August 18, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Amy Woodyatt, Hannah Strange, Leinz Vales, Adrienne Vogt and Elise Hammond, CNN

Updated 9:39 p.m. ET, August 18, 2023
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3:49 a.m. ET, August 18, 2023

Russian and Chinese warships sail close to Japanese islands

From CNN's Emiko Jozuka and Jessie Yeung

Russian and Chinese warships conduct joint patrols in the Pacific Ocean.
Russian and Chinese warships conduct joint patrols in the Pacific Ocean. Russian Ministry of Defence/Telegram

Japan expressed “grave concern” after Chinese and Russian warships sailed close to its southern islands on Thursday, just a day before its leader is expected to discuss rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific at a summit with counterparts from South Korea and the United States.

Six Chinese ships, among them missile destroyers, and five Russian vessels, some of them destroyers, sailed between Japan’s Okinawa Island and Miyako Island before moving toward the East China Sea on Thursday, according to Japan’s defense ministry.

Japan’s relations with Russia have deteriorated since the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began 18 months ago. Tokyo has joined its Western allies in imposing sanctions on Moscow and pledged billions in humanitarian aid for Kyiv.

China, meanwhile, has strengthened political and economic ties with Russia, despite maintaining it remains a neutral party in the conflict and a proponent of peace.

Read the full story here.

3:46 a.m. ET, August 18, 2023

Netherlands welcomes US decision on approving F-16 jets for Ukraine

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio

A F-16 Fighting Falcon from Colorado Air National Guard's 140th Wing takes off from Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado on May 15, 2020.
A F-16 Fighting Falcon from Colorado Air National Guard's 140th Wing takes off from Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado on May 15, 2020. David Zalubowski/AP/File

The United States' decision to approve the transfer of US-made F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine as soon as crew training is complete is a “major milestone,” Netherlands Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said Thursday. 

“We welcome Washington's decision to pave the way for sending F-16 Fighter Jets to Ukraine,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Many thanks to [US Secretary of State Antony Blinken] for the good and swift cooperation.”

The US has committed to approving the transfer of F-16 fighter jets for Ukraine as soon as training is complete, according to a US official.

The plan is to make sure Ukraine has the fighter jet it has long sought the moment its pilots complete training on the F-16. The training program was initially expected to start this month, but it is now unclear exactly when it will start or how long it is expected to take.

Denmark and the Netherlands have taken the lead in preparing a program to train Ukrainian pilots on the American jet, but the US is still working with other countries to see who may provide F-16s to the Ukrainian Air Force.

Hoekstra said the Netherlands would work with NATO allies with the view of providing the jets to Ukraine. 

“Now, we will further discuss the subject with our European partners,” he said. “This marks a major milestone for Ukraine to defend its people and its country.”
2:42 a.m. ET, August 18, 2023

Russian shelling kills 1 in Kupiansk, official says

From CNN's Kostan Nechyporenko

A 61-year-old woman was killed after Russian shelling hit the eastern city of Kupiansk on Friday, a Ukrainian military official said.

Oleh Syniehubov, head of the Kharkiv regional military administration, said a 60-year-old woman was also injured in the attack.

Shelling also damaged homes in nearby areas, he added.

Earlier this month, Ukrainian authorities ordered mandatory evacuations from Kupiansk and its surrounding areas, as Russia intensified shelling of the northeastern Kharkiv region and claimed to have captured Ukrainian positions near the city.

Some more background: Kupiansk, which lies close to the Russian border, fell to Moscow’s forces within the first week of their invasion in February last year. It remained under Russian control for several months, before a swift Ukrainian offensive liberated the city in September, along with a number of other settlements in the region.

3:56 a.m. ET, August 18, 2023

Lukashenko says Belarus would use nuclear weapons in the event of "aggression" as regional tensions rise

From CNN's Radina Gigova and Jessie Yeung

Alexander Lukashenko attends an event in Moscow, Russia on May 25.
Alexander Lukashenko attends an event in Moscow, Russia on May 25. Stringer/Getty Images

Belarus would be willing to use the nuclear weapons given by close ally Russia in the face of foreign “aggression,” President Alexander Lukashenko said Thursday, as tensions rise around the country’s borders with NATO nations.

Minsk has played a key role in Russia’s war in Ukraine, with Moscow using Belarus as one of its launch pads for the invasion in early 2022, while joint Russia-Belarus military drills over the past year have fueled concerns Belarusian troops could join Russian forces in the conflict.

In June, Russian nuclear warheads were reportedly delivered to Belarus for “deterrence,” according to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In an interview with state news agency Belta, Lukashenko claimed Belarus would “never get involved in this war” unless Ukrainians crossed its border. But he added: “We will keep helping Russia, they are our ally.”

He also warned that if provoked — especially by neighboring NATO countries like Poland, Lithuania and Latvia — Belarus would “immediately respond with everything we have,” including nuclear weapons.

It’s not clear how much of Russia’s nuclear arsenal was transported to Belarus recently, and US and Western officials have not publicly confirmed that any weapons have been transferred — though senior officials from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) said they had “no reason to doubt” Putin’s claim.

During the interview, Lukashenko said if Belarus were to come under attack, “we will not tarry, wait, and the rest. We will use the entire arsenal of our weapons for deterrence.”

"We didn’t bring nuclear weapons here in order to scare someone," he added. "Yes, nuclear weapons represent a strong deterring factor. But these are tactical nuclear weapons, not strategic ones. This is why we will use them immediately once aggression is launched against us."

The senior DIA officials said in July they do not believe Lukashenko would have any control over the arsenal, which would most likely be entirely controlled by Russia.

Read the full story here.

12:05 a.m. ET, August 18, 2023

It's early morning in Kyiv. Here's the latest on Russia's war in Ukraine

From CNN staff

Russian air defenses shot down a drone over Moscow, the city's mayor said early Friday, the latest in a string of drone strikes to pepper Russian cities, with Kyiv warning more attacks will come.

Meanwhile, Russia's Defense Ministry said two of its patrol ships repelled a new Ukrainian attack with an unmanned gun boat in the Black Sea on Thursday.

No casualties or major damage were reported in either incident.

Here's what else you need to know:

  • On the battlefield: Ukraine's National Guard said its forces are entrenched near the village of Urozhaine in the eastern Donetsk region and repelling Russian attacks after retaking the area. Military experts say the recapture of the village of appears to have been partially aided by the Ukrainian use of controversial cluster munitions.
  • F-16 transfers: The US has committed to approving the transfer of F-16 fighter jets for Ukraine as soon as training is complete, according to a US official. The plan is to make sure Ukraine has the fighter jet it has long sought the moment its pilots complete training on the F-16. The training program was initially expected to start this month, but it is now unclear exactly when it will start or how long it will take.
  • Lukashenko threat: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, a key Russian ally, said Minsk would immediately respond to aggression if provoked, including by using nuclear weapons, state media reported. Earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.
  • NATO's stance: NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said it is up to Ukraine to decide when to come to the negotiating table, following controversial remarks by the director of his office that Kyiv could join the alliance by ceding land to Russia. Stoltenberg maintained that if NATO allies want peace, "military support for Ukraine is the solution," Norwegian public broadcaster NRK reported. 
  • Tank training: Germany’s army trained Ukrainian troops on Leopard 1 battle tanks in an eastern town near Berlin Thursday. The Ukrainian army needs to train more soldiers after many have either been wounded or killed during Russia's invasion, German Lt. Gen. Andreas Marlow told reporters.
  • Sanctions call: Russian assault Ka-52 helicopters shot down in Ukraine on Thursday were manufactured using foreign chips and processors, according to Ukrainian presidential adviser Andriy Yermak. He said Russian assault helicopters contain "high-tech components" from "Western and Asian countries," and called for tougher sanctions on Moscow.
  • Commander dies:Russian general who reportedly served as the top military commander for Ukraine last year has died, according to state media. Army Gen. Gennady Zhidko died at 58 on Wednesday "after a long illness," state-run news agency TASS reported.
  • Detained Americans:Moscow court has charged an imprisoned Russian-born US citizen with espionage, state-run news agency TASS reported Thursday, quoting the court’s press service. Tensions between the US and Russia ratcheted up following Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, complicating efforts in the release of two other detained US citizens.
10:02 p.m. ET, August 17, 2023

Russia shoots down another drone over Moscow, mayor says

From CNN's Josh Pennington

Russian air defenses shot down a drone early Friday over Moscow, according to the capital's Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. 

"A drone was destroyed by our air defense forces during an attempted flight over Moscow tonight. Debris from the drone fell in the area of the Expocentre without causing any significant damage to the building," the mayor said on Telegram.

Sobyanin said no casualties or significant damage has been reported. 

The airspace over the Vnukovo International Airport serving Moscow is temporarily closed and flights have been delayed, Russian state media reported.

Some context: It's the third time this month that this part of Moscow has been struck by debris after a string of recent drone strikes peppered Russian cities, with Kyiv warning more attacks will come.

9:52 p.m. ET, August 17, 2023

Russia says it thwarted attack by an unmanned Ukrainian gunboat in Black Sea

From CNN's Josh Pennington and Michael Rios

Russia says two of its patrol ships repelled a new Ukrainian attack on the Black Sea. 

According to Russia’s defense ministry, Ukraine targeted the ships with an unmanned gunboat late Thursday night. But Russia says its ships opened fire on the vessel and destroyed it before reaching its target.

The ships, the Pytlivy and the Vasily Bykov, were overseeing navigation in the area when the alleged attack happened, the Russian defense ministry said. Earlier this month, Russia said the Vasily Bykov was one of two ships that repelled another uncrewed boat attack by Ukraine. 

The Vasily Bykov also participated in Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s Snake Island at the start of the full-scale invasion.

Earlier this week, the ship fired warning shots on a cargo ship on the Black Sea after it failed to respond to a request to stop for an inspection, according to Russia.

Some more background: Ukrainian security services this week released exclusive footage to CNN showing the moment in July when they used an experimental sea drone to attack Russia’s bridge to annexed Crimea, providing new details on the attack and warning more such assaults will follow.

8:20 a.m. ET, August 18, 2023

Moscow court charges imprisoned US citizen with espionage

From CNN's Radina Gigova, Matthew Chance and Katharina Krebs

Moscow court has charged an imprisoned Russian-born US citizen with espionage, state-run news agency TASS reported Thursday, quoting the court’s press service.

Gene Spector, who was born and raised in St. Petersburg but later moved to the United States and received US citizenship, is serving a prison sentence after pleading guilty to bribery charges, according to TASS.

He was the chairman of the board of directors of Medpolymerprom Group, specializing in cancer drugs, according to TASS.

In 2020, Spector was charged with mediating bribes for Anastasia Alekseyeva, a former aide to former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, according to TASS. Alekseyeva received bribes amounting to more than 4 million rubles ($43,000), which included trips to Thailand and the Dominican Republic, TASS reported.

A US official at the American embassy in Moscow told CNN they believe the US citizen was already in jail and added that they had no information on a new charge.

There is no indication the US has deemed Spector to be wrongfully detained.

A US State Department spokesperson said the US is “aware of reports of charges against a US citizen in Russia,” adding that they were “monitoring the situation but have no further comment at this time.”

Tensions between the US and Russia ratcheted up following President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, complicating efforts in the release of two other detained US citizens.

Read more about the imprisoned US citizen here.

8:41 p.m. ET, August 17, 2023

After aide's controversial remark, NATO chief says only Ukraine can decide when to negotiate with Russia

From CNN’s James Frater and Niamh Kennedy

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg stressed Thursday that it is up to Ukraine to decide when to come to the negotiating table, following controversial remarks made by the director of his office earlier this week.

On Tuesday, Stian Jenssen, director of the Private Office of the NATO Secretary General, said during an event in Norway that ceding territory to Russia could be a way for Ukraine to achieve peace and join the alliance, according to Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang. 

That sparked outrage among Ukrainian officials, including the adviser to the head of the Ukrainian presidential office, Mykhailo Podolyak, who called the remarks "ridiculous," saying such a move would only encourage Moscow's "appalling indulgences." 

Speaking during a conference in Arendal, Norway, on Thursday, Stoltenberg maintained that if NATO allies want peace, "military support for Ukraine is the solution," according to Norwegian public broadcaster NRK. 

“What is important is that it is the Ukrainians themselves who must decide when they are willing to sit down at the negotiating table,” Stoltenberg said, according to NRK. 

Tension in the Baltics: In his remarks Thursday, Stoltenberg also issued a warning that "great powers" such as Russia are not entitled to hold "spheres of interest," according to NRK.

"Small countries like Latvia and Lithuania cannot accept that (just) because they are small neighboring countries, then Russia shall rule over them," the NATO chief said.

Lithuania announced Wednesday that it would temporarily suspend operations at two checkpoints along its border with Belarus due to concerns about the presence of Wagner private military forces in the country.

Wagner fighters are stationed in Belarus — a close ally of Russia — in the wake of their short-lived rebellion against the Kremlin. Their presence has raised tensions on NATO's eastern flank.