February 26, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Andrew Raine, Sophie Tanno, Matt Meyer, Maureen Chowdhury and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 12:20 a.m. ET, February 27, 2023
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11:21 a.m. ET, February 26, 2023

The brutal fight for Bakhmut has turned to urban combat as forces battle for every inch of territory

From CNN's Tim Lister

A Ukrainian Army serviceman waits for an order near Bakhmut, on Thursday.
A Ukrainian Army serviceman waits for an order near Bakhmut, on Thursday. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

There is one thing that Russian and Ukrainian accounts agree upon: The fighting around the eastern city of Bakhmut is relentless, and the casualties — on both sides — are high. 

A fierce fight in the streets: Until a few weeks ago, the battle was waged largely with tanks, artillery and mortars. But Bakhmut has increasingly become a field of urban combat, with every street and building in the suburbs and surrounding villages contested.

Russian forces — including fighters from the Wagner private military company — have edged toward the center of the city from the east, south and north.

Ukrainian units have launched frequent counter-attacks to try to reclaim some territory and preserve their precarious access to Bakhmut from the west. That access has become gradually more complicated as routes into the city have come under control of Russian forces.

Ukrainian soldiers on unofficial social media accounts have said they are increasingly reliant on dirt roads to reach — and leave — Bakhmut, tracks that may become impassable as the frost turns to mud.

Russia aims to encircle Ukraine's troops: Rather than drive directly toward the city center, Wagner groups have sought to surround the city in a wide arc from the north. In January, the groups claimed the nearby town of Soledar, and have since taken a string of villages and hamlets north of Bakhmut.

That process appears to have gone a step further in recent days, with Wagner apparently reaching the village of Yahidne immediately to the northwest of Bakhmut. The village sits on a route that, until recently, was used by Ukrainians to get in and out of the city.

The next target for the Russians could be the town of Chasiv Yar, a straggling collection of Soviet-era apartment blocks, sitting on high ground which has already been extensively damaged. Ukrainian officials said it came under artillery fire again Sunday.

How long will Ukraine defend the city? The conundrum for the Ukrainian military is whether it remains feasible to continue defending Bakhmut.

At the beginning of February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said, "No one will surrender Bakhmut. We will fight as long as we can. We consider Bakhmut our fortress."

More recently, in an interview with Italian media, Zelensky's tone was slightly different. “It is important for us to defend (Bakhmut), but not at any price and not for everyone to die,” he was quoted as saying.

If Bakhmut can no longer be held, it will be important to note where Ukrainians choose to draw their next defensive lines. The cities of Kostiantynivka and Kramatorsk are not far to the west of Bakhmut and have already registered an uptick in Russian missile attacks.  

For now, there's no sign of a withdrawal of Ukrainian units from the Bakhmut area, and the brutal fighting wears on.

1:30 p.m. ET, February 26, 2023

White House official won't say whether the US will support Ukraine retaking Crimea

From CNN’s Jasmine Wright

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan would not say whether the Biden administration would support Ukraine if it decides victory against Russia requires retaking Crimea.

Sunday marks the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the peninsula

“What ultimately happens with Crimea, in the context of this war and a settlement of this war, is something for the Ukrainians to determine with the support of the United States,” Sullivan told CNN’s Dana Bash on "State of the Union." “But I'm just not going to get into hypothetical questions. Because what we're facing today is a counteroffensive in the east, in the south, that we need to give them the tools to fight. And we are doing that.”

Asked directly if the US would help Ukraine take back Crimea, Sullivan punted again on NBC’s "Meet the Press," repeating that the most critical thing right now is supplying Ukraine with the tools to take back territory in the south and east.

Asked by Bash on CNN to level with the American people on how long the war will last, Sullivan said: “War is unpredictable.”

He reiterated US President Joe Biden’s Friday statement that the administration was ruling out providing F-16 fighter jets “for now.” Sullivan would not say whether the US would provide jets down the line.

On China, Sullivan told Bash that the US has still not seen Beijing make a final decision on whether to provide Russia lethal aid for the war. He also declined to detail what consequences China would face if they made such a move. 

“President Biden has said previously, we're not just making direct threats. We're just laying out both the stakes and the consequences, how things would unfold and we are doing that clearly — and specifically behind closed doors,” he said.

9:25 a.m. ET, February 26, 2023

US State Department reaffirms “Crimea is Ukraine” to mark annexation anniversary

From CNN’S Andrew Millman

The US State Department reasserted that “Crimea is Ukraine,” in a statement from spokesperson Ned Price to mark the nine-year anniversary of Russia’s occupation of the territory.

The statement also comes after the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine earlier this month.

“The United States does not and never will recognize Russia’s purported annexation of the peninsula,” Price stated. He called Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea “a clear violation of international law and of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity."

“The United States welcomes the efforts of Ukraine’s Crimea Platform to focus global attention on Russia’s continued occupation,” said Price, referring to the Ukrainian government entity that coordinates Ukrainian efforts to recover the peninsula.

Moldova fears history repeating itself: In recent weeks, concerns have risen that Russian President Vladimir Putin could be using some of the same pretext used to annex Crimea to next target the tiny country of Moldova, which sits on Ukraine's southern border.

Russia has vehemently denied any claims it is plotting to destabilize Moldova. It defends as legitimate its annexation of both Crimea and four additional Ukrainian territories claimed during the war, in violation of international law.

10:16 a.m. ET, February 26, 2023

Russian unit complains of receiving "criminal orders" and being sent into battle "to be slaughtered"

From CNN's Hannah Ritchie, Tim Lister, Josh Pennington and Maria Kostenko

Russian citizens drafted during the partial mobilization are seen being dispatched to combat coordination areas after a military call-up for the Russia-Ukraine war in Moscow, Russia on October 10, 2022.
Russian citizens drafted during the partial mobilization are seen being dispatched to combat coordination areas after a military call-up for the Russia-Ukraine war in Moscow, Russia on October 10, 2022. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

For the second time in a month, men who say they are with a mobilized Russian unit deployed to Ukraine have complained about their treatment and commanders.

The men are from regiment 1439, which comes from Irkutsk in Siberia. A group from the same regiment issued a similar protest in January. It's unclear whether the new video includes men involved in the previous complaint.

In the latest video, published Saturday, the group claimed they had been given “unlawful and criminal orders” from their command and sent to battle without “any support.”

“We are the mobilized from Irkutsk oblast (region), regiment 1439, who were sent to the (self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic) from the city of Novosibirsk on December 31, 2022,” said a hooded soldier reading a message and surrounded by other soldiers.

“We ask for help in dealing with the unlawful and criminal orders of our command … the soldiers of the territorial defense were made into assault units in a single day and were sent to assault the Avdiivka stronghold — without any support from artillery, communications, sappers, reconnaissance — to be slaughtered.” 

Avdiivka is a hotly contested city close to the front lines in Donetsk

“DPR commanders are firing machine guns and infantry fighting vehicles at our mobilized soldiers because (they) refuse to join the assault units. There is no point in appealing to the local military prosecutor's office since they are in full collusion with the commanders … At this point, this battalion has been almost completely destroyed,” the hooded soldier continued.

As the video nears its end, the soldier says the unit is in a “desperate position” because the DPR “commanders do not care” about their lives. 

Another video, also purportedly from men of the 1439th, circulated at the end of January.

In it, a group of soldiers said they were being threatened and fired at by their commanders for refusing to join the front line, and were being forced into combat without adequate support.

“Our command directly tells us that we are expendable. DPR commanders fire machine guns and BMPs at our mobilized soldiers because (they) refuse to join the assault units," said a man dressed in a military uniform. The video was published on January 26. 

The man alleged that many in his unit were sent to the front line in assault groups without any training, and that two men died as a result, while 19 more were wounded. He also claimed the soldiers were paying for food and water from their “own pockets,” living in “complete disorder” and treating themselves for injuries. 

CNN cannot independently verify the videos, or whether the group are indeed soldiers from the 1439 regiment.

TVRain — an independent Russian outlet — said it received Saturday’s video direct from the soldiers.

CNN has asked for comment from the Russian Ministry of Defence.

8:31 a.m. ET, February 26, 2023

German defense minister: Judge China "by its actions and not its words" as it calls for Ukraine peace talks

From CNN's Sophie Tanno

After just over a month in office, the new defense minister Boris Pistorius, has become the most highly rated German politician, according to a poll.
After just over a month in office, the new defense minister Boris Pistorius, has become the most highly rated German politician, according to a poll. (Christian Charisius/dpa/Getty Images)

Germany's Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has reacted with skepticism to China's plans on how to end the Ukraine conflict.

“When I hear reports – and I don’t know whether they are true – according to which China may be planning to supply kamikaze drones to Russia while at the same time presenting a peace plan, then I suggest we judge China by its actions and not its words,” he told German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

On Friday, China's foreign ministry issued a position paper calling for a resumption of peace talks and an end to unilateral sanctions, and stressing its opposition to the use of nuclear weapons.

But Beijing’s claim to neutrality has been severely undermined by its refusal to acknowledge the nature of the conflict – it has so far avoided calling it an “invasion” – and its diplomatic and economic support for Moscow.

Western officials have also raised concerns that China may be considering providing Russia with lethal military assistance, an accusation denied by Beijing.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian politician who advises President Volodymyr Zelensky, on Saturday hit out at China for "betting on an aggressor" after Beijing repeated its call for a political settlement to the Ukraine war.

"If you claim to be a global player, you don't offer an unrealistic plan," he tweeted. "You don't bet on an aggressor who broke international law and will lose the war."

French President Emmanuel Macron has said it is a "good thing" that China is engaging in peace efforts, as he announced plans to visit Beijing in April.

8:28 a.m. ET, February 26, 2023

Latest on the fighting: Ukraine reports heavy shelling throughout front line, says attacks in Luhansk repelled

From CNN's Maria Kostenko and Tim Lister

A residential area is seen after bombing in Kherson on Friday.
A residential area is seen after bombing in Kherson on Friday. (Vincenzo Circosta/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Here's what we know about the latest fighting on the ground, with authorities in several parts of Ukraine reporting extensive Russian shelling over the past 24 hours — from the northern region of Sumy to Kherson in the south.

Much of the incoming fire was directed at settlements in Luhansk and Donetsk regions, many of which have been deserted by their residents. Russia controls much of the two territories and hopes to fully capture them.

Artillery fire on the town of Kupyansk in neighboring Kharkiv region has picked up in recent weeks, with Russian forces only some ten kilometers away.

Ukrainian officials said there were artillery attacks against several towns and villages along the hotly contested frontlines to the east of Kupyansk.

The authorities in Donetsk region said three people were killed and four wounded over the past 24 hours. They said several settlements near the flashpoint city of Bakhmut came under fire.

Serhiy Hayday, head of Luhansk region military administration, said in the area where Donetsk and Luhansk regions meet (near the town of Kreminna) "all attacks have been repelled. The Kreminna sector is a forest landscape which is why Russians are trying to manoeuvre there, going with small groups of 10-15 people. Russians are learning from us, so it varies from day to day."

Hayday added that "enemy losses reached 70 killed and uncountable wounded. Their hospitals are overcrowded. Russians do not care about their losses at all."

CNN can't independently confirm losses of either side in the fighting.

6:20 a.m. ET, February 26, 2023

Analysis: Why Moldova fears it could be next for Putin

From CNN's Rob Picheta

People take part in a protest against the Moldovan Government in the capital of Chisinau on February 19.
People take part in a protest against the Moldovan Government in the capital of Chisinau on February 19. (Elena Covalenco/AFP/Getty Images)

Tensions are mounting in Moldova, a small country on Ukraine’s southwestern border, where Russia has been accused of laying the groundwork for a coup that could drag the nation into the Kremlin’s war.

Moldova’s President, Maia Sandu, has accused Russia of using “saboteurs” disguised as civilians to stoke unrest amid a period of political instability, echoing similar warnings from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has meanwhile baselessly accused Kyiv of planning its own assault on a pro-Russian territory in Moldova where Moscow has a military foothold, heightening fears that he is creating a pretext for a Crimea-style annexation.

US President Joe Biden met President Sandu on the sidelines of his trip to Warsaw last week, marking the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

Although there is no sign he has accepted her invite to visit, the White House did say he reaffirmed support for Moldova’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Read the full analysis piece here.

5:38 a.m. ET, February 26, 2023

Putin says the West aims to break up Russia

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to watch the Victory Day military parade at Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to watch the Victory Day military parade at Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2022. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images/FILE)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the West of attempting to destroy Russia.

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that in an interview with Rossiya 1 Putin said the West has "one goal - to break up the former Soviet Union and its main part - the Russian Federation."

“And then, perhaps, they will accept us in the so-called family of civilized peoples, but only separately, each part separately. For what?” Putin said.

In comments to another channel, Putin said that Russia needs to consider NATO’s nuclear capabilities.

"In today's conditions, when all the leading NATO countries have declared their main goal as inflicting a strategic defeat on us, so that our people suffer as they say, how can we ignore their nuclear capabilities in these conditions?" Putin told Rossiya 1, according to TASS.

Putin has frequently stressed the importance of modernizing Russia's nuclear forces. 

The Russian president remarks build on his state of the union speech earlier in the week.

“The US and NATO openly state that their goal is the strategic defeat of Russia,” he said. “And what, after that are we just supposed to let them to travel around our (nuclear) facilities?”

Although the speech revisited old themes and largely recycled his arguments for invading Ukraine, he did make one substantial announcement, that Russia is suspending its participation in the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty.

4:26 a.m. ET, February 26, 2023

Three weapons that changed the course of Ukraine’s war with Russia

From CNN's Brad Lendon

A HIMARS of the Ukrainian army fires close to the frontline in the northern Kherson region on November 5, 2022
A HIMARS of the Ukrainian army fires close to the frontline in the northern Kherson region on November 5, 2022 (Hannibal Hanschke/EPA/Shutterstock/FILE)

When Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his forces into Ukraine a year ago, most observers expected a quick victory for the invaders.

Those early predictions of Russian success have not materialized, for what experts cite as a variety of factors, including higher morale and superior military tactics on the Ukrainian side but also – crucially – the supply of Western armaments.

While recent headlines have made much of the potential for Western battle tanks or Patriot air defense systems to influence the war’s outcome, these systems have yet to be used in combat in Ukraine.

But there are other weapons that have already helped to change the course of the war.

Find out what the three key ones are here.