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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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."

9:59 a.m. ET, May 23, 2023

This group of Russian volunteers is fighting their own people

Analysis from CNN's Sam Kiley in eastern Ukraine

"Caesar" is one of dozens of Russian nationals fighting to defend Ukraine from Putin's armies.
"Caesar" is one of dozens of Russian nationals fighting to defend Ukraine from Putin's armies. Vasco Sousa Cotovio/CNN

The Freedom for Russia Legion — a group that has claimed responsibility for an apparent incursion inside Russian territory — has one ambition. As “Caesar” says in a video statement he recorded with his comrades before joining a cross-border raid into his motherland: “Russia will be free.”

The group numbers a few hundred of diehard, battle-hardened Russian volunteers fighting their own people as part of the Ukrainian armed forces. Caesar is a former teacher, a father and has a wife living in Kyiv. He told CNN last year that he had dedicated his life to toppling Russian President Vladimir Putin and marching into Red Square and the Kremlin itself. 

Caesar is a devoted member of the Orthodox Church and is nostalgic for the Tsarist era that predated the Soviet Union. His unit is well-equipped with modern armored vehicles, gunsights and the latest automatic weapons. 

Previously engaged in bitter fighting south of Bakhmut, the Freedom for Russia Legion now claims to have crossed into Russia itself and, as of late afternoon on Monday, was continuing combat operations against Russian forces in areas close to the frontier.

In a Telegram post, the group said it had “liberated” a settlement in Russia's Belgorod region.

Ukrainian officials acknowledged that the unit crossed into Russia, but insist that members of the legion were operating independently as "Russian citizens."

The Legionnaires themselves have admitted that they’re often treated with suspicion by Ukrainian soldiers but hope to win them over with gallantry on the battlefield.

Their apparent incursion along a border that’s frequently used by Russian mortar teams and artillery as a firebase for attacks inside Ukraine will help further cement their reputation.

It also serves as part of ongoing psychological operations intended to undermine support for the war in Russia and the fighting spirit of Russian soldiers themselves — signaling that they could be attacked at any time and even by their own countrymen.

8:31 p.m. ET, May 22, 2023

Ukrainian authorities say 50 bodies of missing people have been found in the past month alone

From CNN's Maria Kostenko in Kyiv

Ukrainian search teams found 50 bodies of missing people in the past month alone in areas formerly occupied by Russian forces, a Ukrainian official said.

Ukraine's Commissioner for Persons Missing in Special Circumstances Oleh Kotenko said the bodies were discovered in the Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions. The commission is still searching de-occupied territory for possible graves, he said.

Ukraine's Ministry of Internal Affairs said about 23,000 people have been officially deemed missing since the start of Russia's invasion. 

"Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, tens of thousands of people have been reported missing. The vast majority of them have been found. However, about 23,000 people have been officially confirmed as missing under special circumstances as a result of military operations," the Ministry of Internal Affairs said earlier this month as it launched a register of missing people. 
10:00 a.m. ET, May 23, 2023

Anti-Putin Russians say they attacked Belgorod as Moscow accuses Kyiv of "sabotage"

From CNN's Victoria Butenko, Anna Chernova and Sam Kiley

A group of anti-Putin Russian nationals — who are aligned with the Ukrainian army — has claimed responsibility for an attack in Russian’s southwestern region of Belgorod, as Moscow said it was fighting a group of saboteurs there.

Shelling damaged an administrative building, several residential buildings, and a kindergarten in the area, according to regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov, who said there were no fatalities.

In a Telegram post, groups calling themselves the “Freedom for Russia Legion” and “Russian Volunteer Corps” said they had “liberated” a settlement in the Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine.

A Ukrainian official acknowledged that the units had carried out an operation in the area but insisted they were acting independently.

“We can confirm that this operation was carried out by Russian citizens,” Andriy Yusov, a representative of Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency, told CNN.

He said the units were “part of defense and security forces” when they were in Ukraine, but were independent from Kyiv when they were not: “In Russia they are acting as independent entities.”

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin’s forces were working to push out a “sabotage and reconnaissance group,” according to state media TASS.

The situation in Belgorod marks “the first time” that Ukrainian-aligned forces have launched “a cross-border land operation against Russian targets,” according to CNN’s Sam Kiley.

“This is on a significant scale, and clearly intended to cause considerable consternation among the local authorities at the very least, if not at the level of the Kremlin,” Kiley told CNN’s Lynda Kinkade on Connect the World.

Read more here.