May 18, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Helen Regan, Jack Guy, Matias Grez and Ed Upright, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, May 19, 2022
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2:15 p.m. ET, May 18, 2022

US secretary of state heralds reopening of US embassy in Kyiv as a "momentous step"

From CNN's Kylie Atwood

The US flag is raised at the United States embassy in Kyiv for the first time since American diplomats returned embassy on Wednesday.
The US flag is raised at the United States embassy in Kyiv for the first time since American diplomats returned embassy on Wednesday. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States raised its flag over the US embassy in Kyiv on Wednesday in what he called a “momentous step,” marking the reopening of the embassy after it closed three months ago ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Today we are officially resuming operations at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. The Ukrainian people, with our security assistance, have defended their homeland in the face of Russia’s unconscionable invasion, and, as a result, the Stars and Stripes are flying over the Embassy once again. We stand proudly with, and continue to support, the government and people of Ukraine as they defend their country from the Kremlin’s brutal war of aggression,” Blinken said in a statement. 

Blinken reflected on the US commitment to the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian people, even when the embassy was closed in recent months. 

“Three months ago, we lowered our flag over the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, just days before Russian forces streamed across Ukraine’s border to carry out President Putin’s unprovoked, unjustified war of choice. When we suspended operations at the embassy, we made the point clear: while we would relocate U.S. embassy personnel for their safety and security, this would in no way prevent our engagement with, and support for, the Ukrainian people, government, and civil society as well as our allies and partners,” Blinken said.

Blinken noted how this has been a goal the Biden administration began working toward the minute that the diplomats left. 

People watch as the American flag is raised at the US embassy in Kyiv on Wednesday.
People watch as the American flag is raised at the US embassy in Kyiv on Wednesday. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

“We underscored our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, pledged to continue our assistance, and started working toward the day we could return to Kyiv. Now, that day has come," he added. 

Blinken did not specify how many US diplomats would be operating out of the embassy. He noted that there are additional safety measures in place — with “enhanced our security measures and protocols” — to keep the returning US diplomats safe. 

“We are committed to confronting the challenges ahead. The war rages on. Russia's forces inflict death and destruction on Ukrainian soil every day. Millions of Ukrainians are displaced from their homes and mourn the loss of their loved ones. With strength of purpose, we reaffirm our commitment to the people and government of Ukraine, and we look forward to carrying out our mission from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv,” Blinken said.

2:08 p.m. ET, May 18, 2022

It's nighttime in Kyiv. Here is the latest on Russia's war in Ukraine

From CNN staff

Russian soldier Vadim Shishimarin is seen behind a glass barrier during his court hearing in Kyiv on Wednesday.
Russian soldier Vadim Shishimarin is seen behind a glass barrier during his court hearing in Kyiv on Wednesday. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

If you are catching up on the latest developments on Russian invasion of Ukraine on Wednesday, here's what you need to know:

  • A 21-year-old captured Russian soldier has pleaded "fully" guilty to war crimes at a trial in Kyiv: Vadim Shishimarin appeared before the first war crimes trial since Russia invaded Ukraine back in February. He is accused of killing a 62-year-old man in Ukraine’s Sumy region, according to the country's prosecutor general's office. It is the first war crimes trial held since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. The prosecutor expects there to be many more.
  • Discussions on Sweden and Finland's NATO membership applications continue: Turkey held phone calls with Sweden and Finland as well as Germany, the US and the UK to discuss NATO membership applications of Sweden and Finland, among other topics. Turkey communicated its expectations that its national security concerns will be addressed in the context of these applications. Erdogan has accused the two countries of harboring members of the separatist militant Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and supporters of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of masterminding a 2016 coup attempt, which Gulen denies. US President Joe Biden is set to welcome the Prime Minister of Sweden and the President of Finland to the White House on Thursday in a key show of support.
  • Counteroffensive in Kharkiv: The Ukrainian armed forces say they have recaptured another settlement in the Kharkiv region, as troops continue their counter-attacks in the area. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces in the Kharikiv oblast targeted a Russian tank, with the tank firing back as well, according to new videos circulating on social media. CNN has geolocated and verified the authenticity of the videos. It's unclear when the firefight with the tank happened, but it took place near the village of Nove, just 8 miles (about 12 kilometers) south of the Ukraine-Russia border. Ukrainians also reported heavy fighting in the Luhansk region, where Russian forces continue attempts to destroy Ukrainian defenses.
  • Mariupol evacuations: Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Wednesday that a total of 959 Ukrainian soldiers, including 80 wounded, had laid down their arms and surrendered since May 16. He reaffirmed that 51 wounded were sent to the hospital at Novoazovsk, which is in the self-declared region of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR). CNN is unable to confirm the Russian tally. The Ukrainian President said Tuesday the negotiation process on evacuating the last soldiers from the Azovstal steel plant continues with Russia. Amnesty International, meanwhile, has said that Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered at the Azovstal plant must not be ill-treated and should get immediate access to the International Red Cross.
  • NATO doesn't expect any major battlefield gains for either side in the coming weeks: "I think we'll be in a standstill for a while," a NATO military official with knowledge of the intelligence told CNN on Wednesday. According to the official, the current NATO discussion is that the momentum has shifted significantly in favor of Ukraine. The debate within NATO circles, the official added, is now over whether it is possible for Kyiv to retake Crimea and the Donbas territories seized by Russia and Russian-backed separatists, respectively, in 2014.
  • EU unveils $220-billion renewable energy plan to sidestep Russian gas: The European Union Commission announced a 210 billion euro plan ($221 billion) on Wednesday to boost the bloc’s target for renewable energy from 40% to 45% by 2030, as part of efforts to move away from Russian hydrocarbons. The news comes as Finland’s main gas company, Gasum, is warning that Russian gas supplies could be cut off this weekend. On Tuesday, Gasum said it would not pay for Russian gas in rubles or use Gazprom’s proposed payment scheme for gas. In a statement, the company said negotiations over a long-term gas contract with Gazprom were in dispute, and it was taking Gazprom to arbitration to try and resolve the matter. 
2:02 p.m. ET, May 18, 2022

No major battlefield gains expected for either side in the coming weeks, NATO military official says

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio

The NATO alliance doesn't expect significant gains for either side of the battlefield in Ukraine in coming weeks, a NATO military official with knowledge of the intelligence told CNN on Wednesday. 

"I think we'll be in a standstill for a while," the official said.  

According to the official, the current NATO discussion is that the momentum has shifted significantly in favor of Ukraine and the debate within NATO circles is now over whether it is possible for Kyiv to retake Crimea and the Donbas territories seized by Russia and Russian-backed separatists, respectively, in 2014. 

"I think they could [retake Crimea and the Donbas], yes," the official said. "Not now, not soon, but if they can keep up the fight I think so."

"I do question if they actually should fight to get their territory back," referencing a potential backlash by the local population in some of those areas. 

1:13 p.m. ET, May 18, 2022

Ukraine says it has recaptured more territory in Kharkiv

From CNN's Tim Lister, Olga Voitovych and Julia Presniakova

The Ukrainian armed forces say they have recaptured another settlement in the Kharkiv region, as troops continue their counter-attacks in the area.

They also reported heavy fighting in the Luhansk region, where Russian forces continue attempts to destroy Ukrainian defenses.

In Kharkiv, the general staff said Wednesday that "as a result of the offensive of our troops, the settlement of Dementiivka was liberated."

Dementiivka is about 20 miles (35 kilometers) north of Kharkiv.

The general staff said fighting continued in other parts of the area and Russian forces were advancing around the village of Ternova, close to the border north-east of Kharkiv. 

The Russians appear to be trying to block Ukrainian forces from advancing towards their nearby supply lines inside Ukraine.

Elsewhere the Ukrainian National Guard reported that in Luhansk region, its Rapid Reaction Brigade had destroyed bridges to stop the advance of Russian forces towards the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. Video posted by the National Guard indicates the bridges were destroyed in the past few days.  

It said that blowing up the bridges would help the defense of areas still under Ukrainian control.

In the same area, the general staff reported air strikes against several towns along the front lines, as well as areas around the town of Bakhmut, a key hub for Ukrainian defensive efforts. It said that attempts to break through Ukrainian lines in the Adviivka area had been repelled.

Ukrainian units also continue to hold off Russian forces trying to advance south into Donetsk region, according to the general staff, which said they inflicted losses on the Russians around Dovhenke, north-west of the strategically important city of Sloviansk. The Russians have been trying to break through in that area for more than a month.

1:03 p.m. ET, May 18, 2022

Treasury secretary: US will likely block Russian debt payments starting next week

From CNN’s Matt Egan

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks to journalists on the sidelines of a meeting of finance ministers and central bankers from the Group of Seven industrialised nations (G7) on May 18 in Koenigswinter near Bonn, western Germany.
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks to journalists on the sidelines of a meeting of finance ministers and central bankers from the Group of Seven industrialised nations (G7) on May 18 in Koenigswinter near Bonn, western Germany. (Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images)

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Wednesday signaled US officials will likely end a carve-out in Western sanctions that has allowed Russia to continue making payments on its debt and avoid a default.

Speaking at a press conference in Germany, Yellen said it is “reasonably likely” to expect the license will be allowed to expire on May 25. 

“There has not been a final decision on that. But I think it’s unlikely it would continue,” Yellen said. 

Such a move would effectively block Russia from paying US bondholders, raising the risk of a default. Russia has not defaulted on its foreign debt since the Bolshevik revolution more than a century ago. 

US sanctions introduced after Russia invaded Ukraine ban transactions with Russia’s central bank, finance ministry and national wealth fund. However, the Treasury Department issued a license that allows for transactions related to debt payments.

“When we first imposed sanctions on Russia, we created an exemption that would allow a period of time for an orderly transition to take place and for investors to be able to sell securities,” Yellen said. “And the expectation was that it was time-limited.”

Yellen signaled she is not concerned about the potential spillover caused by ending the license.

“Russia is not able right now to borrow in global financial markets. It has no access to capital markets,” Yellen said. “If Russia is unable to find a legal way to make these payments and they technically default on their debt, I don’t think that really represents a significant change in Russia’s situation. They’re already cut off from global capital markets and that would continue.”

1:03 p.m. ET, May 18, 2022

Turkish official holds calls with Swedish and Finnish counterparts on NATO membership applications

From Isil Sariyuce in Istanbul

Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesperson for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, held phone calls with his counterparts from Sweden and Finland as well as Germany, the US and the UK to discuss NATO membership applications of Sweden and Finland, among other topics.

“In the context of Sweden and Finland's membership applications to NATO, the expectation that concrete steps will be taken to address Turkey's national security concerns was communicated. It was underlined that if Turkey's expectations were not met, the progress of the process would not be possible,” according to a readout of the meeting.

“During the meetings, it was also emphasized that it is unacceptable to allow the terrorist organization PKK/PYD/YPG and FETO members to exist in NATO members and other countries. It was stated that there should be no discrimination between terrorist organizations and that all forms of terrorism should be fought in a spirit of unity and solidarity,” the readout added.

Erdogan has accused the two countries of harboring members of the separatist militant Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and supporters of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of masterminding a 2016 coup attempt, which Gulen denies. The PKK has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. Erdogan also said Sweden did not extradite 30 people whom Turkey sees linked to terrorism. 

According to the readout, the reversal of defense export bans and of sanctions against Turkey were also addressed.

Earlier on Wednesday, Erdogan told his party's members of parliament in Ankara that he expects NATO member countries to “understand” Turkey’s security issues. 

1:12 p.m. ET, May 18, 2022

Ukrainians target Russian tank 8 miles from Ukraine-Russia border, videos show

From CNN's Paul P. Murphy 

(From Telegram)
(From Telegram)

Ukrainian forces in the northeastern Kharkiv region targeted a Russian tank, with the tank firing back as well, according to new videos circulating on social media. 

CNN has geolocated and verified the authenticity of the videos. It's unclear when the firefight with the tank happened, but it took place near the village of Nove, just 8 miles (about 12 kilometers) south of the Ukraine-Russia border. 

The three videos show a Russian tank near a network of trenches dug on the western shoulder of Highway 105. Troops are seen in the trenches, but it's unclear whether they are Russian or Ukrainian. 

The Russian tank was seen on fire, spinning around and then firing. 

Although it's unclear how the tank caught on fire, the second video gives some indication of what may have started it. In the video, the tank was seen heading north back toward the border and Russian-occupied territory, as well as toward a Ukrainian soldier equipped with a shoulder-fired missile. 

The tank fired repeatedly in the direction where the soldier was last seen.

In a third video, a shoulder fired-missile was seen almost hitting the tank. Suddenly, the tank was seen firing and then crashing into a line of trees on the side of the road.

12:39 p.m. ET, May 18, 2022

US defense secretary says if Sweden joins NATO, it will make alliance "better at defending ourselves"

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist, left, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stand during an enhanced honor cordon ceremony upon his arrival at the Pentagon today in Washington.
Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist, left, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stand during an enhanced honor cordon ceremony upon his arrival at the Pentagon today in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

If Sweden joins NATO, the country will make the alliance “better at defending ourselves,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said during opening remarks ahead of a bilateral meeting with Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

“Your capabilities are modern, relevant and significant, and your addition to the alliance will make us all better at defending ourselves. And of course, that’s especially important at this crucial time,” Austin said, as the war in Ukraine continues.

“The United States strongly supports Sweden’s application for NATO membership,” Austin added.

Austin thanked Sweden for its help in supporting Ukraine through the past two-and-a-half months of the war. 

“Sweden has joined the United States and our allies and partners in rushing urgently needed security assistance and humanitarian aid to the brave people of Ukraine,” Austin said. “Your leadership has helped bring renewed resolve and resolve to the Swedish defense and security establishment.” 

Sweden has decided to formally apply to NATO for membership this week, along with Finland.

Hultqvist said Russia’s war in Ukraine poses a “long-term threat to European security,” and called it a “time where the democracies of Europe and North America must stand together against Russia’s naked aggression.”

While the US and Sweden already work together militarily, Hultqvist said that “things have changed” because of Russia’s invasion.

“We’ve done a lot together to make interoperability to exercise together and to develop the relationship between our armed forces,” Hultqvist said. “From our point of view, we’ve seen it as something that has given stability to our part of Europe, but the war in Ukraine is a reality and things have changed.”

Hultqvist called Sweden’s decision to apply for NATO membership a “manifestation of our commitment to transatlantic security and transatlantic cooperation.”

“In tying our security even more closely to the security of the United States and others, we are exercising our right to make our own choices in providing for our security,” Hultqvist added.

US President Joe Biden on Thursday is set to welcome the Prime Minister of Sweden and the President of Finland to the White House in a key show of support.

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.

2:09 p.m. ET, May 18, 2022

Russian soldier pleads "fully" guilty in Kyiv court during first Ukraine war crime trial

From CNN's Saskya Vandoorne, Daria Markina in Kyiv and Anastasia Graham-Yooll in London

Russian soldier Vadim Shishimarin sits in the defendant's box at the opening of his trial in the Solomyansky district court in Kyiv on May 18.
Russian soldier Vadim Shishimarin sits in the defendant's box at the opening of his trial in the Solomyansky district court in Kyiv on May 18. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

A Kyiv district court heard charges against a captured Russian soldier on Wednesday, as the country’s first war crime trial of symbolic importance gathers pace.

The Russian soldier stands accused of murder and “violating the laws and customs of war” under Article 438 of Ukraine's Criminal Code. 

21-year-old Vadim Shishimarin pleaded “fully” guilty on Wednesday and is facing a life sentence. 

In a detailed outline of events, the prosecutor told the court that Shishimarin, along with four other Russian servicemen, stole a vehicle to hide from the shelling by Ukrainian forces. The group drove into the village of Chupakhivka, where they encountered an unarmed resident riding a bicycle and talking on a mobile phone. 

“Under the impression that the civilian intended to inform on them to Ukrainian Armed Forces, one of the soldiers ordered Shishimarin to kill the civilian,” the prosecutor said. 

Citing articles 50 and 51 of the 1949 Geneva Convention, the prosecutor accused Shishimarin of firing several targeted shots using a Kalashnikov rifle from the back window of his car, hitting the victim in the head. 

“The victim died from fractured skull injuries after the five soldiers left the scene,” the prosecutor said. After several days of hiding, the group eventually surrendered to local residents, the prosecutor added.

The trial has been adjourned until Thursday because too many members of the media were crowding the courtroom.

The judges will hear testimony from Shishimarin on Thursday, as well as from the victims’ widow. Two other witnesses will testify on behalf of the prosecution, including a Russian soldier present at the scene of the crime.

It is the first war crimes trial held since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. The prosecutor expects there to be many more. So far, more than 12,000 war crimes have been recorded by Ukrainian authorities.