May 23, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Schams Elwazer, Christian Edwards, Ed Upright, Mike Hayes, Elise Hammond and Leinz Vales, CNN

Updated 12:02 a.m. ET, May 24, 2023
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7:38 a.m. ET, May 23, 2023

Russia has claimed to control Bakhmut, but Ukraine says it’s still fighting. Here’s what we know

From CNN's Rob Picheta and Christian Edwards

Destruction at the frontline town of Bakhmut in Donetsk region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released on May 21.
Destruction at the frontline town of Bakhmut in Donetsk region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released on May 21. Ukrainian Armed Forces/Reuters

Who controls the besieged eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut? It depends who you ask.

According to Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of the Russian mercenary organization Wagner, his troops have taken “all the territories they promised to capture, to the last square centimeter.”

But Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky says his forces are still fighting in Bakhmut.

The conflicting claims follow a months-long slog in the city where Russian soldiers have had to grind for every inch of territory. Here’s the latest.

Who has claimed what?

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said Monday that Ukrainian forces still occupy “a small part of the city” and are advancing on Bakhmut’s flanks.

On Tuesday, Maliar claimed that fighting has “decreased,” but that Ukraine’s forces had retained their small foothold in the city.

Fighting continues in the suburbs. The enemy is trying to take advantageous positions, but fails. In certain areas, the enemy is on the defensive,” she said.

An aerial view shows destructions in the frontline town of Bakhmut, in Donetsk region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released on May 21.
An aerial view shows destructions in the frontline town of Bakhmut, in Donetsk region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released on May 21. Ukrainian Armed Forces/Reuters

But Russian officials tell a different story. In a video released Saturday, Prigozhin stood alongside his mercenaries and claimed to have taken complete control of the city, saying he would hand it over to Russia later in May.

Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Wagner for “the completion of the operation to liberate Artemovsk” – using the Soviet-Russian name for Bakhmut.

How important is Bakhmut?

Bakhmut sits toward the northeast of the Donetsk region and has long been a target for Russian forces. Since last summer the city has been a stone’s throw from the front lines.

But, despite Russia pouring vast amounts of manpower and resources into capturing the city, its military value has long been questioned by Western analysts, Ukrainian officials and even Prigozhin himself, who claimed earlier this month that Bakhmut was of “no strategic importance.”

Instead, Prigozhin claimed he intended to wear down Ukrainian troops using tactics he frequently compared to a “meat-grinder,” sending wave after wave of his own soldiers into the battle.

But these tactics came at a heavy – and unsustainable – cost. There are no official casualty figures, but earlier this year a NATO source told CNN they estimated that for every Ukrainian soldier killed defending Bakhmut, Russia lost five.

What remains of Bakhmut?

While it is uncertain whether Bakhmut has fully “fallen” to Wagner troops, new images have made clear that there is not much left standing in the city.

The city has been devastated by the months-long, street-by-street Russian assault, drawing comparisons to other cities that have borne the full brunt of Russian aggression, such as Grozny and Aleppo. In his comments at the G7, Zelensky said pictures of ruined Hiroshima he saw on a visit to the Japanese city “really remind” him of Bakhmut.

Read our full report here.

5:35 a.m. ET, May 23, 2023

Zelensky visits Ukraine’s frontline troops in the east

From CNN’s Olga Voitovych in Kyiv and Jo Shelley in London

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, center, poses for photo with soldiers after an awarding ceremony as he visits the Donetsk region, Ukraine, on May 23.
In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, center, poses for photo with soldiers after an awarding ceremony as he visits the Donetsk region, Ukraine, on May 23. Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has visited troops on his country’s eastern frontline to mark the Day of Marines – an annual national holiday to celebrate the Ukrainian Navy.

A post on the presidency’s website said Zelensky visited service personnel on the Vuhledar-Maryinka defense line in the Donetsk region and presented several state awards for courage and bravery to fighters there.

"Every day on the battlefield, the Ukrainian marines prove that they are a powerful force that destroys the enemy, liberates Ukrainian lands, and performs the most difficult tasks in the most difficult conditions,” Zelensky said.

Zelensky’s trip to Ukraine’s east comes after a series of whirlwind trips abroad last week, when he secured pledges to boost Ukraine’s military arsenal during stops in Italy, Germany, France and the United Kingdom and travelled to the G7 summit in Japan to appeal to the world’s major industrial democracies to remain united against Russian aggression.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy shakes hands with a service woman during an awarding ceremony as he visits the Donetsk region, Ukraine, on May 23.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy shakes hands with a service woman during an awarding ceremony as he visits the Donetsk region, Ukraine, on May 23. Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/AP

The Donetsk region is also home to the embattled city of Bakhmut, which Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed on Saturday to have captured in its entirety. However, his claims have been contested by Ukrainian officials – including Zelensky, who told the G7 summit on Sunday that “we are keeping on, we are fighting” in Bakhmut.

4:15 a.m. ET, May 23, 2023

Ukraine's deputy defense minister reports "decreased" fighting in Bakhmut

From CNN’s Olga Voitovych in Kyiv and Jo Shelley in London 

A Ukrainian tank in position near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on May 23.
A Ukrainian tank in position near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on May 23. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Fighting in Bakhmut has "decreased," and Ukraine's forces retain a small foothold in the flashpoint eastern city, Kyiv's deputy defense minister Hanna Maliar claimed on Telegram.

“Our troops control the southwestern outskirts of the city in the ‘airplane’ area,” she said, referring to the remains of a MiG-17 monument in Druzhba Square in the southwest of Bakhmut.

Ukrainian troops had made “a slight advance” on the flanks to the north and south of the city, she claimed.

“Fighting continues in the suburbs. The enemy is trying to take advantageous positions, but fails. In certain areas, the enemy is on the defensive. It suffers heavy losses,” she said.  

Ukrainian officials have repeatedly claimed that Bakhmut has not fallen entirely into Russian hands after private military group Wagner and Moscow officials said they had seized the eastern city at the weekend.

3:11 a.m. ET, May 23, 2023

Russian governor says "counter-terrorist operation" ongoing in Belgorod

From CNN's Josh Pennington and Duarte Mendonca 

Vyacheslav Gladkov attends a meeting outside Moscow on January 24.
Vyacheslav Gladkov attends a meeting outside Moscow on January 24. Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

A "counter-terrorist operation" was ongoing in southwestern Russia's Belgorod region, its governor said Tuesday, a day after a town bordering Ukraine was attacked in an incursion claimed by pro-Ukraine Russian nationals.

“The Defense Ministry continues to sweep the territory with the help of law enforcement agencies,” Belgorod Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov said on Telegram.
“All the necessary actions are being taken by the security forces. We are waiting for the completion of the counter-terrorist operation that was announced yesterday. I will try to update the information for you as quickly as possible.”

Earlier, Gladkov said Belgorod was hit by drone attacks overnight, following an incursion Monday claimed by Russians partisans aligned with the Ukrainian army.

The Freedom of Russia Legion and Russian Volunteer Corps earlier said they had "fully liberated the settlement of Kozinka" and "entered Grayvoron," after crossing from Ukraine into Belgorod on Monday.

On Tuesday, Gladkov urged Grayvoron residents not to return to their homes until the operation was completed.

9:57 a.m. ET, May 23, 2023

Drones strike Russian border region of Belgorod, governor says

From CNN’s Mariya Knight and Josh Pennington 

Belgorod in southwestern Russia was hit by drone attacks overnight, its governor said, as the border region reels from an incursion claimed by anti-Putin Russians aligned with the Ukrainian army.

In a series of Telegram post late Monday and early Tuesday, Belgorod Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov said two homes were struck by drones in the town of Grayvoron — the site of an earlier attack claimed by pro-Ukraine Russian volunteers.

“The houses caught fire after explosive devices were dropped from the UAV,” Gladkov said.

In the village of Borisovka, Gladkov said explosive devices were dropped from drones onto an administrative building and a house in two separate attacks.

No casualties were reported in any of the drone incidents, the governor said.

No one has claimed responsibility for the alleged drone attacks.

Russian partisans: Earlier Monday, Gladkov said most of Grayvoron's residents had evacuated the town after eight people were injured in an attack by a "sabotage group" linked to the Ukrainian army.

The Freedom for Russia Legion and Russian Volunteer Corps earlier claimed they had "fully liberated the settlement of Kozinka" and "entered Grayvoron," after crossing from Ukraine into Belgorod on Monday.

A Ukrainian official said the group was made up of Russian nationals and insisted they were acting independently.

9:58 a.m. ET, May 23, 2023

Anti-Putin Russians say they attacked Russia's Belgorod region. Here's what you need to know

From CNN staff

A group of anti-Putin Russians aligned with the Ukrainian army have claimed responsibility for an attack in Russia's southwestern Belgorod region.

The Russian region's governor said at least eight people were injured near the border by a Ukrainian "sabotage" group. A Ukrainian official said the group was made up of Russian nationals and insisted they were acting independently.

Meanwhile, in the embattled eastern city of Bakhmut, the leader of the Russian mercenary company Wagner claimed his men had captured the town — a claim Ukraine has denied.

Here are the latest headlines:

  • Attacks on Belgorod: At least eight people were injured in attacks on Russia's Belgorod region Monday, the governor there said. Vyacheslav Gladkov said “a sabotage and reconnaissance group” of the Ukrainian army had crossed into Russian territory and attacked the town of Grayvoron. Groups called the "Freedom for Russia Legion" and "Russian Volunteer Corps" claimed the attack. Russian forces were working to push out the group of saboteurs in what it's calling a "counter-terrorist operation," the governor said.
  • What Ukraine is saying: The attack was carried out by a group that was "part of the defense and security forces" in Ukraine but acting as “independent entities” in Russia, according to Andriy Yusov, a representative of Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency. He confirmed the group was made up of Russian nationals.
  • Border strikes increasing: Strikes in the Belgorod region appear to have intensified in recent weeks, according to claims by Russian officials. Earlier this month, Gladkov claimed two drones had detonated and fell over a residential area in the region. He added that no casualties were reported, but two residential buildings and a car were damaged. Another drone was shot down by Russian air defense systems over the region, he said. 
  • Battle for Bakhmut: Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed his troops have captured "all the territories they promised to capture, to the last square centimeter" in the eastern city of Bakhmut. He confirmed reports from Russia-backed officials that their forces had started to demine the city. But Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said Ukrainian forces were still in control of some buildings in the southwest of Bakhmut and are advancing on the city’s flanks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also denied that Bakhmut is fully occupied by Russia.
  • Missing Ukrainians: Search teams found 50 bodies of missing people in the past month alone in formerly Russian-occupied areas, including the Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions, a Ukrainian official said. Ukraine's Ministry of Internal Affairs said about 23,000 people have been officially deemed missing since the start of Russia's invasion. 
  • Push for fighter jets: US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said Monday it will take "several months at best" to get F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine. Kyiv's quest for US-made F-16s received a huge boost when President Joe Biden gave his backing for Ukraine's pilots to be trained to fly them. Russia's ambassador to the US claimed Washington "continues to fan the flames of conflict" and that providing Ukraine with jets allows the US to oppose Russia "with other’s hands, by proxy."
12:39 a.m. ET, May 23, 2023

F-16 fighter jets will take "several months at best" to arrive in Ukraine, US Air Force Secretary says

From CNN's Oren Liebermann

An F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft extended its landing gear to land at the U.S. military airfield at Spangdahlem on February 7. 
An F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft extended its landing gear to land at the U.S. military airfield at Spangdahlem on February 7.  Harald Tittel/picture alliance/Getty Images

It will take “several months at best” to get F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said Monday.

The administration has provided few details of the plan to equip the Ukrainian Air Force with the US-made jets or other fourth-generation aircraft after President Joe Biden announced on Friday the US would support a joint training effort, such as who will provide the aircraft or where it will take place. US personnel will participate in the training alongside allies and partners in Europe. 

“It’s been in the works, and there’s obviously been interest from Ukraine in getting that kind of capability,” Kendall told reporters at the Defense Writers Group. He said there are “a lot of open possibilities, including our partners.”

Kendall said it would take at least “several months” before Ukraine would have the capability to operate F-16s, and a number of details have to be worked out before Ukraine’s air force will be able to fly Western jets in large numbers. 

“We are not under any circumstances going to get F-16s or another Western fighter in significant numbers into the hands of the Ukrainian Air Force in something less than at least several months,” Kendall said.

But it’s still a relatively rapid timeline, since it normally takes more than two years to train a new US pilot on the aircraft, according to an Air Force official. Even a refresher course for an F-16 pilot who has stepped away from flying the jet for a period can take up to five months. 

Publicly, the US had argued for months that fighter jets were not at the top of the priority list and would quickly drain the available funding for Ukraine aid instead of more important weapons like Abrams tanks and Patriot missiles. Kendall described what appeared to be a sudden about-face for the Biden administration as a decision that it was the right time to begin preparing Ukraine’s military for the future.

“Ukraine is going to remain an independent nation,” said Kendall. "It’s going to need a full suite of military capabilities for its requirements, and so it’s time to start thinking longer term about what that military might look like and what it will include.”
9:59 a.m. ET, May 23, 2023

Freedom for Russia Legion releases video appearing to show opposition flag flying over Moscow university

From CNN's Uliana Pavlova

The Freedom for Russia Legion — a group that has claimed responsibility for an apparent incursion inside Russian territory in Belgorod — posted a video on Monday evening that appears to show the so-called flag of free Russia flying over Moscow State University. 

In the video of the incident, which the Legion did not directly claim responsibility for, balloons appear to lift the blue-and-white-striped flag above the university's main building.

"Thanks to those who support and wait for us!" said The Freedom for Russia Legion's caption on Telegram. "'L' [Legion] For Russia! For freedom!" 

Other videos posted by The Freedom for Russia Legion appear to show another Russian opposition flag flying over various areas of Moscow, carried by blue and white balloons.  

CNN could not independently verify the reports. 

The blue and white flag has been used by several anti-Putin Russian opposition groups and has become more widely used since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

8:35 p.m. ET, May 22, 2023

Bakhmut remains the "epicenter of fighting," Ukraine's armed forces says

From CNN's Maria Kostenko and Lauren Kent

The eastern Ukrainian cities of Bakhmut and Marinka continue to be the "epicenter of fighting," according to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on Monday. 

Twenty-five "combat engagements" took place around Kupyansk, Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiivka and Marinka, the update said.

"Fighting for the city of Bakhmut continues. The occupiers carried out airstrikes near Bakhmut and Ivanivske," the General Staff said. "Ukrainian defense forces repelled numerous enemy attacks near the town of Marinka. In addition, Pobieda village in Donetsk region was shelled by the enemy."

Russian attacks hit apartment buildings, houses, a kindergarten and other civilian infrastructure facilities, injuring some civilians, according to Ukraine's Armed Forces.

"They continue to destroy civilian infrastructure near the contact line" in the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson directions, according to the update. The daily report also highlighted the "massive missile and air attack at Ukraine’s civil and critical infrastructure facilities," which struck the city of Dnipro, the city of Zaporizhzhia, and settlements in the Kharkiv region. 

Earlier on Monday, President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the Ukrainian forces who are defending the country's skies.

"From last night to this morning, they have shot down 25 Shaheds (drones). Twenty-five out of 25. An excellent result," Zelensky said in his daily address. "Each such downing means saved lives, saved infrastructure."