May 12, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Kathleen Magramo, Christian Edwards, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt and Elise Hammond, CNN

Updated 9:00 p.m. ET, May 12, 2023
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1:04 a.m. ET, May 12, 2023

Ukrainian forces have begun "shaping" operations for counteroffensive, senior US military official says

From CNN's Jim Sciutto

Ukrainian artillery rocket units fire towards the trenches of Russian forces in Donetsk on Tuesday.
Ukrainian artillery rocket units fire towards the trenches of Russian forces in Donetsk on Tuesday. Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Ukrainian forces have begun “shaping” operations in advance of a highly-anticipated counteroffensive against Russian forces, a senior US military official and senior Western official tell CNN.

Shaping involves striking targets such as weapons depots, command centers and armor and artillery systems to prepare the battlefield for advancing forces. It's a standard tactic made prior to major combined operations.

When Ukraine launched a counteroffensive late last summer in the southern and northeastern parts of the country, it was similarly preceded by air attacks to shape the battlefield. These shaping operations could continue for many days before the bulk of any planned Ukrainian offensive, according to the senior US military official.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country still needs “a bit more time” before it launches the counteroffensive, in order to allow some more of the promised Western military aid to arrive in the country.

“With [what we have] we can go forward and be successful,” Zelensky told European public service broadcasters in an interview published on Thursday. “But we’d lose a lot of people. I think that’s unacceptable.”
“So we need to wait. We still need a bit more time,” he said.

Among the supplies Ukraine is still waiting for are armored vehicles — including tanks —which Zelensky said were “arriving in batches.”

Shaping operations can also be designed to confuse the enemy. 

Last summer, Kharkiv had very little in the way of softening up; it was a lightning ground offensive. Most of the shaping came in Kherson, through long-range attacks on bridges, ammo stores and command centers. Most of these were carried out by HIMARS. There were some, but not many, airstrikes.

CNN's Tim Lister contributed reporting.

8:29 p.m. ET, May 11, 2023

Russian defense ministry denies reports of Ukrainian breakthroughs around Bakhmut

From CNN's Josh Pennington and Tim Lister

In an unusual late-night post on its Telegram channel, the Russian Ministry of Defense has pushed back on claims that Ukrainian forces broke through parts of the front line around the eastern city of Bakhmut.

“The statements spread by individual Telegram channels about ‘defense breakthroughs’ in various sections of the line of contact are not true,” the ministry statement reads.

At least two Russian military bloggers have reported a deteriorating situation for Russian forces around the city, where a battle of attrition has been grinding on for months.

The defense ministry said Russian assault units are making progress in the western part of Bakhmut with air and artillery support. It said troops are battling to repel Ukrainian troops "in the direction of Maloilyinovka" — apparently a reference to a village in the Bakhmut area.

“The enemy suffers significant losses in manpower and hardware,” the defense officials claimed.

What Ukraine says: report from the Ukrainian military's General Staff Thursday described a "dynamic" situation in Bakhmut, claiming Kyiv's forces are heaping pressure on Russian fighters and probing weak spots in their lines.

A Ukrainian military officer said Ukraine is on the offensive in Bakhmut this week after months of defense. Kyiv has reported "effective counterattacks" around the eastern city despite constant Russian bombardment.

8:18 p.m. ET, May 11, 2023

Exclusive: US officials scour the globe for potential prisoner swap candidates

From CNN's Kylie Atwood and Matthew Chance

The Biden administration is scouring the globe for offers that could entice Russia to release two wrongfully detained Americans, Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan, according to three sources familiar with the matter.

The US does not currently have any high-level Russian spies in its custody, current and former US officials say, driving the need to turn to allies for help.

The Biden administration is casting a wide net, approaching allied countries who have Russian spies in custody to gauge whether they would be willing to make a trade as part of a larger prisoner swap package. But US officials have also been surveying allies without Russians in their custody, officials said, for ideas on what might entice Moscow to release US prisoners.

The White House is also exploring narrow sanctions relief, senior administration officials said.

The goal is to bring home Whelan and Gershkovich as part of the same deal, US officials have said privately, with two US officials telling CNN the administration wants to see what creative offers could gin up Russian interest.

Read the full story here.

8:28 p.m. ET, May 11, 2023

Ukrainian officer says Kyiv's forces are on the offensive in Bakhmut after months of defense

From CNN's Tim Lister, Josh Pennington and Julia Kesaieva

The Ukrainian military says Russia launched nearly 50 airstrikes over the last day as intense fighting puts pressure on forward Russian positions west of the city of Bakhmut.

The military’s General Staff said Thursday that Russia also carried out six missile attacks.

Russian forces continue to advance around Bakhmut and have carried out a number of airstrikes in the area, Kyiv's military said. But Ukrainian forces have exploited gaps in Russian flanks south and west of the city to recapture some territory, according to the General Staff.

One officer deployed in the area said Ukraine was in an “active offensive phase” around Bakhmut, after months of mainly defensive action.

“Right now, dynamic events are taking place on both the southern and northern flanks of Bakhmut, but we will not talk about the result yet,” Maj. Maksym Zhorin said on Telegram.

Russian writers weigh in: Some Russian military bloggers have painted a gloomy picture of Russia's prospects around Bakhmut.

One of them, Sasha Simonov, said units of Russia’s 4th Army Brigade had withdrawn from an area west of the city. This is consistent with Ukrainian reports of advances there earlier this week.

Ukrainian fighters have also attempted a breakthrough near Bohdanivka, which is northwest of Bakhmut, Simonov said.

Elsewhere: Russia's efforts to advance in eastern Ukraine are focused on four parts of the front line in the Donetsk region, Ukraine's military said. Russia has failed in recent efforts to break through to the town of Lyman in Donetsk, it added.

In the northeastern Kharkiv region, it appears there has been less fighting around Kupyansk, which Russia frequently targeted with shelling and ground attacks earlier this year, the General Staff said.

8:22 p.m. ET, May 11, 2023

Analysis: Wagner head's online tantrums could be testing the limits of his standing with the Kremlin

Analysis from CNN's Nathan Hodge

In recent days, the boss of the Russian private military company Wagner seems to have gone into social media meltdown, flooding his Telegram channel and other accounts with ever-more outrageous and provocative statements.

Among other things, Yevgeny Prigozhin revealed an apparently humiliating battlefield setback for Russia, saying a Russian brigade had “fled” around the eastern city of Bakhmut, threatening his troops with encirclement by Ukrainian forces.

Earlier in the week, Prigozhin marred Russia’s May 9 Victory Day celebrations with public and profanity-laced criticisms of the country’s top military brass.

And then there was a more cryptic comment that raised eyebrows on social media. Continuing a longstanding public complaint that Russia’s uniformed military was starving his troops of shells, Prigozhin suggested that the higher-ups were dithering while Wagner fighters died.

A political operator: The Wagner boss has seen his political star rise in Russia in recent months as his fighters seemed to be the only ones capable of delivering tangible battlefield progress in the grinding war of attrition in eastern Ukraine. And he has used his social media clout to lobby for what he wants, including those sought-after ammunition supplies.

But amid those successes — particularly in the meat grinder of Bakhmut — Prigozhin has revived and amplified a feud with Russia’s military leadership. A canny political entrepreneur, Prigozhin has cast himself as a competent, ruthless patriot — in contrast with Russia’s inept military establishment.

It may seem surprising in a country where criticizing the military can potentially cost a person a spell in prison that Prigozhin gets away with strident criticism of Vladimir Putin’s generals. But the Russian leader presides over what is often described as a court system, where infighting and competition among elites is in fact encouraged to produce results, as long as the “vertical of power” remains loyal to and answers to the head of state.

A step too far? But Prigozhin’s online tantrums seem to be crossing the line to open disloyalty, some observers say.

In a recent Twitter thread, the Washington-based think tank Institute for the Study of War said, “If the Kremlin does not respond to Prigozhin’s escalating attacks on Putin it may further erode the norm in Putin’s system in which individual actors can jockey for position and influence (and drop in and out of Putin’s favor) but cannot directly criticize Putin.”

Speculation then centers on whether Prigozhin is politically expendable, whether his outbursts are a sort of clever deception operation — or, more troublingly for Putin, whether the system of loyalty that keeps the Kremlin running smoothly is starting to break down.

Read the full analysis here.

8:08 p.m. ET, May 11, 2023

US ambassador accuses South Africa of arming Russia

From CNN's David McKenzie Johannesburg, South Africa

The US ambassador to South Africa on Thursday accused the South African government of delivering arms and ammunition to a sanctioned Russian cargo vessel late last year, local media said.

“Among the things we noted was the docking of the cargo ship in Simon’s Town naval base between the 6th to the 8th of December 2022, which we are confident uploaded weapons and ammunition onto that vessel in Simon’s Town as it made its way back to Russia,” Ambassador Reuben Brigety II told local media, including
“We are confident that weapons were loaded onto that vessel, and I would bet my life on the accuracy on that assertion,” the ambassador also said in a video released by Newzroom Afrika, a local news channel that was also at the briefing.
“The arming of the Russians is extremely serious, and we do not consider this issue to be resolved, and we would like SA to [begin] practicing its non-alignment policy,” he said, according to both news outlets.

The presence of the mysterious "Lady R" cargo vessel caused significant speculation when it docked at the naval base in Simon’s Town near Cape Town in December last year. Cargo vessels routinely dock at Cape Town’s civilian harbor, not the naval base.

At the time, opposition member of parliament and shadow Defense Minister Kobus Marais said in a statement that goods were offloaded from the ship and onloaded onto the ship during the overnight hours and demanded answers from the government.

The US Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control added the Lady R to its sanctions list in May last year for alleged weapons shipments, along with a host of other Russian-flagged cargo vessels.

South Africa's response: The South African presidency called the explosive allegations “disappointing” and warned that the remarks “undermine the spirit of cooperation and partnership” between the US and South African government officials who had been discussing the matter.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office said in a statement late Thursday that no evidence had been provided to support these allegations and that the government planned to form an independent inquiry into the matter.

Read more here.