February 9, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Aditi Sangal, Leinz Vales, Adrienne Vogt and Matt Meyer, CNN

Updated 12:12 a.m. ET, February 10, 2023
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3:45 p.m. ET, February 9, 2023

King Philippe of Belgium holds audience with Zelensky at Royal Palace

From CNN's James Frater in Brussels

King Philippe of Belgium held an audience with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday at the Royal Palace in Brussels, according to the Belgian Monarchy. Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo also attended.

"President Zelensky handed over a fragment of a Russian SU25 aircraft that was shot down in Ukraine. The Ukrainian riders wrote the words 'Together we win' on it," the Belgian Monarchy said in a social media post. 

Pictures released by the Belgian Monarchy show photos of King Philippe shaking hands with Zelensky and the pair walking through the halls of the Royal Palace.

3:26 p.m. ET, February 9, 2023

Analysis: Potential reasons for the Wagner group’s transition away from recruiting convicts

Analysis by CNN's Tim Lister

Private military contractor Wagner will have to look for new fighters beyond Russia’s prison system, a fertile recruiting ground for the past nine months, according to its boss Yevgeny Prigozhin.

The Russian oligarch did not give any reason for the decision, but here's a few plausible explanations for the change of tack:

The pool of recruits may have dwindled: After signing up between 40,000 and 50,000 prisoners from jails across Russia, the number of volunteers from prison may have shrunk so far that the campaign is no longer delivering.

The Ministry of Defense may have intervened: It is also possible that the Wagner way of war – despite the bombast of Prigozhin – no longer fits in with the Defense Ministry’s plans. Wagner fighters who had been recruited from Russian prisons interviewed by CNN said their units never had any interaction with Russian regular forces, even if there was artillery support for some Wagner assaults.

The convict campaign may have depleted Wagner’s finances: Prigozhin’s companies had to buy weapons and other equipment for the prison recruits, train them at camps in Russia and in occupied territory in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, transport them to combat areas and feed them.

Prigozhin’s declared halt to the prison recruitment campaign does not mean Wagner is out of business. Far from it.

It has built an experienced and hardened cadre of fighters over the past decade, many of them veterans of the Chechen wars who have also seen action in Africa and Syria. It still has sizable contingents in the Central African Republic and Mali, where Prigozhin combines training and security missions with lucrative concessions for raw materials.

But it may signal an evolution in Wagner’s role in the Ukraine conflict in the coming months, as it becomes less reliant on the poorly trained “cannon fodder” who have been thrown into assaults for places like Soledar.

You can read Lister's full analysis here.

2:57 p.m. ET, February 9, 2023

Russia is on the offensive in the Luhansk region, according to Ukrainian regional leader

From CNN's Mick Krever in London, Denis Lapin in Kyiv and Josh Pennington

A Russian anti-aircraft missile system is seen in the Luhansk region of Ukraine on January 25.
A Russian anti-aircraft missile system is seen in the Luhansk region of Ukraine on January 25. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters/File)

Russia is on the offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, though without “much success” so far, according to the area's Ukrainian leader.

“We can conclude that a certain escalation has already begun. And we can say de facto that this is part of the full-scale offensive that Russia has been planning,” Serhiy Hayday, head of Luhansk region military administration, said in a television interview posted to his Telegram channel.

The Russian push is coming west from the area of the Russian-occupied city of Kreminna in northeast Ukraine. Ukrainian forces had for some time been trying to disrupt a key road between Kreminna and Svatove, to the north, which has represented the front line for months.

“There our soldiers constantly repulsed a large number of attacks by the occupation troops,” Hayday said. “They have not had much success. There is no breakthrough. The situation is difficult, but is still controlled by our defense forces.”

The uptick in Russian attacks has also been noted by the Ukrainian military’s General Staff in its regular updates.

Pro-Kremlin Russian military bloggers have also written cautiously about a push toward Ukrainian-held territory.

“We managed to locally recapture small settlements, which were occupied by the enemy in the course of action at the end of the fall,” blogger Evgeny Poddubny wrote on his Telegram channel. “Overall, the initiative is on our side, although the situation is difficult.”

CNN's Vasco Cotovio and Yulia Kesaieva contributed reporting to this post.

1:34 p.m. ET, February 9, 2023

Hungary will keep supplying Ukraine with assistance, spokesperson says following Orban-Zelensky meeting

From CNN’s Jessie Gretener

Hungary will continue to provide humanitarian and financial assistance to Ukraine, according to Hungarian Secretary of State for International Communication Zoltan Kovacs, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán met in Brussels on Thursday.

Kovacs tweeted a photo of Orbán and Zelensky shaking hands on the sidelines of the European Council meeting.

"We support an immediate ceasefire to avoid further deaths. Hungary belongs to the peace camp," Orbán said to Zelensky, according to��Kovacs. 

Some background: Back in April 2022, Orban — a longtime Russian ally — called Zelensky one of the “opponents” he had to overcome during his campaign to secure his fourth consecutive term as Hungary's leader.

In December 2022, Hungary initially blocked a $19 billion aid package for Ukraine but later dropped its opposition in return for funding from the European Union.

There was also several weeks of speculation that Orban would delay Sweden and Finland's NATO membership bid, but he eventually announced that Hungary's Parliament will ratify it.

1:29 p.m. ET, February 9, 2023

Polish ambassador says it's a "race against time" to arm Ukraine for new Russian offensive

From CNN's Andrew Millman

The Polish ambassador to the United States voiced a sense of urgency Thursday after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky brought his plea for fighter jets before a European Union summit.

Poland has offered to send military planes to Ukraine, provided other NATO allies do as well.

“This is an offer that has been on the table for a few days and it’s actually a very interesting topic to discuss among EU and NATO political leaders," the ambassador, Marek Magierowski, told CNN of the Polish pledge on fighter jets.

“The one thing I’m sure of is — we’re now facing a race against time with the Russians mobilizing their forces and regrouping along the front lines in Ukraine, and the Ukranians awaiting more advanced weaponry from the West. And I believe it’s been mostly the Polish government which has been quite insistent on the necessity of continuing our support, in both military and political terms, for Ukraine,” Magierowski said.

“Doubtless it will take a while to train the crews and the pilots,” the Polish ambassador said, noting that Ukrainian airmen were trained on Soviet-era systems. 

Magierowski said it would be a "turning point" for the confrontation "if all EU and NATO countries chose to deliver the F-16 (fighter jets) or other Western-designed weapons to Ukraine right now.”

“My impression is that we have been using the wrong terms until recently. We should change a little bit our vocabulary and stop saying about the possibility of 'not losing' the war, but about Ukraine eventually winning this war,” the ambassador said. 

“We tended to overestimate the Russia’s military might before the invasion. Now, we underestimate. I think, unfortunately, the Russian military, and Russian society and Russian ruling elite are remarkably resilient in light of economic sanctions we have imposed on this country, and in the face of this miserable performance of the Russian forces in Ukraine,” the ambassador said.

“I do not believe in a diplomatic solution to this conflict. The solution should be military and, again, I think that militarily Ukraine will eventually prevail — also with our help,” the diplomat concluded.

The ambassador's remarks came shortly after Zelensky addressed the EU summit in Brussels Thursday, taking his pitch for more military support directly to the assembly of world leaders.

1:33 p.m. ET, February 9, 2023

After meeting with Zelensky in Brussels, Dutch prime minister says fighter jet talks are ongoing

From CNN's Mick Krever

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks to the press at EU parliament in Brussels on February 9.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks to the press at EU parliament in Brussels on February 9. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Thursday that discussions about supplying Ukraine with Western fighter jets were taking place “behind closed doors,” and declined to make a strong indication either way on the potential for his country to send aircraft.

“I cannot say if that will ever happen,” Rutte told CNN affiliate RTL News on the sidelines of a meeting with the Ukrainian president in Brussels. “But those are discussions that are taking place behind closed doors. And that is not something that you can do in public."

The Netherlands has been on the leading edge of countries saying they are willing to entertain giving Ukraine fighter jets. French President Emmanuel Macron, during a press conference with Rutte in The Hague last month, said that “nothing is off-limits in principle.”

“We do not say no,” Rutte said on Thursday. “But before, we also have not said no to other weapons systems. We are even somewhat forward leaning … when it comes to this type of deliveries.”

He reiterated his position that the Netherlands has “no taboos” about weapons delivery, so long as the “red line” of direct NATO-Russia confrontation is prevented.

Zelensky at the EU summit: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke during a European Union summit in Brussels Thursday, taking his pitch for more military support directly to the assembly of world leaders.

Zelensky said he would have several bilateral meetings during his time in Brussels specifically to discuss the issue of providing fighter jets to Ukraine. 

CNN's Radina Gigova contributed to this report.

11:58 a.m. ET, February 9, 2023

Head of UN nuclear watchdog agency meets with Russian state energy company about Zaporizhzhia plant

From CNN's Katharina Krebs

KYIV REGION, UKRAINE - JANUARY 18, 2023 - Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi is seen at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine on January 1
KYIV REGION, UKRAINE - JANUARY 18, 2023 - Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi is seen at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine on January 1 (Ruslan Kaniuka/Ukrinform/NurPhoto/Shutterstock)

The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, held talks in Moscow Thursday with the head of Russia's state nuclear energy company, Rosatom.

“The discussion focused on issues related to ensuring nuclear and physical nuclear safety of the Zaporizhzhia (nuclear power plant),” according to a Rosatom statement.

The head of Rosatom, Alexey Likhachev, “informed the IAEA Director General about the steps that the Russian side is taking in this area, as well as about measures aimed at ensuring comfortable social and living conditions for workers of the plant and members of their families,” according to the statement.

"In addition, issues of current and future cooperation between Russia and the IAEA in other areas were touched upon. The parties confirmed the agreement to continue contacts," the statement added.

Some context: Zaporizhzhia, with its six reactors, is the largest nuclear power station in Europe.

The IAEA serves as the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency and has repeatedly raised concerns about the threat of a nuclear accident at the Zaporizhzhia plant since Russia invaded Ukraine last year and seized control of the facility.

Grossi has assured Ukraine the IAEA will never recognize Russia as the owner of the Zaporizhzhia plant, according to Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. Grossi also pledged a continuous presence of the IAEA at all of Ukraine's nuclear plants.

What Ukraine is saying: Shmyhal has demanded control of the Zaporizhzhia facility be returned to Ukrainian authorities, plus a "complete withdrawal" of Russian troops and Rosatom personnel from the plant.

Last fall, as Moscow's forces were tightening their grip on the facility, Ukraine’s military alleged that plant employees were being subjected to “moral and psychological pressure.” Some had been forced to obtain Russian passports and sign employment contracts with Rosatom, according to Ukraine.

CNN's Yulia Kesaieva and Lauren Kent contributed to this report.

11:48 a.m. ET, February 9, 2023

UK training of Ukraine's pilots aimed at improving resilience "post-conflict," defense secretary says

From CNN's Mick Krever

Britain's Defence Secretary Ben Wallace attends a press conference following a roundtable between Italy-UK Foreign Affairs and Defence ministers at Villa Madama, on February 9, in Rome, Italy.
Britain's Defence Secretary Ben Wallace attends a press conference following a roundtable between Italy-UK Foreign Affairs and Defence ministers at Villa Madama, on February 9, in Rome, Italy. (Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

The British defense secretary said Thursday that training Ukrainian pilots would likely be about improving “post-conflict” resiliency.

“Britain hasn’t said it is necessarily going to send fighter jets to Ukraine,” UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said during a press conference in Rome. “What it’s said is we’re going to start training to improve the resilience of Ukraine, probably post-conflict.”

He said that was “no different” from what the UK and its allies did to help “reform” Ukraine’s defense following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Nonetheless, he said, “we obviously, all of us on this platform, know that over the last year, we shouldn’t rule anything in and we shouldn’t rule anything out.”

The UK government said Wednesday that it will being training Ukrainian pilots on NATO-standard fighter jets. 

“The training will ensure pilots are able to fly sophisticated NATO-standard fighter jets in the future,” according to a Downing Street statement.

10:11 a.m. ET, February 9, 2023

Estonian prime minister proposes EU procurement of weapons for Ukraine

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has proposed a system similar to that of EU’s vaccine procurement, to its purchase of weapons supplies for Ukraine. 

Speaking ahead of a special European Council meeting in Brussels, Kallas said the move would speed up deliveries to Ukraine. 

“All of us have looked into the warehouses and seen what we have but we should do more. We should give a clear signal to the European defense industry to produce more,” Kallas told journalists.

“We could use a similar mechanism like we did with the Covid vaccines. European countries will provide funds, the European Commission will procure, and then it’ll be sent directly to Ukraine.” 

“The price goes up with every delay, with every hesitation and that could speed up the process,” she added.