February 19, 2024 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Christian Edwards, Antoinette Radford, Aditi Sangal, Elise Hammond and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 12:04 a.m. ET, February 20, 2024
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6:29 a.m. ET, February 19, 2024

Navalny's widow claims Putin "killed the father of my children"

From CNN's Seb Shukla in Berlin

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, center left, walks with his wife Yulia after arriving from Kirov at a railway station in Moscow, Russia, on July 20, 2013.
Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, center left, walks with his wife Yulia after arriving from Kirov at a railway station in Moscow, Russia, on July 20, 2013. Evgeny Feldman/AP

The widow of the late Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny on Monday claimed President Vladimir Putin “killed the father of my children," and "took away the most precious thing that was my closest and most beloved person.” 

The fierce Kremlin critic was jailed in 2021 after returning to Russia from Germany, where he was being treated after being poisoned with a nerve agent in 2020. On Friday, the Russian prison service said he had died aged 47.

In an 8-minute address posted on Alexey Navalny's social media accounts, Yulia Navalnaya promised that she would find out who was responsible for his death and that "We will name names.” 

She also promised to continue her husband's work.

“Putin killed half of me, half of my heart and half of my soul. But the other half of me remains and it tells me that I don’t have the right to surrender," she said. "No one except ourselves will protect us."

6:03 a.m. ET, February 19, 2024

EU proposes renaming its human rights sanctions package in honor of Navalny

From CNN’s James Frater in London

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell talks to the press as he arrives for a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium, on February 19.
European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell talks to the press as he arrives for a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium, on February 19. Yves Herman/Reuters

The European Union is set to rename its human rights sanctions regime to pay homage to Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny who died in an Arctic prison last week.

Changing the name to the "Navalny human rights sanction regime" would allow the dissident's name "to be forever written on the work of the European Union on defending human rights," the bloc's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

The EU’s "global human rights sanctions regime" came into force in December 2020 and provides the EU with a legal basis “to target individuals, entities and bodies – including state and non-state actors – responsible for, involved in or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide."

Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny's widow, will on Monday address the 27 European foreign ministers, delivering "a political message about how to support the opposition, the political opposition inside Russia against Putin's regime," Borrell said. 

5:57 a.m. ET, February 19, 2024

Injured and abandoned, desperate Ukrainian soldiers reached out to their families before they were killed

From CNN's Tim Lister, Maria Kostenko and Victoria Butenko

Amid the abrupt and sometimes chaotic withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the city of Avdiivka, one horrifying story has emerged of several injured soldiers who did not escape — and were later killed as Russian troops reached their position.

Ivan Zhytnyk, 30, whose call sign is “Django,” had been fighting in Avdiivka for nearly two years, as had the 110th Brigade.

The junior sergeant and combat medic was badly injured and could not move. But on Thursday, he reached his sister Kateryna and other family members in an emotional video call, which has since received widespread coverage on Ukrainian and social media. 

Kateryna asks her brother: “So, what, they... no one is coming? Your guys are there too [with you], or are you alone?” 
Django replied: “Everyone left, everyone retreated. They told us that a car would pick us up. I have two broken legs, shrapnel in my back. I can't do anything...
He said there were six soldiers at the position, called Zenit. “Four people who are like me can't walk either,” he told his sister. 
Kateryna responds: “I don't know how to... who to call (crying)... I can't figure it out. Who will pick you up?”

No-one did.

On Friday, a video was posted by a Russian military blogger that showed the bodies of several of the soldiers. The video carried the emblem of the Russian Army’s 1st Slavic Brigade, which had entered the area south of Avdiivka two days earlier, according to multiple accounts. 

The text on the video says: “February 16, 2024. Military Unit facility, Avdeevka. Ukrnazi, only death is waiting for you at our land.”

Kateryna said she recognized Ivan's body by his clothes and the water bottle he held.

6:00 a.m. ET, February 19, 2024

Russia raises flag in Avdiivka as Navalny’s family seeks answers. Here are the latest developments

From CNN's Christian Edwards

Russian troops have raised their country’s flag in the ruined town of Avdiivka in the Donetsk region after Ukrainian forces retreated.

Ukraine withdrew from the town, which it had been defending for a decade, months after Russia renewed efforts to seize it and tolerated devastating losses to do so.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that seven Russians were killed for every Ukrainian soldier lost.

Despite the high casualty rates, Russia is pressuring Ukrainian defenses at several other points along the 1,000-kilometer frontline.

The seizure of Avdiivka demonstrates Russia's growing manpower advantage in what is becoming a war of attrition.

Here are the latest developments in the region:

  • Navalny’s body: The family of the late Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny – who died last week in a Siberian prison – has been denied access to the morgue where his body is thought to be held. The Kremlin said it is “not involved” in returning Navalny’s body to his family, but that an investigation into the circumstances of his death is underway.
  • Moscow tributes: Navalny's death has been met with an outpouring of grief across the world. In Russia, where the smallest acts of political dissent carry great risk, hundreds have reportedly been detained as tributes were held.
  • Security conference: The news of Navalny’s death and Ukraine’s withdrawal from Avdiivka muted the mood of this year’s Munich Security Conference, as talks between Western leaders were dominated by the need to provide more aid to Ukraine and bolster European security.
  • Congressional delays: US President Joe Biden, in a call with Zelensky, said the withdrawal from Avdiivka was a result of Congress’s inability to pass further aid for Ukraine's effort to fend off Russia's invasion.
  • Second anniversary: As the anniversary of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine approaches, Russia continues to suffer devastating losses – both to troops and equipment. Ukraine has faced growing ammunition constraints as Western arms supplies slowed. The year ahead looks uncertain, with Ukraine’s better units exhausted after two years of combat and Oleksandr Syrskyi now at the helm as Ukraine's commander-in-chief.
5:23 a.m. ET, February 19, 2024

Kremlin says investigation into Navalny's death is underway

From CNN staff

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny takes part in a march in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Russia, on February 24, 2019.
Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny takes part in a march in memory of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, Russia, on February 24, 2019. Pavel Golovkin/AP

The Kremlin has said that an investigation into the circumstances around late Russian politician Alexey Navalny’s death is “underway,” and the results are currently “unknown.” 

Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, made the statement in his daily call with journalists.

When asked by CNN why Putin has yet to make any public comments on Navalny’s death, Peskov said: “I have nothing to add to what has been said on this topic.”

6:02 a.m. ET, February 19, 2024

Navalny spokesperson says politician's mother and lawyers denied access to morgue 

From CNN staff

A spokesperson for the late Russian politician Alexey Navalny said his mother and lawyers were denied access Monday to the morgue where his body is allegedly being held. 

Spokesperson Kira Yarmysh said Navalny's mother and lawyers "were not allowed" to go into the morgue after arriving "early" on Monday morning, according to a statement on X. 

Although Yarmysh did not specify the location in her post, she is believed to be referring to the same morgue in the town of Salekhard where his mother and lawyer were also denied access on Saturday. 

"One of the lawyers was literally pushed out. When the staff was asked if Alexey’s body was there, they did not answer," Yarmysh said, recounting Monday's visit. 

In a separate post, Yarmysh said Navalny's mother and lawyers were told by Russia's Investigative Committee that the investigation into his death had been extended for an undisclosed duration. 

"How much longer it will go is unknown. The cause of death is still 'undetermined.' They lie, stall for time, and don't even hide it," Yarmysh said, criticizing the investigation. 

Kremlin says “not involved”: The Kremlin said it is “not involved” in the issue of returning Navalny’s body to his family. 

“This is not the responsibility of the presidential administration,” Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, said in his daily call with journalists.

5:22 a.m. ET, February 19, 2024

Hundreds arrested at vigils and rallies since Russian opposition figure's death, monitoring group says

From CNN's Darya Tarasova

People gather at a makeshift memorial for Alexey Navalny in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 16.
People gather at a makeshift memorial for Alexey Navalny in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 16. Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

At least 366 people have reportedly been detained across Russia since Friday for attending vigils and rallies in honor of Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny, according to OVD-Info, a human rights group that monitors Russian repression.

The jailed Russian opposition figure and outspoken Kremlin critic died on Friday at a penal colony north of the Arctic Circle, according to the Russian prison service. He was serving multiple sentences for fraud, extremism and other charges he dismissed as politically motivated.

According to OVD-Info, 128 of those detained have since been released. The monitoring group cautioned that numbers could increase or decrease as it receives updated information.

Police detain people after laying flowers at a monument to victims of political repression to honor Alexey Navalny in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 17.
Police detain people after laying flowers at a monument to victims of political repression to honor Alexey Navalny in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 17. Andrei Bok/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Outcry over return of Navalny's body: By Sunday, nearly 30,000 people had also joined a petition to Russian authorities for the immediate release of Navalny's body to his family. At the moment, the exact location of his remains is unclear.

Russian officials said Friday that a "procedural investigation" had been organized to clarify the circumstances surrounding Navalny's death. Prison authorities said the opposition figure fell gravely ill shortly after returning from a walk — a statement met with skepticism from Western leaders.

Navalny and the war in Ukraine: Since he was imprisoned in 2021, Navalny had condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and encouraged anti-war protests across the country.

The reported death of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most high-profile critic punctuates a crackdown on dissidence in Russia that has accelerated during the war.

It has also reignited debate in the US about how forcefully to counter Russia and Putin.

5:28 a.m. ET, February 19, 2024

Biden blames "congressional inaction" in the US for Ukraine's withdrawal from Avdiivka

From CNN's Sam Fossum, Priscilla Alvarez, Radina Gigova and Kaanita Iyer

US President Joe Biden delivers remark at a campaign event in Manassas, Virginia, on January 23.
US President Joe Biden delivers remark at a campaign event in Manassas, Virginia, on January 23. Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

In a call Saturday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, US President Joe Biden directly tied Ukraine’s withdrawal from the key town of Avdiivka to Congress’ inability to pass further aid for the country’s effort to fend off Russia’s invasion.

“This morning, Ukraine’s military was forced to withdraw from Avdiivka, after Ukrainian soldiers had to ration ammunition due to dwindling supplies as a result of congressional inaction, resulting in Russia’s first notable gains in months. President Biden emphasized the need for Congress to urgently pass the national security supplemental funding bill to resupply Ukrainian forces,” a White House readout of the call stated.

The call bookended a week defined by US attempts to reassert leadership on the world stage.

It also highlighted renewed urgency to pass additional funds for Ukraine amid the withdrawal from Avdiivka, a key town that in recent months became one of the most fiercely contested battles on the eastern front, and Russia's reports of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny’s death.

5:22 a.m. ET, February 19, 2024

Ukraine’s forces withdraw from key eastern town of Avdiivka after months of fighting

From CNN's Chris Lau and Sophie Tanno

Destroyed buildings in Avdiivka, Ukraine, are pictured on February 15.
Destroyed buildings in Avdiivka, Ukraine, are pictured on February 15. Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images

Ukrainian forces on Friday announced their withdrawal from Avdiivka, a key town that in recent months became one of the most fiercely contested battles on the eastern front.

The move followed an intensification of Moscow’s attacks on the area, as Russia pummeled it with airstrikes and artillery, and sent wave after wave of ground assaults by armored vehicles and soldiers.

While the town’s strategic significance is limited, Avdiivka marks the biggest gain for Moscow since it captured the city of Bakhmut last year, and is an indication of how the war appears to have turned in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favor.

Ukrainian servicemen fire an anti-tank grenade launcher toward Russian troops in Avdiivka on November 8.
Ukrainian servicemen fire an anti-tank grenade launcher toward Russian troops in Avdiivka on November 8. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty/Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters

Ukraine faces renewed pressure across the eastern front, compounded by ammunition and manpower shortages.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the decision to pull back from Avdiivka was made to “save our soldiers’ lives.”

“In order to avoid being surrounded, it was decided to withdraw to other lines. This does not mean that people retreated some kilometers and Russia captured something, it did not capture anything,” he added.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a statement Saturday the city is now under full Russian control.