May 15, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Rhea Mogul, Andrew Raine, Tara John, Sana Noor Haq, Laura Smith-Spark and Amir Vera, CNN

Updated 12:05 a.m. ET, May 16, 2022
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2:17 p.m. ET, May 15, 2022

These Ukrainians describe an odyssey through searches and shelling to escape Russian occupation

From CNN's Sanyo Fylyppov and Tim Lister

Yulia Bondarenko travels in a convoy of drivers trying to leave Kherson, Ukraine. 
Yulia Bondarenko travels in a convoy of drivers trying to leave Kherson, Ukraine.  (Courtesy Yulia Bondarenko)

Every day, hundreds and even thousands of people are trying to flee the Russian-occupied region of Kherson in southern Ukraine, gathering up whatever they can cram into their cars, or even piling onto tractors.

And every day, they run into a gauntlet of harassment and worse from Russian troops. 

They are leaving for many reasons: to avoid being detained or to escape the heavy-handed actions of Russian forces, or because of the chronic shortages of medicine and other basics in Kherson, which fell under Russian control soon after the invasion. 

One of the nearly 5,000 people trying to leave was Arkadiy, who had been previously detained by the occupying forces. CNN is not publishing his last name for his safety.

Last week, he was a part of a convoy of no fewer than 1,000 vehicles trying to leave Kherson. The Russians ultimately let the convoy move in batches — but only after holding it in one place for most of the day. 

"For me, this was already the fifth attempt to leave the controlled territory. The previous four times it didn’t work out," he told CNN. "What surprised me was that suddenly Russians let us go through checkpoint without any examination."

He had heard stories of extensive checks, phones being examined and property stolen. 

Yulia Bondarenko was also in the convoy, and she also expected the Russians to take things.

"Evacuated people know about this from Telegram chats and don’t even take anything valuable with them," she said. "Russians almost always ask for cigarettes and lighters."

Electronics were often confiscated too — power-banks and memory cards, for example. But "smartphones are generally not taken away by Russians," Bondarenko said. "Although they are closely inspected: they check messages and photo galleries."

Bondarenko said that others had told her the Russians would often force people to take off their clothes because they "are looking for tattoos of nationalist content. Everyone is well aware of this and it is unlikely that nationalists with tattoos will try to leave the region this way, it is a very big risk."

The convoy leaving Beryslav had some 200 vehicles — one minibus for a dozen people were crammed with double that number, Arkadiy said.

The journey was through open, flat countryside on minor roads. But just after it passed the final Russian checkpoint the column of some 200 vehicles came under fire near a place called Davydiv Brid, where Russian control ends. 

Arkadiy said two shells landed simultaneously. Vehicles ahead of him were peppered with shrapnel - tires shredded and windshields shattered. Seven or eight cars were badly damaged but trees at the side of the road absorbed some of the impact.

"Everyone immediately began to hide behind the cars. Everyone was scared, people with children in their arms. The children screamed, even the men were panicking."

Yulia Bondarenko was in the same convoy. She also told CNN that they'd just cleared the last Russian checkpoint. "People started running and hiding. But we stayed in the car, we had a lot of animals. We couldn't take them all out at once."

Yulia's menagerie included dogs, cats and two meerkats that were rescued after a petting zoo in Kherson was shelled.

Yulia Bondarenko travelled with dogs, cats and two meerkats that were recused after a petting zoo in Kherson was shelled.
Yulia Bondarenko travelled with dogs, cats and two meerkats that were recused after a petting zoo in Kherson was shelled. (Courtesy Yulia Bondarenko)

It's still unclear where the shelling came from. Oleksandr Vilkul, head of the Kryvyi Rih military administration, said on Thursday that Russian artillery had fired on the column and two people had received shrapnel wounds.

Others have related similarly harrowing escapes from Kherson. Katerina Torgunova lived with her husband and three-year old daughter in the town of Oleshky.

The day they left, she said, "We passed the first two checkpoints relatively calmly, and at the third checkpoint we had huge problems. The Russians started firing flash flares into the air as we approached them."

"Then we were pulled out of the car, they started to curse us. My husband was searched for a long time."

Others speak of being on the road for two days trying to find a way out of Kherson.

Julia Kartuzova and her two children had to sleep overnight in a kindergarten as they tried to find an escape route.

Then came what she and others call the 'grey zone' — the no-man's land between Russian and Ukrainian control. "There are fights going on. It was very dangerous there, because the shells fell right there, a hundred meters from our car."

"We lost count of how many checkpoints we had to go through. There must have been more than a hundred in total."

Arkadiy says the main routes out of Kherson to Mykolaiv, which is still in Ukrainian hands, are heavily damaged and often impassable.

Hennadii Lahuta, head of the Kherson regional military administration, says the Russians have not approved a single evacuation corridor from Kherson since the beginning of the occupation. For a week at the beginning of May, Lahuta said, the Russians had blocked the route taken by Arkadiy and others. 

On May 11, the Russians allowed people to use that route again, which explains the sudden mass exodus.

7:08 p.m. ET, May 15, 2022

Ukraine deputy PM says she hopes the country's application for EU is considered fast

From CNN's Karen Smith

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna speaks during a press conference in Brussels, Belgium, on January 10.
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna speaks during a press conference in Brussels, Belgium, on January 10. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna said she hopes Ukraine’s application to join the EU is considered fast and there are lessons learned following Finland and Sweden considerations to join NATO.

“We will see with the now position of Sweden and Finland, who have decided to apply for NATO membership, and the response from the allies that this application will be considered and fulfilled immediately," she said. "It only serves one very obvious argument that NATO has learned on the mistakes and the political mistakes which has been done back in 2008 by making promises without delivering on decisions in terms of membership which has basically led to three wars, two of which are now happening on Ukrainian territory.”

“We hope that now when it comes to the concentration of Ukrainian application to EU, it would happen also much faster," she added.

Earlier on Sunday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he hopes that the ascension process for Sweden and Finland into NATO is "faster than we have seen before."

"My intention is still to have a quick and swift process," he said, adding that while the ratification process will take time — as it is standard when going through 30 parliaments — "this is a historic opportunity we need to seize."

Correction: A previous version of this post misstated comments made by Deputy Prime Minister Stefanishyna. She was referring to the EU when she said she hopes Ukraine's application to join the body is considered fast.

11:00 a.m. ET, May 15, 2022

Putin was "calm and cool" when Finland informed him of its decision to apply for NATO membership

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a military parade in Moscow, Russia, on May 9.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a military parade in Moscow, Russia, on May 9. (Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Russia's decision to invade Ukraine "showed that they are ready to attack an independent neighboring country," Finnish President Sauli Niinistö told CNN as he explained Finland's decision to apply for NATO membership, a US-led military alliance.

While he does not believe that Russia could attack Finland now or in the future, Niinistö said the divided political landscape of Europe and the world does not leave much room for the non-aligned.

While informing Russia of Finland's decision to apply for NATO membership, Niinistö said he was surprised at President Vladimir Putin's calm reaction.

"Actually, the surprise was that he took it so calmly," he told CNN. "But in security policy, especially talking with Russia, you have to keep in mind that what he said doesn't mean that you shouldn't be all the time quite well aware."

"But so far, it seems that there's no immediate problems coming," he added.

Niinistö also said that while he was "astonished" at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's comments, he is "not worried" about Turkey blocking Finland's membership into NATO.

"I believe that there will be a lot of discussion still and I'm not that worried about that," he told CNN.

9:47 a.m. ET, May 15, 2022

Turkey's intention "is not to block" NATO membership for Sweden and Finland, says secretary general

From CNN's Frederik Pleitgen in Berlin

Turkey has made it clear that their intention is not to block membership, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Sunday.

During a video news conference, he expressed confidence that NATO will be able to address Turkey's concerns and that the ascension process for Sweden and Finland into NATO is "faster than we have seen before."

On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he is not looking at Finland and Sweden joining NATO "positively," accusing both countries of housing Kurdish "terrorist organizations."

"Unfortunately, Scandinavian countries are like guesthouses of terror organizations. PKK and DHKPC have taken shelter in Sweden and Netherlands. They have even taken place in their parliaments. At this stage, it is not possible for us to see this positively." Erdogan had said. 

Following this, the NATO secretary general said, "I'm confident that we will be able to address the concerns that Turkey has expressed in a way that doesn't delay the membership or the accession process, so my intention is still to have a quick and swift process," he said.

The ratification process will take time, as it is standard when going through 30 parliaments, he added, but emphasized the need to move quicker.

"This is a historic opportunity we need to seize," Stoltenberg said.

Stoltenberg added NATO will work with Sweden and Finland on any potential threats from Russia "to provide assurance measures is in the intermediate."

10:26 a.m. ET, May 15, 2022

"Ukraine can win this war," says NATO secretary general

From CNN's Chandler Thornton

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a press conference in Brussels, Belgium on April 28.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a press conference in Brussels, Belgium on April 28. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, "Ukraine can win this war," while speaking to reporters via a video link on Sunday.

"Russia's war in Ukraine is not going as Moscow have planned. It failed to take Kyiv," Stoltenberg said, "They’re pulling back from around Kharkiv, their major offensive in Donbass has stalled. Russia is not achieving its strategic objectives."

"Ukrainians are bravely defending their homeland. To help them to do so, allies have committed and delivered security assistance to Ukraine worth billions of dollars," Stoltenberg said.

Allies expressed strong support for Ukraine and "further strengthening of NATO's deterrence on defense and the longer-term implications of the war including on our future stance towards Russia," he added.

Moreover, he said, "NATO's door is open" to Sweden and Finland, calling their decision to apply "historic."

10:23 a.m. ET, May 15, 2022

Vast bunker cut into Helsinki’s bedrock demonstrates Finland’s preparations for times of crisis

From CNN's Nic Robertson, Chris Liakos and Frederick Wheeler in Helsinki, Finland

A sports hall inside the Merihaka bunker.
A sports hall inside the Merihaka bunker. (Chris Liakos/CNN)

As Finland edges closer to joining NATO, Russia has warned that it “will be forced to take retaliatory steps” in order to “stop the threats to its national security.”

But it seems Finland has been preparing for a potential conflict with its neighbor to the east for decades.

Since the 1960s, the Finnish government has built more than 50,000 bunkers across the country, which are enough to shelter 80% of the country’s 5.5 million people.

A CNN team visited two of the 5,500 or so shelters in Helsinki, the capital.

The Itäkeskus Swimming Hall, in the city's northeast, can be converted into a shelter in less than a day by draining its Olympic-sized swimming pool of water.

Itäkeskus Swimming Hall.
Itäkeskus Swimming Hall. (Chris Liakos/CNN)

Meanwhile, about 20 meters (60 feet) below a parking garage, the Merihaka bunker is cut into the bedrock of the city. An emergency shelter with capacity for 6,000 people can be set up within 72 hours in case of crisis.

Parts of the space are already in use, to help offset the costs — children play hockey inside sports halls and enjoy play areas, while members of the public use the cafes.

“We are a half-star hotel,” Tomi Rask, who works for the Helsinki City Rescue Department, tells CNN.

However, the bunker is not just fit for recreational use.

The 2 billion-year-old bedrock is blast-proof and could absorb the radiation from a nuclear bomb, while the curved tunnels that run through the shelter "take most of the hit," according to Rask.

Merihaka bunker.
Merihaka bunker. (Frederick Wheeler/CNN)

Rask adds that despite the city’s preparations, he can’t predict how things will turn out “when this many people get put in a small space and it’s tight and you close the doors."

Everyone has a role in here,” he says.

Finland declared independence from Russia in 1917, refusing to align itself with the Soviet Union or the United States. Even after it joined the European Union in 1995 and gradually aligned its defense policies with the West, it still avoided joining NATO outright due to the geopolitical threat from Russia, with whom it shares an 830-mile border.

But the Mayor of Helsinki, Juhana Vartiainen, said the city had "never had any illusions about the Soviet Union, nor its follower, Russia."

“I have been more (and) more surprised by the fact that such shelters do not exist in all European countries,” he said.

Take a look inside Helsinki's extensive bunkers:

CNN's Luke McGee contributed reporting to this post.

7:46 a.m. ET, May 15, 2022

Finnish President “confused” over Turkish leader's comments about Finland and Sweden joining NATO

From CNN's Nic Robertson and Chris Liakos in Helsinki

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö gives a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, on May 15.
Finnish President Sauli Niinistö gives a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, on May 15. (Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva/AFP/Getty Images)

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö has said he is “confused” over comments from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he is not looking at the possibility of Finland and Sweden joining NATO “positively."

“To be frank, I’m a bit confused, because I had a telephone discussion with the President Erdogan approximately a month ago. And actually, he took up himself before I had the possibility to do that, that you're applying for NATO membership, and we will assess it favourable," Niinistö told CNN's Nic Robertson during a press conference Sunday in Helsinki.

"I thanked him and he was very pleased to receiving my thanks. So you got to understand that I'm a bit confused. What we heard two days ago was different then yesterday, we again heard that Turkey is open to our membership, but, it turned back to no or let's say negative side."

"I think that what we need now is a very clear answer. I'm prepared to have a new discussion with President Erdogan about the problems he has raised."

Erdogan said Friday he was not looking at Finland and Sweden joining NATO "positively," accusing both counties of housing Kurdish "terrorist organizations."

6:37 a.m. ET, May 15, 2022

Finland will apply to join NATO, leaders say, ditching decades of neutrality despite Russia's threats of retaliation

From CNN's Tara John and Chandler Thornton

Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Finland's President Sauli Niinistö give a press conference to announce that Finland will apply for NATO membership at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on May 15.
Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin and Finland's President Sauli Niinistö give a press conference to announce that Finland will apply for NATO membership at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on May 15. (Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva/AFP/Getty Images)

Finland's government announced Sunday it will apply to join NATO, ditching decades of wartime neutrality and ignoring Russian threats of possible retaliation as the Nordic country attempts to strengthen its security following the onset of the war in Ukraine.

The decision was announced at a joint press conference on Sunday with President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who said the move must be ratified by the country's parliament before it can go forward.

"We hope that the parliament will confirm the decision to apply for NATO membership during the coming days," Marin said during a press conference in Helsinki.

"It will be based on a strong mandate, with the President of the Republic. We have been in close contact with governments of NATO member states and NATO itself," Marin added.

The move would bring the US-led military alliance up to Finland's 830-mile border with Russia, but could take months to finalize as the legislatures of all 30 current NATO members must approve new applicants.

It also risks provoking the ire of Russia, whose President Vladimir Putin told his Finnish counterpart Niinistö on Saturday that abandoning military neutrality and joining the bloc would be a "mistake."

CNN's Joshua Berlinger contributed reporting to this post.

Read the full story:

6:02 a.m. ET, May 15, 2022

It's 1 p.m. in Kyiv. Here's what you need to know

NATO foreign ministers are meeting in Germany, while Finland and Sweden consider joining the US-led military alliance.

Here are the latest headlines from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Finland set to seek NATO membership: Finland's President Sauli Niinistö told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Saturday that the Nordic nation will decide "to seek NATO membership in the next few days," Niinistö's office said in a statement. Putin called such a move a "mistake" as Russia suspended its power exports to Finland. Germany has “prepared everything to do a quick ratification process” if Sweden and Finland apply to join NATO, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Sunday.

Where the fighting is happening: In the country's north, Ukraine continues to press on with a counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, where its troops have made significant advances to the north and east towards the Russian border. The aim of the Ukrainian offensive is to cut Russia's supply lines to its forces trying to advance into the eastern Donetsk region. The pullback of Russian forces from areas around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, has revealed new evidence of atrocities. Ukrainian officials say there were further air strikes on the Chernihiv and Sumy regions of northern Ukraine.

Several industrial towns in the east have seen relentless bombardment for weeks as Russian forces try to break down Ukrainian defenses. One is Severodonetsk, where a chemical plant and high-rise buildings have been hit, according to Serhiy Hayday, head of the Luhansk regional military administration, who warns "Russians are gathering equipment and manpower closer to Severodonetsk and preparing to attack it."

On the southern front, Ukrainian regional authorities say the Russians have begun digging trenches in some front-line positions, while in the country's west, four missiles hit a military infrastructure facility in the Yavoriv district, Ukrainian officials said.

Russian losses: Russia may have lost as much as one third of the ground force it committed when it invaded Ukraine, according to an intelligence assessment from Britain's defense ministry. It added that Russian forces had sustained heavy losses in their Donbas offensive and that "under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days." It is unclear how the ministry has arrived at that assessment. Russia is thought to have committed about 100 battalion tactical groups to the offensive in eastern Ukraine, but Western officials say many of these groups are under strength.

Mariupol convoy: A convoy of 500 to 1,000 cars containing people evacuated from Mariupol entered the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday, Petro Andryushchenko, aide to Mariupol's mayor, said on his telegram channel.

Zelensky meets US delegation: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met a congressional delegation led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kyiv on Saturday, and called for Russia to be officially recognized as a "terrorist state."

Ukraine wins Eurovision: Ukraine's folk-rap group Kalush Orchestra has won this year's Eurovision Song Contest, surfing a wave of goodwill from European nations to clinch the country's third win at the glitzy event. The band's song "Stefania," written about the frontman's mother, beat competition from main rivals the United Kingdom and Spain at the competition in the Italian city of Turin.