Finland and Sweden hand in applications to join NATO
From CNN's Sharon Braithwaite
Finland and Sweden have handed in their applications to join NATO, the military alliance's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday.
"The applications you have made today are an historic step. Allies will now consider the next steps on your path to NATO," Stoltenberg said after receiving the applications from the Finnish and Swedish ambassadors at NATO headquarters in Brussels. "The security interests of all allies have to be taken into account and we are determined to work through all issues and reach rapid conclusions."
Stoltenberg made the comments alongside Klaus Korhonen, the ambassador of Finland to NATO, and Axel Wernhoff, the ambassador of Sweden to NATO.
2:37 a.m. ET, May 18, 2022
Russia deploys helicopters in Luhansk, tries to encircle key town in Donetsk, Ukrainian officials say
From CNN's Tim Lister
Ukrainian military officials say the Russians have stepped up their efforts to destroy Ukrainian defenses in the Luhansk region, bringing in 15 helicopters to reinforce the offensive.
Ukrainian defenses around the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk remain under intense pressure from artillery bombardments and air attacks, which have also increased in villages further south, such as Vrubivka.
Why this area: Russian forces are trying to break through Ukrainian lines in this area and complete the seizure of Luhansk. They control about 90% of the region, according to most estimates.
Serhiy Hayday, head of Luhansk region military administration, said four civilians had been killed in the latest fighting and the nitrogen plant in Severodonetsk had been hit again.
"The Russian world destroys everything in its path trying to impose that kind of life in Luhansk region — without people, houses, factories," he said.
Hayday said the city had withstood 15 artillery attacks on Tuesday.
Fresh attacks in Donetsk: The General Staff of the Ukrainian armed forces also acknowledged fresh attacks by Russian forces toward Sloviansk in the Donetsk region.
For weeks, Russian forces have been trying to push south to complete the takeover of Donetsk. The General Staff said Russian forces were trying to encircle Ukrainian units around the town of Lyman and were trying to gain full control over the nearby settlement of Drobysheve.
If they succeed, Ukrainian defenses in Lyman would be vulnerable to attack from three directions. There was heavy artillery fire in the area on Tuesday.
Further north: In Kharkiv, the General Staff said the Russians continued to shell villages north of the city to hinder Ukraine's counteroffensive, which has taken Ukrainian troops to the Russian border in several places.
Elsewhere, without giving details, the General Staff said "the enemy continues to shell artillery positions of our troops and civilian infrastructure in the border settlements of Chernihiv and Sumy regions."
2:25 a.m. ET, May 18, 2022
Human Rights Watch says Russian troops carried out executions, torture in northern Ukraine
From CNN's Angus Watson
Human Rights Watch says it has documented a litany of alleged crimes against civilians in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions of northern Ukraine.
A HRW team visiting the area in April and May said it “investigated 22 apparent summary executions, nine other unlawful killings, six possible enforced disappearances, and seven cases of torture,” according to a report released Wednesday.
The alleged crimes are believed to have been carried out in February and March by Russian troops as they controlled much of the area.
HRW said it had interviewed 65 people between April 10 and May 10, including the families of victims and people who said they had been detained and tortured by Russian troops.
The group said it has compiled physical evidence further implicating Russian troops in “numerous violations of the laws of war that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Among testimonies collected by HRW was that of 66-year-old Anastasia Andriivna from the Kyiv region, who said she found her adult son’s body in a barn after he was apparently executed.
“He was lying there in a fetal position, with his hands tucked under his head, and his jacket draped over his shoulders,” Andriivna told HRW.
The organization also reported testimony from villagers who said they were among 350 people kept for 28 days in a cramped and squalid basement in Yahidne, near Chernihiv. Other villagers there were killed by Russian troops, HRW said.
HRW's Europe and Central Asia director Giorgi Gogia called the alleged Russian atrocities “abhorrent, unlawful and cruel.”
These abuses against civilians are evident war crimes that should be promptly and impartially investigated and appropriately prosecuted,” Gogia said.
1:41 a.m. ET, May 18, 2022
Finland and Sweden are submitting their NATO bids today. Here's what we know
Finland and Sweden will hand in their NATO applications on Wednesday, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said during a joint news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö.
Here's why that matters:
Finland and Sweden are poised to end decades of neutrality by joining NATO, the US-led security alliance.
The two Nordic nations had long kept the military alliance at an arm’s length.
But Moscow’s assault on Ukraine has sparked renewed security concern across the region.
The ambassadors of Finland and Sweden will meet NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday.
Andersson and Niinistö will then meet US President Joe Biden on Thursday.
Will their bids to join succeed?
Finland’s application to join NATO requires a vote in parliament, but given the support of the ruling government, that hurdle is expected to be passed.
In Sweden, the move was debated in parliament on Monday and there is broad support for joining NATO, but the government does not need the consent of lawmakers to move ahead.
The announcements have been met with support from leaders in almost all NATO nations.
However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday he would not approve the membership over sanctions on Ankara and accused both countries of housing Kurdish "terrorist organizations."
Any European country can request to join NATO, so long as they meet certain criteria and all existing members agree.
NATO diplomats told Reuters that ratification of new members could take a year, as the legislatures of all 30 current members must approve new applicants.
Both Finland and Sweden already meet many of the requirements for membership.
They include having a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy; treating minority populations fairly; committing to resolve conflicts peacefully; the ability and willingness to make a military contribution to NATO operations; and committing to democratic civil-military relations and institutions.
How has Russia reacted?
Moscow has warned of “far-reaching consequences” if the move goes ahead.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that Finland and Sweden’s NATO entry would not create a threat but the “expansion of military infrastructure into this territory will certainly cause our response.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry has said it "will be forced to take retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature, in order to stop the threats to its national security."
The evacuation mission at the Azovstol steel plant in Mariupol continues, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Tuesday. It follows the end of Ukrainian forces' "combat mission" at the complex, which was for weeks the last major holdout in a city otherwise occupied by Russian troops.
Here are the latest developments on the war in Ukraine:
Mariupol evacuations: The Ukrainian President said the negotiation process on evacuating the last soldiers from the Azovstal steel plant continues with Russia. It comes after Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson, Major Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said 265 "militants," including 51 seriously injured, were evacuated on Monday night. Ukraine said it expects to carry out an exchange of Russian prisoners of war for the severely injured soldiers.
Nordic NATO bids: Finland and Sweden will hand in their NATO application Wednesday, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said during a joint news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will meet the countries' ambassadors the same day before their leaders meet with US President Joe Biden on Thursday.
Russian former colonel criticizes invasion: In rare public criticism of the conduct of Russia's military operations in Ukraine, a former senior Russian officer has warned on state television that the situation will get worse. Despite pushback from the show’s presenter, retired Col. Mikhail Khodarenok said Ukraine could arm 1 million people.
Race for grain: The Biden administration is working closely with European allies to try to develop routes to get Ukrainian wheat and corn out of the country after Russia blocked Ukrainian ships from departing with grain that is vital for food supplies around the world, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.
Russian vehicles litter countryside: A CNN team traveled to the eastern Ukrainian town of Bilohorivka, where Russia is believed to have suffered one of its biggest single defeats of the war. There, the charred remains of Russian armored vehicles littered a field just a few hundred meters from the front line. They found destroyed Russian tanks separated from their turrets, armored personnel carriers, heavy machine guns with barrels twisted into spirals — and the charred body parts of Russian soldiers.
ICC teams in Ukraine: International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim A.A. Khan announced the "largest ever single field deployment" of the court's forensics and investigative team has been sent to Ukraine. The ICC formally opened an investigation into the situation in the country on March 2 and the team will collect testimonial accounts and forensic and digital materials as part of that probe.
Here's a look at the latest situation on the ground:
9:36 a.m. ET, May 18, 2022
Biden to host leaders of Sweden and Finland at White House as countries look to join NATO
Both countries are looking to join the military alliance after Russia’s assault on Ukraine sparked renewed security concerns across the region. Their historic bids to join NATO represent a dramatic evolution in European security and geopolitics.
The US and other NATO leaders have expressed support for Finland and Sweden joining the military alliance.
Analysis: The fall of Mariupol could conceal war crimes evidence from the world and give Russia's offensive a boost
Analysis from CNN's Joshua Berlinger
After almost three months of intense bombardment, thousands of reported deaths and countless tales of horror and starvation, the battle for the city of Mariupol is nearing its conclusion.
Ukraine's military announced late Monday that its forces had completed their "combat mission" at the sprawling Azovstal steelworks plant, which was for weeks the last major holdout in a city otherwise occupied by Russian troops. Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were evacuated from the facility and efforts were underway to evacuate those still inside.
Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, has been the scene of some of the most intense fighting since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February. It was there that Russia carried out deadly strikes on a maternity ward and the bombing of a theater where hundreds of civilians had sought refuge from the violence.
Now there are fears that evidence of further atrocities may be lost forever.
Before the Kremlin took control of Mariupol, the city council accused Russian forces of trying to erase evidence, using mobile crematoria to dispose of bodies and identifying witnesses to any "atrocities" through filtration camps. CNN could not verify that claim.
"Murderers are covering their tracks," the council alleged.
The Kremlin has denied many of these claims, including using filtration camps to cover up wrongdoing and targeting civilians in Mariupol.
Former Russian colonel criticizes the country's invasion of Ukraine on state television
From Tim Lister, Anastasia Graham Yooll and Taras Zadorozhnyy
In rare public criticism of the conduct of Russia's military operations in Ukraine, a former senior Russian officer has warned on state television that the situation will get worse.
"Let's not drink 'information tranquilizers,' because sometimes information is spread about some moral or psychological breakdown of Ukraine's armed forces, as if they are nearing a crisis of morale or a fracture," retired Col. Mikhail Khodarenok said on Monday’s edition of Rossiya One’s 60 Minutes show. "None of this is close to reality."
Despite pushback from the show’s presenter, Khodarenok said Ukraine could arm 1 million people.
"Considering that European aid will come into full effect and 1 million armed Ukrainian soldiers can join the fight, we need to see this reality of the near future, and we need to consider that in our operational and strategic calculations. The situation for us will frankly get worse," he said.
Khodarenok, a regular commentator in Russian media, also commented on Russia's broader isolation.
"Let's look at this situation as a whole from our overall strategic position," he said. "Let’s not swing missiles in Finland's direction — this just looks ridiculous. The biggest problem with our military and political situation is that we are in total geopolitical isolation. And the whole world is against us — even if we don’t want to admit it."
Khodarenok warned before the invasion started that it would be more difficult than many anticipated to wage war in Ukraine.
In an article in February, he said, "the degree of hatred (which, as you know, is the most effective fuel for armed struggle) in the neighboring republic towards Moscow is frankly underestimated. No one will meet the Russian army with bread, salt and flowers in Ukraine."
Expert claims that Russian forces will defeat Ukraine in a short period of time "have no serious grounds," he had said.
9:55 p.m. ET, May 17, 2022
US State Department announces new program to provide "evidence of Russia-perpetrated war crimes"
From CNN's Jennifer Hansler
The US State Department on Tuesday announced the launch of a new program “to capture, analyze, and make widely available evidence of Russia-perpetrated war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine.”
The program, called the Conflict Observatory, “encompasses the documentation, verification, and dissemination of open-source evidence regarding the actions of Russia’s forces during President Putin’s brutal war of choice,” according to a media note from the State Department.
“The Conflict Observatory will analyze and preserve publicly and commercially available information, including satellite imagery and information shared via social media, consistent with international legal standards, for use in ongoing and future accountability mechanisms,” the note said. “This includes maintaining rigorous chain-of-custody procedures for future civil and criminal legal processes under appropriate jurisdictions.”
The information will be shared publicly via an online platform, the statement added.
The State Department said the program is a collaboration with “Esri, a leading geographic information systems company, Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab, the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, and PlanetScape Ai,” and the “the U.S. government has also contributed commercial satellite imagery to these efforts.”
The State Department said it expects international partner organizations to join the program. Reports will be available at ConflictObservatory.org website.