space travelers also need to include a core-strenghtening program focused on the spine.

In addition to the “fetal tuck” position astronauts use in microgravity to stretch their lower back or alleviate back pain, Chang suggested yoga. But he knows that is easier said than done.

“A lot of yoga depends on the effects of gravity, like downward dog, where a stretch through the hamstring, calf muscles, back of the neck and shoulders are possible because of gravity. When you remove that, you may not have the same benefit.”

Any machines on the space station also have to be designed with regards to weight, size and even the reverberations they could produce on the station.

Scott Parazynski, who walked in space seven times, assisted with construction on the space station in 2007.

Chang and the other researchers brainstormed with a virtual reality team about different exercise programs that would enable astronauts to invite friends, family or even Twitter followers to join them in a virtual workout, making the daily repetition of their workouts more fun and competitive.

One of Chang’s teammates has felt this pain personally. Dr. Scott Parazynski is the only astronaut to summit Mount Everest. He experienced a herniated disc after returning from the ISS to Earth. Less than a year later, when he attempted to climb Everest the first time, he had to be airlifted off. After a rehabilitation process, he eventually made the summit. Now, he speaks to current astronauts about the ways they can contribute to studies about their health in microgravity.

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  • Keeping the astronauts healthy and fit is the least they can do, Chang said.

    “When a crew comes back, they say on one side of the space station, they see this beautiful blue planet,” he said. “Everything they hold dear to them is on this fragile little planet. And they look out the other window and just see infinity stretching off into the blackness, and they come back with a different sense of themselves and their place in the universe.

    “All of them are committed to furthering space knowledge and making incremental steps forward in any way they can for the next crew.”

    White Data Center: How snow in Japan could reduce data’s carbon footprint

    CNN Business

    A city in Japan has found a way to cool the vast servers that support the global digital economy without fueling the climate crisis.

    Bibai, in Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, and its White Data Center have turned to snow.

    At WDC, snow is collected and piled up in an insulated mound outside the building. Heat captured from its servers slowly melts the snow, and the water cools pipes containing antifreeze — which then flows around the data center via an AC system, keeping temperatures around 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit).

    “Temperature range is controlled by combining the coldness of snow and the warmth of IT exhaust heat to keep the temperature at the right level all year round,” says WDC director Kota Honma.

    The number of data centers around the world continues to grow, to keep up with the rise of streaming, cloud-based gaming, and cryptocurrency mining. But they typically consume a lot of power, and are already responsible for roughly 1% of global energy demand, according to the International Energy Agency.

    The Bibai data center began experimenting with snow in 2014 with a grant from Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Organization (NEDO), and according to Honma, has reduced data center cooling costs by 55%. Now a commercial entity, WDC hopes to attract business from Tokyo-based data centers.

    “WDC is always air-conditioned using only 100% natural energy, without using electric cooling or thermal fuels,” Honma tells CNN Business. “Compared to the cost of renting [server] racks in Tokyo, we think we can offer them lower maintenance costs.”

    There is a long-standing relationship with snow and Northern Japan’s economy. Bibai, about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) north of Tokyo, sees between eight to 10 meters of snow per year and spends 400 million yen ($2.9 million) plowing and dumping it. “This is considered a nuisance for residents … and it could actually be put to good use,” says Honma.

    Roughly 200,000 tons of snow are plowed from the streets of Bibai each year, and city authorities are partnering with WDC to deliver some of that snow to its data center. With the extra cooling capacity, the goal is to scale up the center from 20 server racks to 200.

    During the summer months, the snow mound is insulated with a covering of wood chips and dirt. Storing “free” cold energy falling from the sky is a no-brainer as a business opportunity, says Takahisa Tsuchiya, executive director of Bibai City’s economic department. “We always say that we should change our point of view and make the snow be on our side,” he adds.

    Snow cooling is only one piece of the data center’s energy puzzle. Heat from the servers is used to warm air and water in an adjacent greenhouse, where the company is growing mushrooms and has tested other products including Japanese mustard spinach, coffee beans, abalones and sea urchins. It’s also hoping to become the first commercial eel farm in Hokkaido.

    The White Data Center's proposed expansion in the city of Bibai (shown here in a rendering) would bring online 200 server racks and provide runoff heat to nearby greenhouses.

    The global data center cooling market is estimated to reach more than $12 billion by 2027, according to market research firm Arizton, and some big tech companies have already been chilling with cool temperatures by setting up shop in Nordic countries.


    server facility in Odense, Denmark keeps the building cool with outside air and hopes to reuse the heat in local hospitals. Google

    has a data center in Finland using pipes with ocean water to chill servers, aiming to reach zero carbon emissions in its data centers by 2030.

    Yet when it comes to cutting energy usage, some experts say it’s more important to focus on what data these vast servers are handling. Mining cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, for example, requires massive amounts of electricity.

    “Renewable and sustainable power and cooling systems are a second but far less optimal solution,” says Paul Brody, principal blockchain leader at Ernst & Young.

    The upside of data centers, Brody adds, is that they aggregate computer operations under one roof instead of dispersing them across several locations. “I’m 100% in favor of snow-cooled and other low-impact data centers, regardless of whether or not you have Bitcoin in them,” he says.