July 15, 2023 Russia-Ukraine war news

By Joshua Berlinger, Thom Poole, Adrienne Vogt and Matt Meyer, CNN

Updated 8:45 p.m. ET, July 15, 2023
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1:44 p.m. ET, July 15, 2023

Heavy fighting continues in the south of Ukraine as neither side makes significant gains

From CNN's Andrew Carey and Yulia Kesaieva in Kyiv

Residents walk by a school that was damaged by Russian shelling in Kamyshevakha, Ukraine, on July 2.
Residents walk by a school that was damaged by Russian shelling in Kamyshevakha, Ukraine, on July 2. Andriy Andriyenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Along the southern front — seen as perhaps Ukraine’s main strategic priority, with the aim of breaking Russia’s land bridge to Crimea by punching through to the Sea of Azov — reports continue to suggest Ukrainian and Russian forces involved in very heavy fighting. 

Brig. Gen. Oleksandr Tarnavsky, commander of the Tavria Joint Forces Operation that is operating on a large section of the southern Ukraine front, told Ukrainian television Saturday morning his soldiers were “systematically driving the enemy from their positions.”  

He listed 33 pieces of Russian equipment destroyed in the latest Ukrainian attacks, including armored personnel carriers, artillery pieces and an anti-aircraft missile system, among others. Those encouraging words, from Ukraine’s perspective, are yet to translate into long lists of liberated towns and villages, however. 

Russian military blogger Rybar also claimed further Ukrainian pressure on Russian positions near the Zaporizhzhia region village of Robotyne, which is south of Orikhiv in an area that has seen small gains by Ukrainian forces over the last week.

Which side has the advantage? Analyst Rob Lee, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program, says it is difficult to measure which side currently holds the upper hand in the absence of significant territorial gains by either.

“Both sides are taking attrition right now … but it is not clear which side can sustain it better,” he told the Geopolitics Decanted podcast. 

“On the Russian side, if they take enough losses and Ukraine can isolate parts of the front, (then Ukrainian forces) may be able to achieve a breakthrough. On the flip side, if Ukraine keeps taking losses and more attrition, the offensive might culminate too soon, before they make it to (Russia’s) main defensive lines, which lie another 10 to 15 kilometers (about 6 to 9 miles) to the south,” Lee said.

One part of Ukraine’s current campaign that does seem to be achieving tangible results is strikes on targets behind front lines. These are aimed at disrupting and degrading Russian supply lines as well as targeting Russian command bases and soldiers’ barracks.

In his comments Saturday morning, Tarnavsky told Ukrainian TV viewers that nine Russian ammunition depots had been destroyed in the last day. He did not say where the depots were located, but it is likely they were a substantial distance from the front lines.   

Earlier this week, a senior Russian general was killed when a Ukrainian missile hit the base of Russia’s 58th Combined Arms Army in the occupied port city of Berdiansk. 

12:42 p.m. ET, July 15, 2023

Ukraine’s counteroffensive is "slow," but Western allies remain patient, Kyiv says

From CNN's Andrew Carey and Yulia Kesaieva in Kyiv

A Ukrainian serviceman fires a self-propelled howitzer towards Russian troops near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on July 5.
A Ukrainian serviceman fires a self-propelled howitzer towards Russian troops near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on July 5. Sofiia Gatilova/Reuters

Senior Ukrainian officials and generals alike continue to describe tough fighting and limited progress on the battlefield as they look to drive Russian forces out of the country and turn the tide of the war.

Just days after Ukraine’s key partners met at the NATO summit in Lithuania, pledging even deeper security ties — albeit without specifying any timetable for Ukraine's potential membership in the alliance — Kyiv insists it does not feel under pressure to deliver quick results. 

Counteroffensive is "slow": Speaking to journalists Friday in Kyiv following his attendance at the NATO summit, the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Andriy Yermak, admitted the counteroffensive — seen as being underway since the start of June — was “hard work.”

“It’s not going that fast; it is slow,” he said, adding that it is important Ukrainians are told the truth about developments on the ground.

Asked by CNN if Ukraine’s Western allies were looking for quick results, Yermak said there was no such pressure from partner countries. Instead, he said, they just ask: "What else do you need to expedite victory?"

Near Bakhmut: One of the more encouraging areas for Ukraine’s offensive appears to be around the battered city of Bakhmut in the east, though without any reports of significant breakthroughs. 

“The Bakhmut direction remains one where our defense forces have the initiative. Our defense forces are pushing the enemy on the southern and northern flanks, storming their positions,” military spokesperson Serhii Cherevatyi said on Ukrainian television Saturday, adding that “the enemy is putting up fierce resistance.”

 Ukrainian soldiers reload shells near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on July 10.
Ukrainian soldiers reload shells near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on July 10. Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Mapping by DeepStateMap.Live, which updates changes on the ground daily and is widely used by analysts, has suggested almost no shifts in the front line around the city for many days, even as Ukrainian forces continue efforts to regain villages like Klishchiivka to the southwest and Berhivka to the northwest, where fighting has raged for weeks.

Further to the north, in the roughly 100-kilometer (about 62-mile) stretch of land between the towns of Lyman and Kupyansk, Cherevatyi said Russian forces were “actively attacking.”

The area was held by Russia for almost six months last year before being recaptured in a Ukrainian offensive in October; in recent weeks, it has become a renewed focus of Russian firepower.

“This direction is the leader in the (Russian) use of artillery, mortars and multiple rocket launchers shelling. The enemy carried out 570 attacks and 11 air raids over the last day,” Cherevatyi said.

What Russian accounts say: According to Russian military bloggers, one of the areas where Moscow’s forces have been concentrating their efforts is around the village of Novoselivske in northeastern Ukraine. On Telegram, the popular Rybar account described Russian advances through forested areas to the south of the village, as well as the digging of a new defensive line close to a nearby railway line.

It is not possible for CNN to immediately verify claims of territorial gains or losses by either side. 

9:21 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

South Korea's president meets with Zelensky following Bucha visit

From CNN's Yulia Kesaieva and Radina Gigova

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 15.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 15. Jae C. Hong/AP

South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol and first lady Kim Keon Hee met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and first lady Olena Zelenska during a surprise visit to Ukraine on Saturday, Zelensky said in a message on Twitter. 

"During this visit, the first in the history of our relations, we are discussing everything that is important for the normal and safe life of people, for the rules-based international order," Zelensky said. 

They also discussed the deportation of Ukrainians to Russia, his 10-step peace formula and a global peace summit, food and energy security, and economic cooperation, according to the Ukrainian president.

"I am sure together we will give more strength to our nations and the global positions of Ukraine and the Republic of Korea," Zelensky said.

South Korea has pledged to increase its assistance to Ukraine from $100 million to $150 million this year, the leaders announced at a news conference after their meeting. Zelensky said Seoul is sending Ukraine special-purpose vehicles and equipment, including machines for removing landmines.

South Korea will also continue helping with various recovery efforts, including the rebuilding of schools, hospitals, homes and businesses, the Ukrainian president said.

Earlier Saturday, Yoon visited Bucha —  the town just north of Kyiv that has become synonymous with Russian atrocities and alleged war crimes — and met with Ukraine's Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin. 

"Ukraine is grateful to South Korea for its support in the international arena, namely in the UN and for backing President Zelensky's Peace Formula," Kostin said in a post on Twitter. "Thanked President Yoon Suk Yeol for his stance in support of Ukraine, emphasizing that the international community must not tolerate large-scale attacks against civilians."

Kostin said they visited Bucha "to see the aftermath of Russia's atrocious policy of targeting Ukrainian civilians."

"In 33 days of occupation, Bucha has faced brutal war crimes, including torture, shooting civilians and evacuating vehicles, conflict-related sexual violence," Kostin said. "The Kremlin regime must be held accountable for these atrocities and the most effective way to achieve this is through the Special Tribunal for the Crime of Aggression." 

8:11 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

Wagner fighters are in Belarus, Ukraine's Border Guard says 

From CNN's Yulia Kesaieva and Radina Gigova

Fighters from the Russian mercenary group Wagner have arrived in Belarus from Russia, a Ukrainian official said.

"'Wagner' are in Belarus," Andrii Demchenko, a spokesman for the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine, said in a statement posted to social media.
"As of now, the available information shows that separate groups of representatives of private military campaigns moving from Russia have been observed in Belarus."

On Friday, the Belarusian defense ministry announced that Wagner fighters are training Belarusian troops near the town of Osipovichi, about 90 kilometers (56 miles) south of the capital Minsk. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko had previously asked fighters from Wagner to come to his country to train members of the Belarusian military.

Lukashenko was responsible for brokering a deal between the Kremlin and Wagner that saw the mercenary group's leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, end a short-lived armed insurrection against Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

9:08 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

Analysis: Why Vladimir Putin said the Wagner mercenary group does not exist

Analysis by CNN's Nathan Hodge

Now you see Wagner, now you don’t.

Weeks after an armed uprising by the Russian mercenary group Wagner revealed cracks in Russia’s system of one-man rule, the Kremlin has been on a PR offensive. The message is simple: "Russian President Vladimir Putin is firmly in control, now please move along."

In an interview Thursday with the Russian business daily newspaper Kommersant, Putin described a three-hour meeting with Wagner commanders, including the group’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, just days after the private military company (PMC) made its abortive march on Moscow last month.

Putin put a positive spin on the meeting, but made a curious admission.

“Wagner PMC does not exist,” Putin said when asked if Wagner would be kept on as a fighting unit. “We do not have a law for private military organizations. It simply does not exist.”

Putin, who is a trained lawyer, reiterated the point during the interview: “There is no such legal entity,” he said.

Technically, Putin is correct. Article 359 of Russia’s Criminal Code outlaws mercenary activity. The law states that “recruitment, training, financing or other material support of a mercenary, as well as their participation in an armed conflict or military operations” carries heavy criminal penalties.

Putin went on to explain in the interview that the State Duma — Russia’s parliament — should consider legislation to legalize PMCs, conceding, “It’s not an easy question.”

This legalistic answer, however, raises more questions than answers. If Wagner was technically an illegal entity all this time, who authorized its use? Who trained and equipped them? And who signed off on their budget?

The issue is about more than Putin’s cavalier approach to the rule of law. It also serves as a reminder that Putin is the pioneer of a post-truth world.

Read more about the rift between the Kremlin and Wagner here:

8:27 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

South Korea's president is making a surprise visit to Ukraine

From CNN's Irene Nasser in Hong Kong and Yoonjung Seo in Seoul, South Korea

Yoon Suk Yeol, President of South Korea, attends a meeting of the North Atlantic Council during a NATO leaders summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 12, 2023.
Yoon Suk Yeol, President of South Korea, attends a meeting of the North Atlantic Council during a NATO leaders summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 12, 2023. Ints Kalnins/Reuters

South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol made a surprise visit to Ukraine on Saturday for talks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, a senior aide for Yoon said in a statement.

Yoon visited the site of the massacre at Bucha before heading to Irpin, a civilian residential area near the capital of Kyiv that has been subject to large-scale missile attacks, the statement said. Yoon also plans to lay a wreath at a war memorial and then hold a meeting with Zelensky.

The visit comes after Yoon attended the NATO summit in Lithuania this week and traveled to Poland for an official visit.

What Seoul is giving Kyiv: South Korea has repeatedly maintained its stance not to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine since Russia's invasion. However, Yoon's government has provided non-lethal aid, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense told CNN on Monday.

8:23 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

Zelensky: Russia “investing everything” to stop Ukrainian forces in south and east

From CNN’s Mariya Knight, Yulia Kesaieva and Ivana Kottasová

A view of an explosion of a drone in the city during a Russian drone strike in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 13, 2023.
A view of an explosion of a drone in the city during a Russian drone strike in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 13, 2023. Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia is applying its maximum efforts to stop Ukraine’s advance as Kyiv pushes ahead with its summer counteroffensive.

“The Russian forces on our southern and eastern lands are investing everything they can to stop our warriors. And every thousand meters of advance, every success of each of our combat brigades deserves gratitude,” Zelensky said in his nightly address on Friday. "Our full focus is on the front line."

Despite Zelensky's positive spin, Ukraine's western allies have expressed concern that Ukraine's forces have not been able to push Russian troops back at a quicker rate.

The front lines in southern and eastern Ukraine have not moved much over the past months, giving Russian troops plenty of time to dig in and prepare for a counteroffensive.

Russian strikes target Zaporizhzhia: The southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia saw several buildings damaged overnight Friday into Saturday as a result of Russian strikes, a local Ukrainian military official said.

The official added that one 62-year-old man was wounded.

As Zelensky alluded to in his comments, the south is a key focus of Ukraine's campaign.

4:33 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

US is “very close” to a decision on providing guided missiles to Ukraine, Zelensky aide says

From CNN's Andrew Carey

An early version of an Army Tactical Missile System is tested on December 14, 2021, at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
An early version of an Army Tactical Missile System is tested on December 14, 2021, at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. John Hamilton/White Sands Missile Range Public Affairs 

One of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s most senior aides has expressed optimism Kyiv might soon be adding Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMs) to its arsenal of weapons. The US-manufactured guided missile has a range of up to 300 kilometers (about 186 miles).

Andriy Yermak told journalists in Kyiv he believed the Biden administration was “very close” to making a decision on approving the transfer of the missiles to Ukraine, though he stressed that a final decision had not yet been made.

Ukrainian leaders have had ATACMs close to the top of their wish list since the early months of the war. The missiles’ longer range would bring more Russian targets into view, including some in occupied Crimea, as well as in Russia itself, a fact that has worried the US.

Key among the Russian targets Ukraine is looking to hit are ammunition dumps and fuel depots, as well as buildings housing Russian soldiers far behind the frontlines.

In recent months, Ukraine has stepped up these strikes in what are described as shaping operations, aimed at disrupting and degrading enemy supply lines ahead of ground offensives. Reports suggest Ukraine has begun to make effective use of Storm Shadow missiles, which were donated by the UK in May and have a range of about 250 kilometers (155 miles).

Yermak’s comments follow a report in The New York Times that described a “quiet debate” inside the Biden administration over whether to send the missiles to Ukraine, thereby reversing the US position that Ukraine does not need them.

8:24 a.m. ET, July 15, 2023

Russia charges Ukrainian citizen with murder of Russian commander

From CNN's Josh Pennington

Sergei Denisenko has been charged with the "premeditated murder" of Stanislav Rzhitsky and illegal arms trafficking, the Russian Investigative Committee said in a statement Friday.

Denisenko, a Ukrainian citizen, was detained earlier this week in connection with the murder of Rzhitsky, a former submarine commander in Russia's Black Sea fleet. Rzhitsky was killed early Monday morning as he was running through a park in Krasnodar.

Russia's Investigative Committee previously posted a video showing the suspect, who they have now named as Denisenko, being walked through the scene of the murder. It is not clear whether Denisenko was under duress as he spoke at the scene, in a Krasnodar park.