February 23, 2023 - Town hall on Russia's war in Ukraine

By Kathleen Magramo, Tara Subramaniam, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Leinz Vales, Maureen Chowdhury, Tori B. Powell and Amir Vera, CNN

Updated 12:02 a.m. ET, February 24, 2023
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2:06 a.m. ET, February 23, 2023

Wagner chief says ammunition shipment on way to his fighters after criticizing Russian Defense Ministry

From CNN's Josh Pennington

People gather outside the PMC Wagner headquarters in St. Petersburg on November 4, 2022.
People gather outside the PMC Wagner headquarters in St. Petersburg on November 4, 2022. (Igor Russak/Reuters/FILE)

Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin on Thursday said an ammunition shipment is on its way to his fighters in Ukraine after he accused Russia’s defense establishment earlier this week of creating “major problems” with supplies for the mercenary group.

In a message and voice note published on his Telegram channel Thursday, Progozhin said the shipment began at 6 a.m. local time.

"Most likely, the train has started moving…we are told that the main papers have already been signed,” the message read. “I would like to thank all who helped us accomplish this. You saved hundreds, maybe thousands of lives of men who are defending their homeland.”

Public spat: On Tuesday, Prigozhin accused the Russian Defense Ministry's leadership of "treason" for failing to get ammunition to Wagner fighters and "not helping with air transport."

CNN has not been able to independently verify Prigozhin's claims about ammunition shortages. The Wagner chief, who has no official position, has repeatedly blamed the Russian Ministry of Defense for battlefield losses in Ukraine.

The US government estimates the Wagner group has suffered more than 30,000 causalities, including roughly 9,000 dead in the battle for the city of Bakhmut. About half of those 9,000 have been killed since mid-December, US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said last week. And about 90% of those killed in December were recruited from Russian prisons, he said. 

12:33 a.m. ET, February 23, 2023

Russia accuses Ukraine of planning an "armed provocation" against Transnistria

From CNN’s Hannah Ritchie and Josh Pennington 

Russia’s Defense Ministry has accused Ukraine of “preparing an armed provocation” against Moldova’s pro-Moscow separatist region of Transnistria “in the near future,” state-run news agency TASS reported Thursday. 

No evidence or further details were offered to support the ministry's claim. 

"According to current information, the Kyiv regime is preparing an armed provocation against the Transnistrian Moldovan Republic in the near future, which will be carried out by units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, including involving the Azov nationalist formation," the ministry said, according to TASS.
The ministry said the “pretext for the invasion” would be to “stage an alleged attack by Russian troops from the territory of Transnistria,” TASS reported. 
“'To this end, the Ukrainian saboteurs participating in the staged invasion will be disguised wearing uniforms of Russian Federation troops," it said.

Transnistria tensions: Moldova, situated between Ukraine and Romania, was part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. 

The separatist region of Transnistria is a strip of land bordered by the Dniester River on the west and Ukraine on the east, which declared itself a Soviet republic in 1990, opposing any attempt by Moldova at the time to become an independent state or to merge with Romania.

Anxieties about Russia’s long-term plans for Transnistria have only intensified after Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began last February.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington has “deep concern” about Moscow's efforts to destabilize Moldova's government. 

The remarks came just days after Moldovan President Maia Sandu accused Russia of plotting a coup in Moldova and dragging Transnistria into its war. 

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has dismissed Sandu’s claims as “completely unfounded and unsubstantiated.”

12:58 a.m. ET, February 23, 2023

3 ways China is helping to prop up the Russian economy

From CNN's Laura He in Hong Kong

In the year since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, Moscow has been hit by unprecedented Western sanctions and shut out of much of the global economy.

But China, which has declared “no limits” to its friendship with its northern neighbor, has thrown the Kremlin an economic lifeline, tempering the impact of its banishment from the global financial system.

Here are three ways China has been propping up the Russian economy:

  1. Buying Russian energy: Total trade between China and Russia hit a new record high in 2022, up 30% to $190 billion, according to Chinese customs figures. In particular, the energy trade has risen markedly since the onset of the war. China bought $50.6 billion worth of crude oil from Russia from March to December, up 45% from the same period the previous year. Coal imports surged 54% to $10 billion. Natural gas purchases, including pipeline gas and LNG, skyrocketed 155% to $9.6 billion.
  2. Replacing Western suppliers: Russia has also been spending billions on buying machinery, electronics, base metals, vehicles, ships and aircraft from China, as detailed in a US Congressional Research Service report from last May. Chinese car brands, including Havel, Chery, and Geely, have seen their market share surge from 10% to 38% in a year following the exit of Western brands, according to most recent data from Russian research firm Autostat. In consumer electronics, Chinese brands accounted for about 40% of the smartphone market at the end of 2021. A year later, they’ve virtually taken over the industry with 95% market share, according to market research firm Counterpoint.
  3. Providing an alternative to the US dollar: After some Russian banks were cut off from SWIFT — the international messaging system that enables bank transactions — Moscow has been dropping the dollar for the Chinese yuan. Russian companies have been using more yuan to facilitate the increased trade with China. The yuan’s share of the Russian foreign currency market jumped to 48% by November 2022 from less than 1% in January, according to Russian media, citing the head of the Moscow Exchange.

Read more here.

12:33 a.m. ET, February 23, 2023

Russian man accused of selling prolific hacking tool extradited to US

From CNN's Sean Lyngaas

A 28-year-old Russian man accused of developing and selling a hacking tool used to obtain the login information for tens of thousands of computers worldwide was arrested in the country of Georgia and extradited to the US, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

Dariy Pankov is accused of advertising access to more than 35,000 computers, earning more than $350,000 in illicit sales, and enabling cybercriminals to conduct ransomware attacks and tax fraud, prosecutors said.

Pankov’s arrest is the latest move by US law enforcement agencies to try to nab accused Russian cybercriminals who venture outside of Russia. US President Joe Biden in 2021 urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to reign in criminal hackers, but Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago has soured hopes of bilateral cooperation on the issue.

Read more here.

8:04 p.m. ET, February 22, 2023

Putin commits to strengthening Russia's nuclear triad

From CNN's Duarte Mendonca 

President Vladimir Putin has committed to Russia strengthening its nuclear triad, a military force structure capable of launching three types of nuclear weapons. 

“This year, the first Sarmat missile system launchers with the new heavy missile will be put on combat duty. We will continue full production of the Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic systems and begin mass deployment of Tsirkon [Zircon] sea-launched hypersonic missiles,” Putin said in a statement Thursday to mark Fatherland Day, a holiday that celebrates Russia's military achievements.
“With the Borei-A nuclear-powered submarine Emperor Alexander III becoming operational in the Navy, the share of modern weapons and equipment in the naval strategic nuclear forces will reach 100%. In the coming years, three more cruisers from this project will be delivered to the Navy.”

Putin’s remarks also emphasized the reliance on a “modern and efficient Army and Navy.”  

“Relying on actual combat experience, we will pursue balanced and high-quality development of all components of the Armed Forces, improve the system for training units. A solid foundation here is the soldiers, sergeants and officers who showed their worth in combat on the front line,” Putin was quoted as saying.  

He added that Russia’s military manufacturing industry was “quickly increasing production” as Moscow prioritizes investment in military hardware.  

8:01 p.m. ET, February 22, 2023

Challenger tanks could arrive in Ukraine in the spring, UK defense minister says

From CNN's Michael Rios

Challenger 2 battle tanks could start to arrive in Ukraine in "the spring," British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday. 

Britain could offer Ukraine more of its main battle tanks on top of the 14 already promised, but that would depend on the country's defense needs, Wallace told the news agency.

Wallace was visiting a training site in southwest England where Ukrainian soldiers are learning to operate the tanks in combat conditions. The UK Defense Ministry said in a statement that training was "continuing at pace" and would last several weeks. 

"Ukrainians will continue to fight, and the UK, alongside our allies will not falter," Wallace said. "We will continue to provide the capabilities needed to support Ukraine for as long as it takes,” he added. 
8:00 p.m. ET, February 22, 2023

Putin pulling out of nuclear treaty "a trick to increase pressure," Lithuanian prime minister says 

From CNN’s Isa Soares, Duarte Mendonca and Jaya Sharma

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė said on Wednesday that Russia suspending its participation in the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty is Moscow's "trick to increase pressure." 

"It's in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's habit to use tricks like that, you know, to increase pressure. And there is no big surprise in this," the prime minister told CNN's Isa Soares in an interview.

Šimonytė demanded more NATO forces on the ground in the alliance's eastern flank, as well as higher investment in air defense to serve as “deterrence” against Russia.   

"There should be an upscale of the military presence on the eastern flank from battalion up to brigade," she said. 

Šimonytė urged Kyiv's allies to increase military support to Ukraine. 

"How can you push back Russia’s military forces if you do not have heavy weapons?" she questioned. 

The prime minister went on to address the importance of getting resources to Ukraine quicker. In previous occasions, time was lost in conversations that led to weapons being delivered with a “delay of a couple of months,” she said. 

“This means that people's lives were being lost during those sorts of moments of, you know, of debate and hesitation,” the Lithuanian leader said, adding “it would be in the best interest of all the countries that can provide the relevant weapons or relevant means to make those decisions faster than later.” 

Šimonytė admitted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a “wakeup call," which has created a “rush to review the policies towards the defense spending.” 

“Countries in this region, of course, have changed their attitudes or have increased their spending on defense and security significantly since the Crimea invasion and are continuing to do so in recent years because our defense spending will be somewhere between 2.5, 3% of GDP this year,” she said. 

7:58 p.m. ET, February 22, 2023

Former Russian president Medvedev says country "will be torn to pieces" if it loses war

From CNN's Mariya Knight

Russia's former president Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday said the country will "disappear" if it loses the war in Ukraine.

“If Russia stops the special military operation without achieving victory, Russia will disappear, it will be torn to pieces,” Medvedev said in a Telegram post, using the Kremlin's euphemism for its invasion of Ukraine. “If the US stops supplying weapons to the Kyiv regime, the war will end.” 

The comments from Medvedev, the deputy chair of Russia's Security Council and a key ally of President Vladimir Putin, follow US President Joe Biden’s speech in Poland on Tuesday.

In his speech, Biden said, "If Russia stopped invading Ukraine, it would end the war. If Ukraine stopped defending itself against Russia, it would be the end of Ukraine," which Medvedev claimed was “a refined lie.”  

“Why does he appeal to the people of another country at a time when he is full of domestic problems? With what fright should we listen to a politician from a hostile state that exudes hatred for our Motherland? Why should the citizens of Russia believe the leader of the United States, who unleashed the most wars in the 20th and 21st centuries, but reproach us for aggressiveness?” Medvedev said, repeating claims that American officials see as a"whataboutism" tactic.

Medvedev also claimed that Biden’s aim is “to ensure that Russia suffers a "strategic defeat."

Medvedev commented on Putin's state of the nation address on Tuesday, in particular an announcement that Moscow is suspending its participation in the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty

He called it “an overdue and inevitable decision.” 

“This is a decision that will have a huge resonance in the world in general and in the United States in particular,” Medvedev said. 

“After all, it is obvious to all reasonable forces that if the United States wants Russian defeat, then we are on the verge of a world conflict,” he added. “If the United States wants to defeat Russia, then we have the right to defend ourselves with any weapon, including nuclear.” 
7:18 p.m. ET, February 22, 2023

At Putin's patriotic pep rally, no mention of the casualties of war

From CNN's Nathan Hodge

One day after delivering a state of the nation speech before Russia’s parliament, President Vladimir Putin made an appearance before a flag-waving crowd at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium.

It was a chilling spectacle. The Kremlin leader was essentially presiding over a militaristic pep rally aimed at drumming up public support for his calamitous military adventure in Ukraine.

“We are meeting with you on the eve of Defender of the Fatherland Day,” Putin said, referring to the February 23 holiday commonly known as Men’s Day. “In this phrase, in these words, there is something powerful, huge, I would say, mystical and holy.”

Put otherwise, Putin was selling his war in Ukraine as a sort of crusade — and therefore something that will require sacrifices by his people.

Flanked by uniformed military personnel, the Russian president led the crowd in cheers for the troops that he said were fighting for the “historical borders of our people,” his mendacious shorthand for the parts of Ukraine that Russia has attempted to annex, and that Russian forces have failed to control.

Read more here.