US defense secretary spoke to Russian counterpart for first time since Feb. 18 and urged "immediate ceasefire"
From CNN's Michael Callahan, Ellie Kaufman and Oren Liebermann
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with his Russian counterpart for the first time on Friday since before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Pentagon announced.
“On May 13, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu for the first time since February 18," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement.
Austin "urged an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication," Kirby said.
The phone call between Austin and Shoygu lasted for about an hour on Friday, a senior US defense official told reporters Friday.
Austin requested the two leaders speak, the official said, noting that the US secretary of state "initiated it."
"Both leaders had a chance to talk back and forth with one another, but I’m not gonna get any more into the context of it," the official added, saying Austin expressed an "interest in keeping the line of communication," between the two leaders open.
This is the first time the two leaders have spoken in 84 days, since before Russia's invasion of Ukraine began.
12:58 p.m. ET, May 13, 2022
Ukrainian artillery is "frustrating" Russian efforts to progress, senior US defense official says
From CNN's Michael Conte
Ukrainian artillery is “frustrating” Russian efforts to advance in the Donbas, according to a senior US defense official, particularly as Russia attempts to move forces across the Donets River to reinforce their position in the northern Donbas.
The official said there is a lot of fighting between Izium and Sloviansk, but the Russians have not been able to make much progress there.
However, Russian forces have made “incremental” gains to the west of Popasna, according to the official.
Meanwhile, the "vast majority" of the 89 M777 howitzer artillery systems the US has given to Ukraine are "in the fight" and are in a "forward-deployed setting," the official told reporters Friday.
"The feedback we’re getting from artillery men inside Ukraine is very positive about the usefulness of the M777s," the official said.
About 30 Ukrainian soldiers have completed a maintenance course for the M777 howitzers, and another 17 are in the two-week maintenance course now, the official said, adding that 370 Ukrainian soldiers have completed training on how to use the howitzers.
About 20 Ukrainians are "in the midst of the training on the Puma," which is an unmanned aerial system, and training on the Phoenix Ghost has also been completed, the official added.
12:14 p.m. ET, May 13, 2022
Finland's president discussed "next steps" of NATO bid with US and Swedish leaders
From CNN's Allie Malloy and Arlette Saenz
Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said he discussed “Finland’s next steps towards NATO membership” in a call with US President Joe Biden and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson today.
The call was about 40 minutes long, according to The White House.
It comes one day after Finland's president and prime minister announced their support for joining NATO, moving the Nordic nation which shares an 800-mile border with Russia one step closer to membership of the US-led military alliance. The Kremlin has responded by saying the move would be a threat to Russia and warned of possible retaliation.
The Swedish prime minister also tweeted about the call, saying the leaders discussed “Russian aggression against Ukraine,” as well as Swedish and Finnish security policy. Andersson also expressed gratitude for America’s “support for our security and respective security policy choices.”
11:58 a.m. ET, May 13, 2022
UK and Norway give "full support" for Nordic countries to make their own "sovereign choice" on security
From CNN’s Max Foster in London
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Norwegian counterpart Jonas Gahr Støre met on Friday, giving their “full support” for Nordic countries to make their own “sovereign choice” on security, according to a statement from Downing Street.
“The Prime Minister and Prime Minister Støre agreed that neither NATO nor the Nordic region posed a threat and that the longstanding policy of ‘High North, low tension’ had created decades of stability and prosperity for the area,” the statement said.
The statement stressed that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and hostility toward neighboring states was “unjustified” and was “already proving to be a miscalculation,” adding that the two leaders agreed to provide training and equipment to the Ukrainian military.
“They also agreed on the need for NATO allies to back Ukraine politically, taking a unified approach that avoids giving Putin license to further twist the knife in the wound of Ukraine,” according to the statement.
The statement concluded by saying that the two leaders signed a joint declaration on the UK-Norway relationship, meaning the two countries will cooperate “more extensively” than any country in the world.
11:40 a.m. ET, May 13, 2022
This Russian tank graveyard is becoming a new tourist attraction
From Ivana Kottasová and Oleksandra Ochman in Dmytrivka, near Kyiv
On the road from Kyiv to Bucha, a short stretch of scorched ground in the middle of the woods has become something of an attraction in recent weeks.
It’s known as the Russian tank graveyard.
A dozen or so blown up tanks and armored vehicles lie scattered around. Rusty and grotesquely deformed, they attract the attention of many of those passing by.
They’ve been sitting there ever since the Ukrainian army managed to liberate the area after it was under Russian occupation for several weeks in March.
With the seemingly constant stream of bad news coming from eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, many come to this place to see first hand what a victory looks like. Some make a brief stop to look at the damage and take a quick picture or two. But many stay here for a while.
They carefully examine the burnt wreckage, looking inside the vehicles. One man takes a smiling selfie in front of a burnt vehicle with the letter V still visible on it.
Liza Maramon and her boyfriend stopped by the tank graveyard on their way to visit Maramon’s mother who lives in the area. She recently returned home after being evacuated in early March.
“She spent five days sitting in a basement, without electricity, without anything, it was very horrible,” the 26-year old charity worker said. Her mother left when the Russian tanks started closing in on the town. Two days after they managed to flee, the Russians took control of the town.
Nearby, a couple of kids happily climb up a rusty Russian tank as if it was a set of monkey bars at a playground.
Maramon herself took several photos of the destroyed vehicles and planned to share them with friends and post them on social media.
“I can’t explain how I feel. Everyone should remember this. We need to show people, the whole world. It’s not normal,” she said.
11:44 a.m. ET, May 13, 2022
Russia stealing grain from Ukraine is "an especially repugnant form of war," German agriculture minister says
From CNN's Nadine Schmidt in Berlin
German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir on Friday accused Russia of theft from Ukrainian farmers, saying it is "an especially repugnant form of war that Russia is leading, in that it is stealing, robbing, taking for itself grain from eastern Ukraine."
Speaking in the southwestern German city of Stuttgart, where agriculture ministers of the G7 met together with their Ukrainian counterparts to discuss how to head off a looming international food crisis sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Özdemir said it's "a particularly disgusting component within the war that [Putin] uses starvation."
"All people, everyone, will pay the price for this war worldwide, even if they live on another continent," Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi said at the conference.
"People will have to pay more for food, and they must be aware that they will have to pay more each day," he said.
On Thursday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said that the foreign ministers of the G7, along with their counterparts from Ukraine and Moldova, will discuss how to end a blockade of Ukrainian grain so it can be exported to the world.
CNN found earlier this month that a Russian merchant ship loaded with grain stolen in Ukraine has been turned away from at least one Mediterranean port and is now in the Syrian port of Latakia, according to shipping sources and Ukrainian officials. It had nearly 30,000 tons of Ukrainian wheat, according to Ukrainian officials.
The Ukrainian defense ministry estimates that at least 400,000 tons of grain has been stolen and taken out of Ukraine since Russia's invasion.
11:15 a.m. ET, May 13, 2022
Ukrainians try to flee growing humanitarian crisis in southern region of Kherson, officials say
From CNN's Tim Lister, Julia Presniakova and Olga Voitovych
Ukrainian officials say there is a growing humanitarian crisis in the Russian-occupied region of Kherson in the south of the country, with hundreds of civilians trying to escape the area every day and Russian troops raiding villages.
Getting a true picture of what's going on in Kherson is difficult as the operations of Ukrainian telecom companies have been blocked and people are finding it more difficult to get in and out of the region.
Those who do try to leave face considerable risk.
Oleksandr Vilkul, head of the Kryvyi Rih military administration, said on Thursday that Russian artillery had fired on a column of civilian vehicles trying to leave the town of Beryslav in Kherson. He said there were about 5,000 people in the convoy altogether.
Vilkul said the Russians had halted about 1,000 vehicles and only began to release them in the afternoon in batches of 200. They had then shelled one of the columns as it crossed into Ukrainian-held territory. Two people had been wounded, a woman and an 11-year old boy. Both were taken to hospital in Kryvyi Rih, Vilkul said.
Ukrainian officials estimate that as much as 45% of the population of Kherson region has left. Those still in the region are facing growing hardship, according to Ukrainian officials.
Yurii Sobolievskyi, first deputy head of the Kherson region council, said on Ukrainian television that in the city of Kherson, there is a "humanitarian catastrophe."
"Our hospitals run out of fuel and medicine, and there is a problem with food supply," he said.
Food shortages and claims of stealing: Sobolievskyi said that farmers and businesses were still trying to provide the city with food and some volunteers were able to bring supplies from neighboring regions.
There were also volunteers bringing food and medicine from Mykolaiv and Odesa. "That's how we scratch along," he said.
He said a number of civilians had to accept food from the Russians to survive.
The Russians "just want to create a vacuum in the Kherson region, create a humanitarian catastrophe, and then fill it with their humanitarian aid. If we had humanitarian corridors, they would not be able to show that they are helping the population."
Sobolievskyi also said that "the robbery of our farmers continues."
"They steal not only grain, but also equipment; they just take it out, and then it floats to the Crimea and the Russian Federation itself." CNN has reported that thousands of metric tons of grain and farm equipment worth millions of dollars has been stolen in Kherson.
Services disrupted and violence documented: Serhii Khlan, a deputy on Kherson's regional council, said Thursday that Russian forces were raiding villages and launching intensive searches, as well as carrying out a census of those left in some areas.
Khlan also said that the Russians have indicated "they will import teachers from the Crimea because our teachers do not agree to work on Russian programs. Those few teachers that agree to work — we know them personally — and they will be held criminally liable for it."
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, said this week that Ukrainian authorities are documenting alleged Russian crimes in Kherson, including "violence against people, mass abductions, torture in basements, theft of property, attempts to create fictitious management structures."
Status of resistance: Podolyak also said that "resistance to the Russian invasion in southern Ukraine is very strong at all levels."
But there has been less evidence of street protests in Kherson recent weeks compared to their regular occurrence in March. On May 9, when the newly installed Russian-backed administration held Victory Day commemorations, there were no counter-protests evident.
It's unclear whether this is due to the arrest of activists or because so many people have left the region. Sobolievskyi said that there was a great risk to the lives and health of people who came onto the streets and acknowledged the protests were smaller. It may also be in part because people are unable to connect through Ukrainian mobile operators.
Ukrainian officials say that the military is "enjoying some victories" in destroying Russian ammunition depots and equipment in Kherson, but there has been little movement on the ground in recent weeks, and fresh Russian convoys have been seen in recent days traveling through Kherson toward front lines in neighboring Zaporizhzhia. Beyond taking Luhansk and Donetsk regions, the Russians seem intent on separating Kherson from the rest of Ukraine.
12:14 p.m. ET, May 13, 2022
Arrest of US Olympic basketball champion Brittney Griner in Moscow extended until June 18, state media says
From CNN's Katharina Krebs and Anna Chernova
The Khimki Court of the Moscow Region extended the arrest of US Olympic basketball champion Brittney Griner on charges of drug smuggling for another month, Russian state news agency TASS reported on Friday, citing the press service of the court.
"The court granted the petition of the investigation and extended the term of detention of US citizen Griner until June 18," the court said, according to TASS.
The athlete was arrested on suspicion of trying to illegally import hash oil into the Russian Federation through Sheremetyevo Airport, TASS added.
Russia has denied the US State Department's claim that the detention of Griner is “illegal,” saying her arrest was based "on objective facts and evidence."
A statement issued to CNN on Thursday read: "She was caught red-handed while trying to smuggle hash oil. In Russia, this is a crime. In accordance with paragraph "c" of part 2 of Article 229.1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (drug smuggling), she faces a prison term of up to 10 years.”
According to the statement, Griner was taken into custody on the basis of the decision of the Khimki District Court of Moscow Region on Feb. 18 and is being held in one of the detention facilities.
"The charges are serious, based on objective facts and evidence that is available. Attempts by the State Department to cast doubt on the validity of the detention of B. Griner are explained solely by the desire to influence justice by politicizing a generally understandable situation," the ministry said.
"The final point in this case should be made by the court," the statement added.
Response from the State Department: An official from the US Embassy in Moscow was able to talk with Griner on the sidelines of her hearing in Russia Friday morning, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.
Price, who said the department was monitoring the hearing in Moscow “very closely,” said “a consular officer at our embassy in Moscow was able to speak to her on the margins of the hearing.”
“The officer was able to confirm that Brittney Griner is doing as well as can be expected under what can only be described as exceedingly difficult circumstances,” Price said on a briefing call Friday.
More background: Griner, who plays for Russian powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason, was arrested by Russian authorities in February at a Moscow airport and accused of smuggling significant amounts of a narcotic substance — an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Griner won the 2014 World Championships in Turkey, the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the 2018 World Championships in Spain, and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo with Team USA.
CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Ellie Kaufman contributed reporting to this post.
11:08 a.m. ET, May 13, 2022
Russia expels employees from Bulgarian and Romanian embassies in Moscow
From CNN's Katharina Krebs in London
The Russian Foreign Ministry declared 10 employees of the Romanian Embassy and one employee of the Bulgarian embassy in Moscow as "persona non grata," it announced in two separate statements released Friday.
The ambassadors of their respective countries were summoned to the Russian foreign ministry on Friday and notified about the employees that were now "persona non grata."
In the statement for Romania, the ministry noted that this measure is a response to the "unjustified decision" taken on April 5 by the Romanian side to declare 10 diplomats of the Russian Embassy in Bucharest as "persona non grata."
In its statement for Bulgaria, Moscow called the measure a response to "unmotivated decision" from Bulgaria to expel a Russian diplomat from Sofia.