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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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.