May 31, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Helen Regan, Andrew Raine, Jack Guy, Hannah Ryan, Adrienne Vogt, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, June 1, 2022
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6:25 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

Ukrainian forces are making progress in Kherson and Kharkiv, Zelensky says

From CNN's Mitchell McCluskey

A rescuer inspects a flat where the bodies of civilians were collected from a shelled residential building in Kharkiv on May 31.
A rescuer inspects a flat where the bodies of civilians were collected from a shelled residential building in Kharkiv on May 31. (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

Ukrainian forces have made progress in the regions of Kherson and Kharkiv and are holding back Russian forces in Zaporizhzhia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address on Tuesday night.

“Our defenders show extreme bravery, despite the fact that Russia has a substantial advantage in force and weapons,” Zelensky said, “We want all of our people liberated but it needs to be done with caution.”

Zelensky also applauded the new sanctions package approved by the European Council, which would cut down on imports of Russian oil, as well as suspend Russia propaganda channels and remove Sberbank from SWIFT, the international bank messaging system.

“I am thankful for everyone to reach this agreement,” Zelensky said, “It will leave Russia at the outskirts of the world economy. Russia will not be able to adapt and this means it will be defeated.”

4:04 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

NATO's chief is traveling to Washington, DC, Tuesday to meet with top US officials

From CNN's Sugam Pokharel in London  

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg is traveling to Washington, DC, on Tuesday for a working visit, the alliance said in a statement.

Stoltenberg will be in the US capital until Friday and is expected to meet with top US officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, according to the statement.  

He will also give a speech at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), NATO said.  

6:58 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

State Department: US welcomes proposed EU Russian oil ban

From CNN's Michael Conte

European Council chief Charles Michel speaks during a joint press conference with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels.
European Council chief Charles Michel speaks during a joint press conference with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels. (Diego Ravier/Hans Lucas/Reuters)

The US welcomes the European Union’s announcement of a proposed ban of Russian oil, according to a State Department spokesperson.

“We applaud the steps by our European allies and partners to reduce their reliance on Russian oil and natural gas by diversifying their sources of energy and reducing consumption in line with our shared climate goals,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price.
3:52 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

More than 23,000 Ukrainians have been authorized to come to the US under new program 

From CNN's Priscilla Alvarez

More than 23,000 Ukrainians have been authorized to come to the United States as part of the Biden administration’s streamlined process for Ukrainian refugees seeking to come to the US, according to the Department of Homeland Security. 

In April, US President Joe Biden announced “Uniting for Ukraine,” a program that provides a pathway for Ukrainians interested in coming to the US for a temporary period. 

The program requires Ukrainians seeking entry to the US to be sponsored by a US citizen or individual, which could include resettlement organizations and non-profit organizations. Applicants must also undergo rigorous security vetting and checks, including biographic and biometric screening, and complete vaccinations and other public health requirements, including receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, to be eligible.  

As of May 31, US Citizenship and Immigration Services has received more than 42,000 requests from applicants agreeing to support Ukrainians, according to DHS. More than 5,800 Ukrainians have arrived in the US under the program. After clearance, Ukrainians have some time to purchase a plane ticket and travel to the US. 

The Biden administration committed to accepting up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.

4:24 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

State Department: US remains concerned about Russian steps to control Ukrainian territory, especially Kherson

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Christian Sierra

Russian servicemen are seen on a roadside in the Kherson region on May 19.
Russian servicemen are seen on a roadside in the Kherson region on May 19. (Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States remains "concerned about steps Russia is taking to attempt to institutionalize control over sovereign Ukrainian territory, particularly in Ukraine's Kherson region," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Tuesday. 

Speaking at a briefing, Price said that "the Kremlin is probably weighing a few approaches, from recognizing a so-called People's Republic, as Russia forcibly did in Donetsk and Luhansk, to an attempted annexation, just as Russia did in Crimea."

"It's a predictable part of the Russian playbook, which is why we are continuing to sound the alarm now, particularly following Russian President Putin's unilateral decree that would fast track the issuance of Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens. Russia used similar tactics in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2019," he said.

"Russia is almost certainly failing to gain legitimacy for proxy governments in newly seized territories in Ukraine, as protests persist, and residents refuse to cooperate," Price added.

He continued: "Russia's initial objectives of controlling large swaths of Ukraine has been nothing short of a complete failure. The Kremlin probably views that forcibly holding Kherson would provide Russia a land bridge to Crimea, as well as gaining some kind of so called victory and attempt to justify Russia — to Russia's domestic audiences — [of] the thousands of lives Putin's war of choice has destroyed. We will continue to spotlight Russia's territorial designs in Ukraine as well as its ongoing aggression, just as we hold to account those who facilitate it, including with additional punitive economic measures."

2:59 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

Ukraine working on "UN-led naval operation” to export agricultural products, foreign minister says  

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy and Sugam Pokharel in London   

Ukraine is working on an “UN-led naval operation” with navies of partnering countries to ensure a safe trade route for exporting its agricultural products, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Tuesday.   

"Ukraine is working on an international UN-led operation with navies of partners ensuring a safe trade route with no security risks," Kuleba wrote on Twitter, without providing any further details on the operation.  

In the tweet, the foreign minister blamed Russia of playing "hunger games with the world by blocking Ukrainian food exports with one hand and trying to shift the blame on Ukraine with the other."   

During a phone call on Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky that Ankara places a “particular importance” on efforts to establish a safe corridor to export Ukrainian agricultural products by sea, according to a Turkish readout of the call.   

As far as Moscow's cooperation is concerned, earlier on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed that if Ukraine clears its coastal waters from mines, Russian naval forces will guarantee the passage of grain ships to the Mediterranean Sea.  

More background: On Friday, Zelensky said that 22 million tons of grain, accounting for nearly half of Ukraine’s grain export supply, is being held up by Russia's blockade of the main export routes through the Black Sea and Azov Sea.    

The Kremlin has repeatedly rejected the accusations that it has blocked grain supplies from Ukraine and has accused the West of actions that have led to this crisis.  

With previous reporting from CNN’s Isil Sariyuce, Anna Chernova and Anastasia Graham-Yooll  

3:59 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

US ambassador to UN: White House "clear from day one" it will only provide defensive weapons to Ukraine

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks to reporters at the United Nations headquarters on May 31.
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks to reporters at the United Nations headquarters on May 31. (Anthony Behar/Sipa USA/AP)

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said US President Joe Biden's administration has been "clear from day one" that they would only provide Ukraine with defensive weapons to fight Russia.

"We're not providing any weapons that will allow the Ukrainians to attack Russia from inside of Ukraine. And President Biden has been very clear on that, that we're not, we're not going to become a party to the war, but we will support Ukraine's efforts to defend its own sovereignty and territorial integrity," she said at a news briefing at the UN.

More context: Biden said Monday that the US "won't send anything that can fire into Russia." Ukrainians have repeatedly called for international partners to send them Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) to fight the war.

CNN reported last week that the Biden administration is preparing to step up the kind of weaponry it is offering Ukraine by sending advanced, long-range rocket systems, multiple officials say. 

3:53 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

Ukrainian official says Russians control "most of Severodonetsk"

From CNN's Tim Lister and Kostan Nechyporenko

Serhiy Hayday, the Head of Luhansk region military administration, says that Russian troops now control most of the city of Severodonetsk — but he has dismissed suggestions that Ukrainian troops in the area will be surrounded. 

"We are constantly communicating," he said. "There is an opportunity to maneuver, so the military is now calmly holding the defense in the positions they occupy now. The city at this stage has 90% of all houses damaged. Of these, 60% are almost impossible to restore. And all the critical infrastructure is completely destroyed."

Hayday said: "Now there is no possibility to leave Severodonetsk. It's very risky and the chances are very small to actually escape [unharmed]. Therefore, there is simply no point in risking people's lives."

Hayday added that the Russian goal was to surround all our troops. Of course, they would like to capture the entire Luhansk region much faster. Or just cut the route "Lysychansk - Bakhmut" or capture Severodonetsk as soon as possible. But they do not manage to capture the whole area."

If Russian forces gain control of Severodonetsk, the neighboring city of Lysychansk will be the only urban area of any size in Luhansk to remain under Ukrainian control. 

2:35 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

Zelensky welcomes new EU sanctions against Russia but calls the delay "unacceptable"  

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy in London  

(Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
(Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday welcomed the new European Union sanctions package against Moscow, but criticized the bloc for the gap of more than 50 days between the fifth and sixth round of sanctions.   

"It's more than 50 days since the fifth package of sanctions, this is unacceptable for us," Zelensky said while addressing a joint new conference alongside Slovakian Prime Minister Zuzana Caputova in Kyiv on Tuesday.  

More on the sanctions: The EU agreed to ban 90% of Russian oil imports by the end of the year, the leaders of the European Council said Monday.

Russian oil delivered by tankers would be banned, while an exemption will be made for the southern segment of the Druzhba pipeline, said Ursula von der Leyen — president of the European Commission — in a news conference.

The northern segment of the pipeline serves Poland and Germany — who have agreed to the embargo. The southern part goes to Hungary, Slovakia and Czech republic.

Von der Leyen said an exemption will be made for the southern segment, which accounts for 10% of imports on Russian oil.