May 25, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Christian Edwards, Ed Upright, Aditi Sangal, Leinz Vales and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 9:25 p.m. ET, May 25, 2023
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2:51 p.m. ET, May 25, 2023

Finland will send additional military equipment to Ukraine, defense ministry says 

From CNN's Sarah Diab in London

Finland on Thursday pledged to send additional military equipment to Ukraine.

Finland’s 16th defense package to Ukraine will include anti-aircraft weapons and ammunition and will be worth 109 million euros (about $117 million), a Finnish defense ministry spokesperson told CNN.

That brings the total defense aid from Finland to Ukraine since Russian invasion began last year to 1.1 billion euros (about $1.18 billion).

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked the Finnish government for the aid in a tweet:

1:46 p.m. ET, May 25, 2023

Zelensky underscores importance of time and freedom in remote commencement speech for Johns Hopkins graduates

From CNN's Michelle Watson

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the graduating class of Johns Hopkins University on Thursday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the graduating class of Johns Hopkins University on Thursday. Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University/AP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Johns Hopkins University 2023 commencement speaker, repeatedly reminded graduates of the importance of time throughout his speech, which he delivered remotely by video Thursday. 

"Every person eventually realizes that time is the most valuable resource on the planet – not oil, or uranium, not lithium or anything else – but time," Zelensky said Thursday. 

Zelensky told the graduates they have "a whole lifetime" ahead of them to figure out what to do next.   

"The time of your life is under your control," Zelensky said. "The time of life of all Ukrainians who are forced to live through this terrible Russian aggression unfortunately is subject to many factors that are not all in their control."

"We are trying to get a grip on the time of our lives, what is happening to us," he continued.

Zelensky said Ukraine and its allies do everything they can every day to help repel Russia's full-scale invasion.

The Ukrainian president ended his speech by saying he was certain the graduating class would continue to push for freedom and democratic principles.  

"I'm certain, you, as your forefathers, will continue to lead the free world and this century will be our century," said Zelensky. "A century where freedom, innovation and democratic values reign."  

1:28 p.m. ET, May 25, 2023

Russia’s transfer of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus has begun, Lukashenko says

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko attends a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow on Thursday.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko attends a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow on Thursday. Contributor/Getty Images

The transfer of some tactical nuclear weapons from Russia to Belarus has begun, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said Thursday, according to state news agency BelTA.

"It was necessary to prepare storage sites, and so on. We did all this. Therefore, the movement of nuclear weapons began," Lukashenko said.

Lukashenko also promised the safety of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, saying: “Don’t worry about nuclear weapons. We are responsible for this. These are serious issues. Everything will be all right here.”

Some background: This comes after Moscow and Minsk signed an agreement on deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, one of Russia's neighbors and most loyal allies. Lukashenko raised the possibility of Russia placing strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus during a national address in March, while baselessly accusing Western countries of “preparing to invade” Belarus and “destroy” it.

11:28 a.m. ET, May 25, 2023

Wagner chief claims to have handed over body of US Army veteran killed in Bakhmut

From CNN’s Clare Sebastian, Allegra Goodwin, Svitlana Vlasova and Sarah Dean

Army Staff Sgt. Nicholas Maimer, left, who was identified as the American citizen killed by Russian artillery in the embattled city of Bakhmut, is pictured with Senator James Risch.
Army Staff Sgt. Nicholas Maimer, left, who was identified as the American citizen killed by Russian artillery in the embattled city of Bakhmut, is pictured with Senator James Risch. Senator James Risch

The head of the Russian paramilitary company Yevgeny Prigozhin told CNN Thursday that he has handed the body of a retired US Army Special Forces soldier who was killed in the battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut over to Ukraine. 

In a response to CNN asking if Wagner had returned the body of Retired Army Staff Sgt. Nicholas Maimer as promised by Prigozhin last week, Prigozhin said in an audio recording: “Today at 1500 hours we handed over the body of the American Nicholas Maimer to the Ukrainian side.” 

In a video shared with CNN by Prigozhin’s press service, the Wagner boss stands next to two coffins, one draped with an American flag and one with a Turkish flag, and says: “The American died in battle in the 'nest'” — one of the last contested areas in west Bakhmut — and added that the second coffin contained the body of a Turkish citizen who was in Bakhmut with his female partner. 

“They were found under the ruins of a building, or more accurately he and his documents. When the Ukrainians withdrew they blew up the building, and they died under the destroyed building. We weren’t able to get her out, but we got him out and will return to his motherland,” Prigozhin says of the Turkish citizens.

CNN cannot independently verify the location in the video or the date it was filmed. 

Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War confirmed to CNN that Maimer’s body, along with the body of a Turkish citizen, had been returned to Ukraine on Thursday during a POW exchange. A video shared by the group showed a coffin covered with an American flag which matched the coffin seen in the video with Prigozhin. 

CNN is unable to independently confirm that the coffin contains Maimer’s body, or the circumstances in which he died.

Maimer's decades in uniform: According to Maimer’s service record provided to CNN, he served more than 20 years in uniform before retiring in 2018, according to his service record provided to CNN.

He served more than two years in the active-duty Army, leaving in December 1998; he then joined the National Guard in November 2000, and served about 18 years between three different Guard units before retiring in December 2018.

Among his awards and decorations are the Special Forces Tab, Army Commendation Medal and four Army Achievement Medals.

His uncle Paul Maimer told the Idaho Statesman his nephew had gone to Ukraine “as a humanitarian trying to do good for this world” and that the family wanted to bring him home for a “proper burial.”

“I think he’s deserving to be put to rest in a veterans cemetery,” he told the Statesman. “He might not have been fighting for our country, but he was fighting for the right reasons.”

CNN's Josh Pennington, Sandi Sidhu, Jennifer Hansler, Haley Britzky and Alex Marquardt contributed to this post.

11:18 a.m. ET, May 25, 2023

A football team manager fled the Ukraine war. His new club claimed its first-ever spot in the Europa League

From CNN's Ben Church

Roberto De Zerbi, manager of Brighton & Hove Albion, gives the team instructions during the Premier League match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Manchester City at American Express Community Stadium on May 24, in Brighton, England.
Roberto De Zerbi, manager of Brighton & Hove Albion, gives the team instructions during the Premier League match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Manchester City at American Express Community Stadium on May 24, in Brighton, England. (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Italian manager Roberto De Zerbi was almost a year into his managerial reign at the Ukrainian club when war broke out. Now, he has guided Premier League club Brighton & Hove Albion to a historic first.

After its 1-1 draw with Manchester City on Wednesday, Brighton mathematically secured its place in the Europa League group stages for next season – the first time the club has ever qualified for European competition.

The 43-year-old joined Brighton in September after being forced to leave Shakhtar Donetsk a few months earlier. De Zerbi admitted to being scared when the war began, but it didn’t throw him off his journey to becoming one of the most exciting emerging coaches in the world. And despite his ascendency with Brighton, he says a piece of his heart still remains in Ukraine.

“My idea should be to go back one day to work in Ukraine, to complete my work because I lost my team, I lost my players, and this was a difficult situation to accept in my work,” De Zerbi told Sky Sports.

Read the full story here.

11:04 a.m. ET, May 25, 2023

5 foreign fighters will be tried in absentia in Russia for involvement in Ukraine, state media says

From CNN’s Florence Davey-Attlee, Josh Pennington, Sugam Pokharel and Jessie Gretener

Five foreigners who fought for Ukraine are to stand trial in absentia in Russia, according to state media. 

They will stand trial at a court in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on May 31 at 10 a.m. local time, according to RIA Novosti, citing the court’s press service. 

 The group all fought for Ukraine in the defense of the southern city of Mariupol. 

Swedish citizen Matthias Gustavsson, Croatian citizen Vekoslav Prebeg, and British citizen John Harding have been charged with “forcible seizure or forcible retention of power” and “mercenary participation in an armed conflict or hostilities.”

Another two British citizens, Andrew Hill and Dylan Healy, were charged with "participating as a mercenary in armed conflict or hostilities" and "aiding and abetting in the recruitment of mercenaries for use in armed conflict,” respectively. 

The three British citizens — Harding, Hill and Healy — were all released as part of a prisoner swap in September 2022, according to the UK government. 

Sweden’s foreign ministry said Thursday that it's not aware of a Swedish citizen going on trial in absentia in Russia for their alleged involvement in Ukraine.

"The Ministry for Foreign Affairs is aware of one person who was detained by Russian forces last year. That person has been released. We are not aware of any current case like the one described," a Swedish foreign ministry spokesperson said when CNN reached out for comment. 

CNN has contacted the governments of the UK and Croatia for a response.

CNN's Mick Krever, Arnaud Siad, Vasco Cotovio and Olga Voitovych contributed to this report.

9:49 a.m. ET, May 25, 2023

EU extends suspension of tariffs and quotas on Ukrainian imports for another year

From CNN's James Frater in London

European trade ministers agreed to extend the temporary measures that suspend customs duties and quotas on Ukrainian imports to the European Union for another year, until June 2024.

The temporary easing of trade regulations between Ukraine and the EU went into force in June 2022.

“By renewing these measures the EU is continuing to demonstrate its unwavering political and economic support for Ukraine,” the European Council, which met in Brussels Thursday, said in a press release.

The European Commission, which proposed the extension in February, said the continued lifting of restrictions will help “alleviate the difficult situation faced by Ukrainian producers and exporters" amid Russia's invasion.

9:39 a.m. ET, May 25, 2023

More than 100 Ukrainian POWs who fought near Bakhmut released from Russian captivity, official says

From Maria Kostenko and Yulia Kesaieva

More than 100 Ukrainians who fought in the Bakhmut area and were captured as prisoners of war have been released in a prisoner swap, Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said Thursday.

“We are returning home 106 of our people. These are the fighters from the Bakhmut direction - 8 officers and 98 soldiers and sergeants,” Yermak said in a Telegram post“They fought for Bakhmut and accomplished a feat that prevented the enemy from advancing further into our East," he said. "Each and every one of them is a hero of our country."

Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War said three bodies were also repatriated — two foreigners and a Ukrainian woman — during the exchange.

“All of the released defenders defended our country in Bakhmut direction; 68 of them were considered missing,” the coordination group said. 

The group said 98 of the POWs were from the Armed Forces of Ukraine, including 21 from Ukraine’s Territorial Defense. Seven border guards and one serviceman of the State Special Transport Service were also released, it said.

“At least seven of the rescued defenders sustained various injuries: bullet and shrapnel wounds, burns and fractures, and [had] exacerbated chronic diseases. The oldest of the rescued soldiers is 59 years old, the youngest is 21 years old,” it added. 

In total, 2,430 people have been returned home as a result of exchanges, the group said, adding among that figure are 139 civilians.

Some context: Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin announced his fighters are withdrawing from the eastern Ukrainian city and will be replaced by Russian soldiers.

Ukrainian officials on Tuesday said part of the city remains under Ukrainian control. “If they [Russians] believe they have taken Bakhmut, I can say that this is not true. As of today, part of Bakhmut is under our control,” Ukrainian national security adviser Oleksiy Danilov told CNN.

9:04 a.m. ET, May 25, 2023

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

From CNN staff

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has said his fighters have begun to pull out of Bakhmut, handing the devastated Ukrainan city over to Russia’s military after a months-long slog to capture it.

Here are today's major developments:

  • Wagner leaves Bakhmut: Prigozhin said that the withdrawal of his fighters from Bakhmut has started and will last until June 1. Wagner mercenaries are being “replaced” by troops in the regular Russian military on the outskirts of the city, according to Ukraine’s deputy defense minister Hanna Maliar. Maliar also said Thursday that Ukrainian forces still control a small zone in the southwestern part of Bakhmut.
  • Kremlin drone attack: US intelligence suggests that Ukrainians may have been responsible for a drone attack on the Kremlin earlier this month. US officials have picked up chatter among Ukrainian groups blaming each other for the attack, sources familiar with the intelligence told CNN. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said today that Russia knew “right away that the Kyiv regime” was behind the attack. Kyiv has denied involvement.
  • Ukraine’s air defenses hold: Ukrainian defenses repelled all 36 drones launched by Russia overnight at multiple cities including Kyiv, Ukrainian authorities said Thursday. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said “it was not an easy night,” but confirmed that none of the drones reached its target.
  • Moscow fire reports denied by Russia: Russian state news agency TASS earlier reported that a fire had broken out on a balcony at the Ministry of Defense building in Moscow on Wednesday night, citing the city’s emergency services. Video seen by CNN showed smoke surrounding the building. Russia later denied the reports. “The presence of a fire has not been confirmed, as no fire was detected by the fire brigade upon arrival,” TASS quoted Moscow’s Ministry of Emergency Situations.
  • Belgorod assault: Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu called the cross-border raid in Belgorod a “terrorist act” and warned Russia will respond “promptly and extremely harshly” to any further attempts. He also claimed that more than 70 of the “saboteurs” were killed. The attack was launched by the Ukraine-based Freedom for Russia Legion, which has said its goal is the “complete liberation of Russia. Kyiv has claimed the group acted independently – but CNN analysis suggests that isn’t the case.
  • Ukraine’s counteroffensive: Kyiv's long-anticipated counteroffensive won’t be marked by a “single event,” Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the Head of the Presidential Office, said Thursday. Amid much confusion as to when – or whether – the counteroffensive would start, Podolyak said it will not “begin at a specific hour of a specific day with a solemn cutting of the red ribbon.”
  • US seeking Russian spies: The Central Intelligence Agency launched a new effort to capitalize on what US intelligence officials believe is an “unprecedented” opportunity to convince Russians disaffected by the war in Ukraine and life in Russia to share their secrets, posting a slickly produced, cinematic recruitment video online last week.