May 17, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Rhea Mogul, Lianne Kolirin, Sana Noor Haq and Matias Grez, CNN

Updated 12:00 a.m. ET, May 18, 2022
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3:32 p.m. ET, May 17, 2022

The US is working closely with allies to try to develop routes to get vital grain supplies out of Ukraine

From CNN's Kylie Atwood, Alex Marquardt and Jennifer Hansler

A farmer works on a field near Lviv, Ukraine, on May 9th.
A farmer works on a field near Lviv, Ukraine, on May 9th. (Mykola Tys/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The Biden administration is working closely with European allies to try to develop routes to get Ukrainian wheat and corn out of the country after Russia blocked Ukrainian ships from departing with grain that is vital for food supplies around the world, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.

There is no silver bullet to solve the complicated challenge and officials are considering a wide array of options to get the food exports safely out by rail, sea and air, two US diplomats and four European diplomats told CNN. Possible scenarios are being studied and devised whether Russia consents or not. 

The challenge will be a major focus for US Secretary of State Tony Blinken when he convenes a ministerial meeting on food security and chairs a discussion on the matter at the United Nations in New York on Wednesday and Thursday, the diplomats said.  

"This is far from a done deal, there are so many moving pieces, so many things could go wrong with these discussions," another official familiar with the discussions said. 

Amid concerns about a global food shortage, urgency around the effort is growing as prices for wheat, grain, corn, soybeans and vegetable oil have soared in recent weeks due to Russia's invasion. However, there is no simple solution available with major obstacles to all modes of transport as the war shows no sign of letting up.

Time is of the essence: Ukraine is set to run out of storage facilities for agricultural products in the next two months, explained an official from the World Food Program. If there is no movement in the coming months Ukrainian farmers will have no place to store next seasons' crop and they will be not paid enough to sustain their businesses.

Before the war, wheat supplies from Russia and Ukraine accounted for almost 30% of global trade, and Ukraine is the world's fourth largest exporter of corn and the fifth largest exporter of wheat, according to the US State Department. The United Nations World Food Program — which helps combat global food insecurity — buys about half of its wheat from Ukraine each year and has warned of dire consequences if the Ukrainian ports are not opened up. 

Read more about this here.

2:43 p.m. ET, May 17, 2022

US State Department announces new program to provide "evidence of Russia-perpetrated war crimes"

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

The US State Department on Tuesday announced the launch of a new program “to capture, analyze, and make widely available evidence of Russia-perpetrated war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine.”

The program, called the Conflict Observatory, “encompasses the documentation, verification, and dissemination of open-source evidence regarding the actions of Russia’s forces during President Putin’s brutal war of choice,” according to a media note from the State Department.

“The Conflict Observatory will analyze and preserve publicly and commercially available information, including satellite imagery and information shared via social media, consistent with international legal standards, for use in ongoing and future accountability mechanisms,” the note said. “This includes maintaining rigorous chain-of-custody procedures for future civil and criminal legal processes under appropriate jurisdictions.”

The information will be shared publicly via an online platform, the statement added.

The State Department said the program is a collaboration with “Esri, a leading geographic information systems company, Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab, the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, and PlanetScape Ai,” and the “the U.S. government has also contributed commercial satellite imagery to these efforts.”

The State Department said it expects international partner organizations to join the program. Reports will be available at ConflictObservatory.org website.

2:37 p.m. ET, May 17, 2022

NATO chief to meet Finnish and Swedish ambassadors

From CNN’s Sarah Dean in Helsinki

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, on April 28, 2022.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, on April 28, 2022. (Olivier Matthys/AP)

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will meet the ambassadors of Finland and Sweden on Wednesday, according to a statement from NATO. 

The meeting comes after both countries declared their intentions to apply for membership to NATO earlier this week.

Finland and Sweden will hand in their NATO application Wednesday, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said during a joint news conference earlier today with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö in Stockholm.

The leaders are then scheduled to meet with US President Joe Biden on Thursday.

4:22 p.m. ET, May 17, 2022

Exclusive: CNN travels to site of one of Russia's biggest single defeats

From Mick Krever and Olha Konovalova in Bilohorivka, Ukraine

Russian armored vehicles littered in Bilohorivka, Ukraine, on Tuesday, May 17.
Russian armored vehicles littered in Bilohorivka, Ukraine, on Tuesday, May 17. (Mick Krever/CNN)

A CNN team on Tuesday traveled to the eastern Ukrainian town of Bilohorivka, where Russia is believed to have suffered one of the biggest single defeats of the war. There, the charred remains of Russian armored vehicles littered a field just a few hundred meters from the front line.

The Ukrainian military says that last week it destroyed “at least 73 units of equipment,” including T-72 tanks and a variety of infantry fighting vehicles, when a Russian brigade attempted to cross the Siverskyi Donets River.

The high ground above the river was littered with destroyed Russian tanks separated from their turrets, armored personnel carriers, heavy machine guns with barrels twisted into spirals – and the charred body parts of Russian soldiers.

“They had three places to cross,” explained a senior officer, and asked for his name not to be used for security reasons. “They tried the first one, they failed, they were smashed there. On the second one they tried, they got smashed.”

“Well, and on that last one you saw, where they lost the most equipment. There, they tried four times. First time they did not succeed, they were crushed, artillery. Second time the same thing. Each time they increased their efforts, not understanding that we are observing everything. And for every action they take, we have a counter-action," the officer explained.

He said that the Ukrainians used artillery fire to destroy the Russian pontoon bridge, and used ground forces to push back the armored column.

“They had no time to cross, no time to drop the boats,” he explained. “They all broke through with artillery and gunfire and we watched from the drones as they fell into the water and sank.”

The officer said he believes that Russia has fallen for its own propaganda and is a victim of “outdated” military tactics.

“I remember when I was a cadet they used to say that an American soldier couldn't even brush his teeth before we killed them all. You see it's all just propaganda. They are not like that. They have some new things, but for the most part everything is outdated. The tactics are also outdated. And technologically, they are very far behind NATO and American weapons," he told CNN.

1:42 p.m. ET, May 17, 2022

Ukrainian man says Russian troops buried him alive after beating and shooting him and his brothers

From CNN's Saskya Vandoorne, Melissa Bell and Oleksandra Ochman

Mykola Kulichenko struggles to recount a tale he shouldn’t be alive to tell. But this Ukrainian man believes he was allowed to cheat death so he might speak for all those who cannot.

By the side of a remote road in the northern Chernihiv region of Ukraine, Mykola shows the unmarked grave in which he and his two brothers were buried three-and-a-half weeks after the war began, in land seized by Russian forces. All three had been shot; he was the only one to survive.

“It’s like being resurrected,” Mykola, 33, told CNN.

Until March 18, life for the Kulichenko family had changed little despite the Russians occupying their village of Dovzhyk since the start of the war. Then, when a Russian column was bombed, Russian soldiers fanned out looking for those responsible. They arrived at the wood-plank house where Mykola lived with his two brothers, Yevhen and Dmytro along with their sister, Iryna – who still hasn’t forgiven herself for not being home that day.

Three soldiers told the brothers to kneel in the front yard while they searched the home looking for anything that would link them to the bombed convoy, Mykola said. According to Mykola, once they found the military medals their grandfather owned and a military bag belonging to 30-year-old Yevhen, who had been a paratrooper, the soldiers were convinced they had something to hide.

Mykola, Yevhen and Dmytro were driven to a basement where they were interrogated for three days, he said. Mykola kept hoping the Russians would release them, but on the fourth day, he said, their mood changed.

“They beat my whole body with a metal rod, and they put the barrel of a gun inside my mouth,” he said.

Along with his brothers, Mykola was tortured until he lost consciousness. He says they were blindfolded, had their hands and legs bound with tape and were driven in a military vehicle by five Russian soldiers to a desolate plot of land. They were made to kneel, blindfolded, while a pit was dug, Mykola said.

First, he said, he heard a shot behind him, and 36-year-old Dmytro, the eldest of the three, fell to the ground. Next, he felt Yevhen, the youngest, drop by his side.

“I was thinking that I was next,” he said. But the bullet entered Mykola’s cheek and exited next to his right ear. He knew his only hope of survival was to play dead.

The soldiers kicked the brothers’ bodies into the pit, covered them with earth and left, according to Mykola. He can’t say how long he lay buried alive, only that with his hands and legs still bound he somehow managed to maneuver his way out from under his older brother’s corpse and back to the land of the living.

“It was hard for me to breathe, since Dima (Dmytro) was lying on top of me, but using my arms and knees, I was able to push my older brother off to the side of the pit, and then I climbed out,” he said.

In the dark, he staggered through fields to the nearest house, where a woman took him in and cared for him overnight before he was able to get back to his sister, who’d been anxiously waiting for days at their father’s home.

Read the full story here:

2:09 p.m. ET, May 17, 2022

France's Macron pledges more weapons to Ukraine during call with Zelensky

From CNN's Dalal Mawad in Paris

French president Emmanuel Macron speaks at a press conference in Berlin, Germany, on Monday, May 9.
French president Emmanuel Macron speaks at a press conference in Berlin, Germany, on Monday, May 9. (Stefanie Loos/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

French President Emmanuel Macron promised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky additional weapons in the days to come in a phone call between the two leaders, according to an Elysée Palace statement. 

Macron confirmed that arms deliveries by France will “continue and increase in intensity in the days and weeks to come, as will the delivery of humanitarian aid,” said the statement.

Macron also said that Ukraine's application for membership of the European Union would be “examined” during a European Council session in June. The bloc’s consideration will be based on the “opinion that the European Commission would have given, and in the spirit expressed at the Versailles summit by all the member states who declared that Ukraine was part of the European family.”

The leaders also discussed the evacuations of the Azovstal plant as well as “the challenge of food security and possible ways to allow exports of Ukrainian grains, which a large part of the world depends on for its food.”

The telephone conversation between the two presidents lasted for an hour and 10 minutes, according to the Palace, and was “long and substantial.”

11:18 a.m. ET, May 17, 2022

A town in the Donetsk region was hit by a missile, Ukrainian officials say 

From Tim Lister and Julia Presniakova 

Destruction after a Russian airplane launched a rocket in Bakhmut, Donbas, Ukraine on Tuesday May 17th.
Destruction after a Russian airplane launched a rocket in Bakhmut, Donbas, Ukraine on Tuesday May 17th. (Andoni Lubaki/Sipa USA/Reuters)

In an indication that Russian forces may be extending the range of their attacks, Ukrainian officials say the town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region was hit by a missile Tuesday.

The missile strike destroyed a five-story building in the town, according to Donetsk regional police. One person had been killed and a 9-year-old child was seriously injured.

"The exact number of victims is being clarified," police said.

Bakhmut is an important hub for the Ukrainian military and its hospital treats wounded soldiers. It is roughly 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the front lines around Popasna.

"The Russians do not stop the mass shelling along the entire front line from Vuhledar to Bakhmut," said Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk region military administration.

Strikes on Tuesday morning had damaged a school in Bakhmut and several infrastructure facilities, he added.

Kyrylenko said there had been intense fire in several places along the front lines, including Toretsk and Ocheretyn.

11:37 a.m. ET, May 17, 2022

Finland and Sweden will submit their NATO application on Wednesday

From Per Bergfors Nyberg

Finland's President Sauli Niinisto, left, poses with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson at the Adelcrantz Palace on May 17, in Stockholm, Sweden
Finland's President Sauli Niinisto, left, poses with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson at the Adelcrantz Palace on May 17, in Stockholm, Sweden (Michael Campanella/Getty Images)

Finland and Sweden will hand in their NATO application Wednesday, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said during a joint press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö in Stockholm.

"Democracy has won," Niinistö said.

"This whole spring has been a triumph for democracy in Finland" he said, referring to the overwhelming support Finland's NATO application received in parliament today, and the support among the Finnish people.

"Sweden also looks forward to cooperating together with Turkey within NATO,”  Andersson said.

Her comment addressed Turkish president's prior statement on Monday that he would not approve Sweden and Finland's NATO membership over sanctions on Turkey and further accused both countries of housing Kurdish "terrorist organizations."

“We are looking forward to having a bilateral dialogue with Turkey, and we will of course also have bilateral dialogues with other NATO members during this process. And once we are in NATO, I see an opportunity to evolve our bilateral relationship even further,” Andersson said during the joint news conference.

Finland's Niinistö said that he also remains “optimistic” on forthcoming discussions with Turkey and that with dialogue the “problem will be solved.”

The Finnish president reacted to Erdogan’s hostility, saying that it was “very surprising,” and that at the beginning of April his support was “very clear.”

“He looked favorable on the Finnish membership application process. Now there are different views,” Niinistö said. 

“We have to discuss further. Our people stand ready to do almost anything to discuss with Turkish officials. We have both requested phone calls with Erdogan, and I remain optimistic," he continued.

Niinistö also mentioned his upcoming trip alongside the Swedish prime minister to visit US President Joe Biden on Thursday.

“We are on our way to Washington, and there we will have a joint discussion with Biden, and surely many other discussions in the Senate and Congress," Niinistö said.

10:43 a.m. ET, May 17, 2022

Swedish and Finnish leaders will visit White House as they seek to join NATO

From CNN's Kate Sullivan

US President Joe Biden on Thursday will welcome the prime minister of Sweden and the president of Finland to the White House in a key show of support days after both countries announced they would seek to join NATO.

The leaders are expected to discuss Finland and Sweden’s NATO applications, European security and support for Ukraine amid Russia’s invasion, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.

Both countries are looking to join the military alliance after Russia’s assault on Ukraine sparked renewed security concerns across the region. Their historic bids to join NATO represent a dramatic evolution in European security and geopolitics.

Finland and Sweden will hand in their NATO application Wednesday, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said during a joint news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö in Stockholm.

The US and other NATO leaders have expressed support for Finland and Sweden joining the military alliance. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the US would “strongly support” their NATO applications.

Both Finland and Sweden already meet many of the requirements to be a NATO member, which include having a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy; treating minority populations fairly; committing to resolve conflicts peacefully; the ability and willingness to make a military contribution to NATO operations; and committing to democratic civil-military relations and institutions.

But the move has been met with resistance by Russia and Turkey. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO would not create a threat to Russia, but the “expansion of military infrastructure into this territory will certainly cause our response.”

The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday that Russia “will be forced to take retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature, in order to stop the threats to its national security arising in this regard.”

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said this week that he would not approve Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership if they sanction Turkey and that delegations from the nations should not bother coming to Turkey to try to convince that nation to approve their country’s NATO membership.