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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2:53 p.m. ET, May 19, 2023

Explosions reported in Russian-occupied Mariupol

From CNN's Tim Lister

There have been at least two explosions in the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol Friday evening, according to social media video and the accounts of residents on community channels.

Neither the Russian-appointed local administration nor the Ukrainian side have commented on the explosions, and it’s not at this stage clear what caused them.

Late February was the last time Mariupol was struck, after which, Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for the Ukrainian military in the south, said: “What is considered so remote that it is unreachable, is not always so. The direction of Mariupol is no longer completely unreachable for us.”

The city has become an important staging point for Russian forces in southern Ukraine, and Russian military convoys frequently pass through.

2:49 p.m. ET, May 19, 2023

Ukrainian units are still defending parts of Bakhmut as counterattacks continue, official says

From CNN's Tim Lister and Yulia Kesaiev

A Ukrainian armored infantry carrier travels along a road near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Wednesday.
A Ukrainian armored infantry carrier travels along a road near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Wednesday. Vincenzo Circosta/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The pace of Ukrainian counterattacks around Bakhmut has slowed down Friday, but "very fierce fighting continues" in the eastern city, according to Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar.

In an update, Maliar claimed the Russians had “increased the presence of troops in the Bakhmut sector by several thousand people and is trying to use its advantage in heavy artillery and the number of shells.” 

“Russian troops continue to attack at the cost of heavy losses, which disproportionately exceed our losses,” she said on Telegram. 

Maliar added that Ukraine's defense of Bakhmut was reducing Russia’s offensive potential and was gaining time for “other planned actions.”

She said Russians were reducing buildings in the city to ashes.

“They leave only the foundation, which is impossible to defend," Maliar said.

But Ukrainian troops were still holding an area near the city’s airplane monument and remained in the vicinity of the monument in the far-southwest corner of Bakhmut, she added.

The State Border Guard Service, which has units in the Bakhmut area, said enemy infantry was repelled and had taken casualties.

A commander in the Ukrainian military’s Third Assault Brigade, Andriy Biletsky, said over the past two days, two companies of the Russian 72nd Brigade had been defeated and retreated. On Thursday, the Brigade said it had gained an area two kilometers wide and 700 meters deep.

But Biletsky noted that “the offensive does not come at small price for us.”

2:02 p.m. ET, May 19, 2023

Ukraine says it still controls parts of the city of Bakhmut as troops battle for surrounding suburbs

From CNN's Tim Lister and Yulia Kesaieva

Ukrainian soldiers fire a cannon near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on May 15.
Ukrainian soldiers fire a cannon near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on May 15. Libkos/AP

Russian troops tried to recover recently lost ground around the eastern city of Bakhmut Thursday and Friday, but they were pushed back by Kyiv's forces, a Ukrainian defense official said Friday.

Ukrainian forces are still fighting in the city itself, with many of the clashes taking place in southwestern Bakhmut, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said on national television.

Ukrainian forces have claimed advancements in several areas surrounding the embattled city in recent days, despite coming under heavy fire from Russian troops. But Maliar acknowledged that Russian forces had made advances within the city limits.

CNN cannot independently verify battlefield developments in Bakhmut, where both Russian and Ukrainian officials have made at-times conflicting claims about the state of the fighting.

The deputy defense minister said Ukraine continues pushing forward in the northern and southern suburbs of the city.

But, she added: “We need to understand the cost of this advance. It is extremely difficult to carry out combat missions there because the enemy has concentrated a huge amount of its efforts.”

Elsewhere on the front line: Maliar said troops are waging similar battles in the ruins of two other eastern towns that have been on the front lines since the invasion began: Marinka and Avdiivka, located south of Bakhmut.

1:52 p.m. ET, May 19, 2023

Source: The US will support F-16 training effort for Ukrainians, Biden tells G7 allies

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand

President Joe Biden on Friday told G7 leaders the United States will support an effort to train Ukrainian pilots on advanced aircraft, including F-16s, a senior administration official tells CNN.

The joint training effort is not expected to happen in the US, the official said, and will likely happen entirely in Europe. But US personnel will participate in the training alongside allies and partners, the official said. It is expected to take several months to complete.

“As the training takes place over the coming months, our coalition of countries participating in this effort will decide when to actually provide jets, how many we will provide, and who will provide them,” the official said.

The official repeated a US refrain on the subject of military assistance for Ukraine, saying it has been primarily focused thus far on preparing Kyiv with weapons, equipment and training it needs immediately to fight its anticipated counteroffensive.

"Discussions about improving the Ukrainian Air Force reflect our long-term commitment to Ukraine’s self-defense," the official said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is on his way to the G7 summit, said he welcomes the United States' "historic decision" to support "an international fighter jet coalition."

“This will greatly enhance our army in the sky. I count on discussing the practical implementation of this decision at the #G7 summit in Hiroshima," Zelensky said on Twitter Friday.

Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelensky’s office, said the president would discuss the issue in detail when he meets with Biden.

“Ukraine will very soon get everything necessary in order to protect our Ukrainian sky, our cities and our citizens,” Yermak told Ukrainian television.

The push for fighter jets: Top Ukrainian officials have escalated their public lobbying campaign for US-made F-16s in recent months, arguing they need them urgently to defend against Russian missile and drone attacks.

The Biden administration has signaled to European allies in recent weeks that the US would allow them to export F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, sources familiar with the discussions told CNN, though the US remains reluctant to send any of its own F-16s to Kyiv.

In March, the US hosted two Ukrainian pilots at a military base in Tucson, Arizona, to evaluate their skills using flight simulators and to assess how much time they would need to learn to fly various US military aircraft, including F-16s. Congress set aside money in the 2023 budget for such training.

A spokesperson for United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said earlier this week that the UK and the Netherlands were looking to form an “international coalition” not only to procure the jets for Ukraine but also to train Ukrainian pilots on the fourth generation fighters, which are more advanced than the Ukrainian fleet.

CNN's Yulia Kesaieva contributed reporting to this post.

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.