May 20, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Helen Regan, Andrew Raine, Matias Grez, Jeevan Ravindran, Ed Upright and Adrienne Vogt, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, May 21, 2022
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7:53 a.m. ET, May 20, 2022

US intel is skeptical that Putin will be swayed by Russian public opinion over Ukraine war

By CNN's Katie Bo Lillis, Zachary Cohen and Jeremy Herb

US intelligence officials are skeptical that any change in Russian public opinion against the Kremlin's war in Ukraine -- even a dramatic one -- would have an effect in persuading Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the conflict, according to multiple sources familiar with the latest intelligence.

Officials also doubt that the war, which many strategists believe has been an unmitigated disaster for Russia's military, is likely to lead to the removal of Putin from power, at least in the short term.

That assessment reflects the extent to which officials believe Putin has cemented his control over Russia during his more than two decades in power.

Putin is intimately involved in the day-to-day management of the conflict, according to three sources familiar with US and western intelligence, who told CNN that Putin directly participates in decision-making that in most Western armies would be reserved for lower-ranking officers.

"He clearly is his own decision maker. He doesn't seem to rely even on experts within the government or the cabinet very much," said a senior NATO official.

So it's a bit hard to imagine that popular opinion sways him all that much."

Full coverage here:

7:39 a.m. ET, May 20, 2022

Finnish gas firm Gasum says Russia will cut off natural gas supplies to Finland on Saturday  

From CNN's Chris Liakos in London

Pipes at the Gasum plant in Raikkola, Imatra, Finland, on May 12.
Pipes at the Gasum plant in Raikkola, Imatra, Finland, on May 12. (Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva/AFP/Getty Images)

Finland's main gas company, Gasum, said on Friday that Russian gas supplies to Finland will be cut off on Saturday at 7 a.m. local time (midnight ET).    

Starting Saturday and during the upcoming summer season, Gasum will supply natural gas to its customers from other sources, the state-owned firm said in a press release.  

“It is highly regrettable that natural gas supplies under our supply contract will now be halted," Gasum’s CEO Mika Wiljanen said, noting that the company has been "carefully preparing for this situation."    

Wiljanen went on to say that "provided that there will be no disruptions in the gas transmission network, we will be able to supply all our customers with gas in the coming months."    

Gasum Vice President Olga Väisänen told CNN on Friday that Finland is also receiving gas through its Balticconnector pipeline via Estonia, but adding that the winter season will be “challenging.”   

On Tuesday, the gas firm 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. 

Finland, along with Sweden, have submitted applications to become a part of NATO in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine, which sparked security concerns across the region. Russia's foreign ministry has warned that Russia “will be forced to take retaliatory steps, both of a military-technical and other nature" if Finland and Sweden join the alliance. Finland shares an 800-mile-long border with Russia.

Russia last week cut off electricity to Finland.

CNN's Robert North contributed reporting to this post.

7:45 a.m. ET, May 20, 2022

An order has been given to "stop defending" Mariupol, says commander at Azovstal steel plant

From CNN's Roman Tymotsko and Tim Lister

An overview of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 12.
An overview of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 12. (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)

The commander of the Azov Regiment, Lt. Col. Denis Prokopenko, has issued a short video message from inside the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

Prokopenko said that the top military leadership had "issued an order to preserve the garrison soldiers' life and health and stop defending the city."

The message implies that those remaining at Azovstal are planning to leave the plant in the near future. There are thought to be several hundred fighters left inside the sprawling complex.

Azovstal was the last holdout in otherwise Russian-occupied Mariupol and became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance under relentless Russian bombardment.

Prokopenko added: "Despite heavy fighting ... and lack of supplies, we constantly emphasized the three most important conditions for us: civilians, wounded, and dead. Civilians were evacuated.

The seriously wounded received the necessary assistance; they were evacuated with further exchange and delivery [planned] to the territory controlled by Ukraine."

The injured have been taken to a hospital in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic.

"As for the fallen heroes, the process is ongoing. But I hope that in the near future, families and all of Ukraine will be able to bury their soldiers with honors."

Some background: Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Friday that almost 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers have surrendered at the Azovstal plant.

In remarks carried by Russian state media, Shoigu said: “The blocking of the Azovstal plant continues ... Nationalists are actively surrendering to captivity. At the moment, 1,908 people laid down their arms."

CNN cannot independently verify these figures.

6:09 a.m. ET, May 20, 2022

UK intelligence believes Russia has fired senior commanders who “performed poorly”

From CNN's Zahid Mahmood in London

A destroyed Russian tank in the village of Mala Rogan in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on May 16.
A destroyed Russian tank in the village of Mala Rogan in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on May 16. (Aziz Karimov/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Russia has fired senior commanders who were considered to have “performed poorly” during the initial stages of the Ukraine invasion, an intelligence update by the UK Ministry of Defense (MOD) said on Thursday.

“Lieutenant General Serhiy Kisel, who commanded the elite 1st Guards Tank Army, has been suspended for his failure to capture Kharkiv," the MOD said on Twitter.

Vice Admiral Igor Ospipov, who commanded Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, has also likely been suspended following the sinking of the cruiser Moskva in April."

Russian Chief of General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov “likely” remains in his post, but it's “unclear” whether he retains the confidence of President Vladimir Putin, the statement continued.

The British intelligence update also said that a culture of cover-ups and scapegoating is “probably prevalent” within the Russian military and security system.

“Many officials involved in the invasion of Ukraine will likely be increasingly distracted by efforts to avoid personal culpability for Russia’s operational set-backs,” the statement said.

“This will likely place further strain on Russia’s centralised model of command and control, as officers increasingly seek to defer key decisions to their superiors," it added.

7:15 a.m. ET, May 20, 2022

Nearly 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers have surrendered at Azovstal, says Russian defense minister

From CNN's Uliana Pavlova and Tim Lister

Buses carrying Ukrainian forces from the Azovstal steel works arrive at a detention facility in the settlement of Olenivka in the Donetsk Region, Ukraine, on May 17.
Buses carrying Ukrainian forces from the Azovstal steel works arrive at a detention facility in the settlement of Olenivka in the Donetsk Region, Ukraine, on May 17. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has said that almost 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers have surrendered at the Azovstal plant in Mariupol.

In remarks carried by Russian state media Friday, Shoigu said: “The blocking of the Azovstal plant continues ... Nationalists are actively surrendering to captivity. At the moment, 1,908 people laid down their arms." CNN cannot independently verify these figures.

Azovstal was the last holdout in otherwise Russian-occupied Mariupol and become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance under relentless Russian bombardment.

The previous figure given by the Russian Defense Ministry Thursday was 1,730 Ukrainian soldiers. However, there has been no evidence of more people leaving the plant since Thursday.

Shoigu also said that 177 civilians had been evacuated from the plant but he appears to have been talking about the total that emerged last week.

"Everyone was provided with qualified medical and psychological assistance," Shoigu said.

"I vouch that the Russian armed forces are doing everything to prevent deaths among the civilian population. Since the beginning of the special military operation [Moscow's euphemism for its war in Ukraine], more than 1.37 million people have been evacuated from the dangerous regions of the people's republic [the pro-Russian self-declared separatist regions], as well as from Ukraine to Russia," Shoigu said.

That figure can't be independently confirmed. Ukraine has alleged that more than a million people have been forcibly deported from parts of the country that were under its control before the Russian invasion began.

9:09 a.m. ET, May 20, 2022

Soldier at Azovstal posts photos and message at "the place of my death and my life"

From CNN's Roman Tymotsko and Tim Lister

One of the Azov Regiment troops still inside the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol has posted photographs on social media networks, with the message: "That’s it. Thank you for the shelter, Azovstal. The place of my death and my life."

The soldier, Dmytro Kozatskiy (Orest) posted the photographs early Friday.

He later commented: "By the way, while I am in captivity, I will leave you photos in the best quality, send them to all journalistic awards and photo contests, if I win something, after the release it will be very nice. Thank you all for your support. See you."

Azovstal, in the besieged city of Mariupol, was the last holdout in a city that had become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance under relentless Russian bombardment.

Earlier this week, the Ukrainian military said the country's forces had completed their "combat mission" in Mariupol, according to a statement by the country's military, bringing the months-long battle for the city close to an end.

There are still thought to be hundreds of soldiers at Azovstal but it's unclear whether or when they will leave the plant and what negotiations may be going on between Ukraine and Russia and international organizations.

Ru

ssian authorities say that 1,730 of the troops that were defending Azovstal have left the plant and are either in detention or hospital in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic (DPR).

The DPR's leader, Denis Pushilin said Thursday that those still in the steel plant included Azov Regiment commanders.

5:21 a.m. ET, May 20, 2022

Russian soldier's war crime trial in Kyiv adjourned until Monday

From CNN’s Saskya Vandoorne and Daria Markina in Kyiv and Katya Krebs in London

Russian serviceman Vadim Shishimarin sits in the dock on the second day of his war crimes trial in the Solomyansky district court in Kyiv, Ukraine, on 19 May.
Russian serviceman Vadim Shishimarin sits in the dock on the second day of his war crimes trial in the Solomyansky district court in Kyiv, Ukraine, on 19 May. (Oleg Petrasyuk/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The war crimes trial of a 21-year-old Russian soldier in Ukraine has been adjourned until Monday.

Vadim Shishimarin appeared before a Kyiv court on Friday for a third day of hearings in the first war crimes trial since Russia invaded the country back in February.

I'm sorry and sincerely repent. I was nervous the moment it happened. I didn't want to kill. But it happened and I do not deny it," he said during Friday's hearing.

A defense lawyer defended Shishimarin's actions saying the soldier "was not aware of what is going on in Ukraine."

Shishimarin and other Russian soldiers "were not aware that actions that will follow will result in mass deaths not only of servicemen, but civilians too," the lawyer said.

"Shishimarin was in a state of stress caused by the combat situation and the pressure from his commander. Analysis of those circumstances allows me to conclude that Shishimarin had no direct intent for the murder," the lawyer continued.

Some background: The soldier pleaded guilty Wednesday to shooting an unarmed 62-year-old civilian in Ukraine’s Sumy region on the fourth day of the war and is facing a life sentence.

Shishimarin told the man's widow on Thursday that he is sorry for killing her husband.

5:09 a.m. ET, May 20, 2022

Firefighters in Ukraine's "nuclear town" protest Russian occupation

From CNN's Julia Kesaieva

A social media video on Friday from the Russian-occupied town of Enerhodar showed a protest by much of the fire department after its chief was detained.

Enerhodar is close to Europe's largest nuclear power plant -- the Zaporizhzhia NPP -- which was taken over by the Russians in early March.

The mayor's office said that fire department employees were protesting against the "occupiers who abducted the chief of fire and rescue unit Vitalii Troyan."

It said the Russians had used force against the protest and that people had been beaten.

A previous protest in early April led to gunfire and explosions during the dispersal of protesters, while at least four people were injured, according to Ukrainian state nuclear power company Energoatom.

4:21 a.m. ET, May 20, 2022

China's demand for Russian coal is making up for Western sanctions

From CNN's Laura He

The Borodinsky opencast coal mine, producing 22 million tonnes per annum, next to the village of Borodino, in the Rybinsk district of the Krasnoyarsk region, Russia on April 19.
The Borodinsky opencast coal mine, producing 22 million tonnes per annum, next to the village of Borodino, in the Rybinsk district of the Krasnoyarsk region, Russia on April 19. (Alexander Manzyuk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

China is buying record amounts of cheap Russian coal, even as Western nations slam Moscow with sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine.

In April, not only did the world's second largest economy buy more coal from Russia than ever before, it also eliminated import tariffs on all types of coal, a move analysts say will mainly benefit Russian suppliers.

China's coal imports from Russia nearly doubled between March and April, reaching 4.42 million metric tons, according to trade data from Refinitiv. Russia has overtaken Australia as China's second biggest supplier since last year and now accounts for 19% of its coal imports, up from the 14% share it had in March.

The booming coal trade boosts both sides. Despite bold pledges to tackle the climate crisis, China is now focused on getting its economy out of a slump and needs coal to fuel power stations and make steel for infrastructure projects. Russia desperately needs new customers for its fossil fuels as they are shunned by the West.

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