May 19, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Christian Edwards, Leinz Vales, Matt Meyer, Elise Hammond and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 11:57 PM ET, Fri May 19, 2023
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12:43 p.m. ET, May 19, 2023

Turkish president says he's still not ready to support Sweden's NATO membership

From CNN’s Adam Pourahmadi, Tara John and Luke McGee

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks with CNN’s Becky Anderson.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks with CNN’s Becky Anderson. (CNN)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tells CNN he is still not prepared support Sweden's NATO membership, repeating his claim that Stockholm has allowed terrorist organizations to harbor in the country.

Erdogan can't look favorably on Sweden's membership bid, “as long as Sweden continues to allow the offshoots of terror groups in Turkey to roam free on the streets of Stockholm,” he said in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson.

Key context: Erdogan has long accused Sweden of harboring militants from the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, a designated terror group in Turkey, Sweden, the United States and Europe.

Erdogan says he would like these individuals extradited, but Stockholm has made clear this won’t happen. The stalemate has blocked Sweden's accession to NATO even as fellow Nordic country Finland moved ahead in the process and officially joined the alliance last month.

Some Western officials and Middle East observers have suggested the terrorism claims provide cover for Erdogan not to engage with the NATO question and potentially anger Russian President Vladimir Putin at a politically inconvenient time.

Russia provided an economic lifeline to Turkey after other nations imposed sanctions on Ankara, and Putin remains an attractive partner in the country's post-earthquake rebuilding efforts, Gonul Tol, an academic with the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program, told CNN in March.

What it means for the war in Ukraine: Finland’s acceptance into the US-led security alliance dealt a blow to Putin, who has long sought to undermine NATO. Before invading Ukraine, he demanded the bloc refrain from further expansion.

The invasion instead drove non-aligned Finland and Sweden to abandon their neutrality and seek protection within NATO.

If Sweden eventually succeeds in joining the alliance, it will vastly change the security landscape in northeastern Europe, adding significantly to NATO's frontier with Russia.

11:05 a.m. ET, May 19, 2023

Biden administration targets Russia with sweeping new US sanctions

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

US President Joe Biden's administration shared details about sweeping new sanctions targeting Russia for its war in Ukraine, which were unveiled as part of the G7 Summit in Hiroshima.

The US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on “22 individuals and 104 entities, with touchpoints in more than 20 countries or jurisdictions,” the agency said in a news release.

The new sanctions target those who are trying to evade existing sanctions on Russia, as well as the country's sources of key technology, its energy capabilities and its financial services sector. The measures also expand the types of industry US sanctions can target.

Separately, the US State Department “is imposing sanctions on or identifying as blocked property over 200 entities, individuals, vessels, and aircraft,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

According to a fact sheet, the State Department imposed sanctions on multiple officials for their involvement in Moscow's alleged schemes to deport Ukrainian children to Russia and enroll them in re-education camps, which are the source of an International Criminal Court warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin's arrest.

More on US sanctions: The US also imposed sanctions on several Putin aides and Kremlin officials, plus Moscow-backed leaders in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.

The US State Department designated several companies said to be involved in the theft of Ukrainian grain, and entities tied to the “logistics network” between Russia and Iran, including two Iranian shipping companies. 

They also sanctioned a unit of the Russian Defense Ministry and a Russian state-owned enterprise for supporting the Wagner mercenary group.

12:44 p.m. ET, May 19, 2023

US says Wagner Group is trying to use third-party countries to obscure weapons shipments to Ukraine

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand

Founder of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen in Moscow in April.
Founder of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen in Moscow in April. (Yulia Morozova/Reuters/FILE)

The Russian mercenary organization Wagner Group has been working to obscure its efforts to acquire military equipment for use in Ukraine, including by trying to source the materials from Mali, where the group has a strong foothold, a US official told CNN.

The official, citing US intelligence declassified within the last week, said the Biden administration has been informed that Wagner has been trying to ship equipment for Ukraine through Mali and falsifying paperwork for the transactions. 

There are no signs yet that Wagner has successfully procured the equipment, but the group has continued working to procure mines, drones, radar and counter-battery systems from contacts in Mali for use in Ukraine, the official said. “We are monitoring this closely,” the official added. 

Wagner has sought to expand its foothold in Africa in recent years and has been operating alongside Mali’s armed forces for more than a year, fighting against a jihadist insurgency. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in September 2021 that the Malian government would be hiring private Russian mercenaries for help with security.

Mali is not the only country Wagner has turned to for help in Ukraine, officials believe, as the mercenary group faces severe shortages of weapons and ammunition amid fierce fighting in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. 

A US intelligence document contained in a trove of classified information leaked online in recent months and obtained by CNN says that Wagner Group personnel met with “Turkish contacts” in early February with the intent “to purchase weapons and equipment from Turkey” that could then be used in Ukraine. That document also said that Wagner was likely trying to use weapons procured from Turkey for use in its operations in Mali.

The White House has also previously accused North Korea of supplying Russia's Wagner Group with missiles and rockets for use in Ukraine.

“Wagner is directly supporting Russia's war against Ukraine, and we oppose efforts by any other country to assist Russia through Vagner,” the US official said. “The United States has sanctioned numerous entities and individuals, across multiple continents, that support Vagner’s military operations. We will continue to identify, expose, and counter these efforts by Vagner to procure military equipment for use in Ukraine.”
1:58 p.m. ET, May 19, 2023

Zelensky, speaking to Arab leaders, urges sympathy from those "who turn a blind eye" to Ukraine

From CNN's Mick Krever

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks as he attends the Arab League summit, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on May 19.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks as he attends the Arab League summit, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on May 19. (Saudi TV/Reuters)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia that “here among you” are people who “turn a blind eye” to Ukraine’s suffering, urging them to “take an honest look.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attended the Arab League summit for the first time in a decade and was seen on camera in the conference room minutes ahead of Zelensky’s speech. Syria was only one of only two countries in the world (along with North Korea) to recognize Russia’s claimed annexations last year of four Ukrainian regions.

Speaking in English, Zelensky told his counterparts: “Look at how much suffering the long-term wars have brought to Libya, Syria, Yemen, how many lives have been wasted by years of fighting Sudan and Somalia, in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“I hope that most of us are here for the sake of peace and justice,” he said. 

“Even if there are people here at the summit who have a different view on the war, on our land, calling it a conflict, I am sure that we can all be united in saving people from the cages of Russian prisons. Unfortunately, there are some in the world, and here among you, who turn a blind eye to those cages and illegal annexations.”

“And I am here so that everyone can take an honest look, no matter how hard the Russians try to influence. There must still be independence. And I want to thank Saudi Arabia, I want to thank the majority of you, for supporting [inaudible] International positions and the UN Charter.”

Zelensky brought the leader of the Crimean Tatar people, Mustafa Dzhemilev, with him on this trip to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

“I am also sure all your nations will understand the main call I want to leave here in Jeddah, a noble call to all of you, to help protect our people, including Ukrainian Muslim community,” he said. “With me here is the Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatar people, one of the indigenous peoples of Ukraine, whose home is Crimea, the center of Muslim culture in Ukraine.”

“For centuries the Crimean Tatar have been, and should remain, an integral and strong part of the Muslim community of the world," Zelensky added. "But Crimea was the first to suffer from the Russian occupation. And until now, most of those who are subjected to repression in the occupied Crimea are Muslims.”

Some context: Since Moscow’s full-scale invasion in February 2021, Ukraine has launched multiple strikes against Russian positions in Crimea, which was previously annexed by Moscow in 2014 and is currently under Kremlin control.

Zelensky has repeatedly vowed to liberate Crimea, which he says remains “part of Ukrainian people and society."

Zelensky also met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and thanked him for inviting him to the Arab summit.

He said that during their bilateral meeting, he had outlined the Ukrainian Peace Formula, which demands the withdrawal of Russian forces from all parts of Ukraine, including Crimea. 

He also noted the Saudi role in mediating the release of 10 foreign prisoners of war from Russian captivity. 

“We are interested in continuing joint efforts to release people,” Zelensky said.

CNN's Yulia Kesaieva, Mariya Knight and Heather Chen contributed to this post.

8:27 a.m. ET, May 19, 2023

Zelensky and Assad in attendance of Arab League meeting in Saudi Arabia

From CNN’s Mostafa Salem in Abu Dhabi

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrives to attend the Arab League Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on May 19.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrives to attend the Arab League Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on May 19. (Saudi Press Agency/Reuters)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are attending the Arab League meeting on Friday. 

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomed both leaders for the 32nd summit. 

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad arrives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to attend the Arab League summit, on May 18.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad arrives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to attend the Arab League summit, on May 18. (SANA/Reuters)

Some context: Assad is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies globally and has been backed militarily by Putin during the Syrian civil war.  

Earlier this month, Arab nations agreed to re-admit Syria into the Arab League despite repeated objections from the United States to ending the more than decade-long isolation of a regime that it holds accountable for the deaths of more than 300,000 civilians and displacement of millions in the country’s civil war.

CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq and Laura Paddison contributed to this post.

8:15 a.m. ET, May 19, 2023

It’s mid-afternoon in Kyiv. Here’s what you need to know

From CNN staff

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is capping a frenetic week of diplomacy with visits to Saudi Arabia on Friday and to the G7 summit in Japan this weekend, in a stark display of confidence as Ukraine’s wartime leader tries to harness as much support as possible in anticipation of his forces’ counteroffensive.

Here are the latest developments:

  • Zelensky attends Arab League summit: Zelensky arrived in Saudi Arabia on Friday to attend the Arab League summit, where he will meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, among others. Zelensky said his priority was “the return of … occupied territories” and “the presentation of our peace formula.”
  • Next, the G7: Zelensky will then travel to Hiroshima, Japan, on Saturday, in order to attend the G7 summit in person on Sunday, according to sources. It will be his first visit to Asia since Moscow launched its full-scale assault on Ukraine last February. It was initially thought that Zelensky would address the conference virtually, but his visit will aim to spur further support from Ukraine’s Western allies.
  • New sanctions: On the first morning of the three-day summit, G7 countries announced further sanctions on Russia and “reaffirmed” their commitment to oppose Moscow’s “illegal, unjustifiable and unprovoked” war in Ukraine. The new sanctions will target “exports of industrial machinery, tools and other technology that Russia uses to rebuild its war machine,” a statement issued from the summit said.
  • Ukraine's counteroffensive: While Zelenksy’s message could hardly be clearer on the diplomatic stage, on other matters he is more coy. He hinted Thursday that his military’s brigades are gearing up for Ukraine’s long-anticipated counteroffensive, but again offered no concrete information. The confusion surrounding the counteroffensive may be part of the plan.
  • Grain deal: Global wheat prices fell after Ukraine and Russia agreed to extend a deal allowing grain to be exported from Ukraine's Black Sea ports. But Moscow renewed threats to let the deal expire if Western powers do not meet its demands to lift certain sanctions.
  • Accounting error: The Biden administration made an accounting error in assessing the value of the military support that the US has given to Ukraine – freeing up approximately $3 billion more in aid, multiple congressional and administrative officials told CNN. Those additional funds will likely mitigate the need for Congress to pass an additional support package before the end of the fiscal year in September.
  • Military aid: Long-range Storm Shadow missiles provided to Ukraine by Britain have been used in the war, the UK defense minister has said. Meanwhile, the US has signaled to European allies in recent weeks that it would allow them to export F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, sources familiar with the discussions said.
8:05 a.m. ET, May 19, 2023

Russia says defense minister visited Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region

From CNN’s Olga Voitovych in Kyiv and Anna Chernova

A still image from video, released by Russia's Defence Ministry, shows Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu during what it said to be the inspection of the headquarters of Russian forces fighting in the Zaporizhzhia region at an unknown location on May 19.
A still image from video, released by Russia's Defence Ministry, shows Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu during what it said to be the inspection of the headquarters of Russian forces fighting in the Zaporizhzhia region at an unknown location on May 19. (Russian Defence Ministry/Reuters)

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has visited the Russian-occupied portion of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, which Russia considers to have annexed, Moscow has said.

“In the course of working in the zone of the special military operation, the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Sergei Shoigu, inspected the forward command post of one of the formations of the Vostok group of troops in the Zaporizhzhia direction,” the defense ministry said in a statement.

It is unclear when the reported trip took place. The defense ministry released a video of Shoigu walking in an underground bunker, speaking with commanders, and awarding medals.

“The high awards are a high appreciation of your military work,” Shoigu says in the video. “Thank you for this. I hope you will continue to faithfully serve our country, for the benefit of its people. Congratulations, and take care of yourself.”

Some context: Zaporizhzhia, a region in southeastern Ukraine, is home to Europe’s largest nuclear power station. The plant’s position close to the front lines means shelling in the surrounding towns and near the facility is common, according to local reports.

More than 12,000 people have been evacuated from front line areas in the Zaporizhzhia region, according to a member of the Russian-installed main council of the military-civilian administration, Vladimir Rogov, earlier this month.

The evacuations are taking place amidst fears around the “very real nuclear safety and security risks facing the plant,” according to International Atomic Energy Agency director general Rafael Grossi.

7:19 a.m. ET, May 19, 2023

No "substantive" discussions on arms control between Russian and US governments, Kremlin says

From CNN’s Anna Chernova

There are currently no “substantive” discussions on arms control between the Russian and United States governments, the Kremlin’s spokesperson said on Friday.

“At the moment, we can only state with regret that there are no serious, substantive contacts on these issues between Moscow and Washington,” Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

According to Peskov, the limited remaining components of the international legal framework on nuclear arms control are rapidly eroding.

“The situation is lamentable,” he said. “And the responsibility for this lamentable situation lies entirely with Washington.”

Some context: The New START nuclear arms treaty puts limits on the number of deployed intercontinental-range nuclear weapons that both the US and Russia can have. It was last extended in 2021 and lasts for five years.

Peskov’s comments were made in relation to a proposal by a number of US Senate Republicans, made public on Thursday, to have the US exit the New START treaty. Senator Tom Cotton, who introduced the proposal, said in a press statement that the treaty has “handcuffed America,” while Russia has been able to repeatedly breach its terms.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in February that Russia was suspending its participation in the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, stating that “Washington must show political will, make conscientious efforts for a general de-escalation and create conditions for the resumption of the full functioning of the Treaty and, accordingly, comprehensively ensuring its viability.”

7:10 a.m. ET, May 19, 2023

Ukraine’s Zelensky caps frenetic week of diplomacy with plans to appear in person at Japan’s G7 summit

From CNN's Simone McCarthy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will travel in person to Japan for the Group of Seven (G7) summit, according to sources, a stark display of confidence and Western solidarity as Ukraine’s wartime leader tries to keep crucial support from allied nations flowing.

Zelensky's expected trip to Hiroshima for the summit follows his attendance at the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia on Friday, topping a frenetic week of diplomacy.

Earlier this week, Zelensky completed a whirlwind European tour, where he made a bid to restock Ukraine’s military arsenal during stops in Italy, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

It comes as Kyiv is preparing a highly anticipated counteroffensive against Russia and building pressure on partner governments for more military aid amid intensifying aerial attacks.

His travels also send a signal of a confident and well-connected Ukraine that contrasts sharply with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who has become increasingly isolated and cut off in recent months.

Read more here.