May 20, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Heather Chen, Andrew Raine, Adrienne Vogt, Matt Meyer and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT) May 21, 2023
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4:19 p.m. ET, May 20, 2023

Biden will meet with Ukraine's Zelensky in Japan on Sunday

From CNN's Betsy Klein

US President Joe Biden is set to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Hiroshima, Japan, Sunday, underscoring US support for Ukraine as top US officials herald a unified Group of Seven summit. 

“We do expect that the president will have a bilateral meeting with President Zelensky,” a senior administration official told reporters, adding that the meeting will be “a little bit after 2 o’clock” p.m. local time (1 a.m. ET).

Biden, the official said, “will continue to reiterate the United States’ firm and resolute support for Ukraine going forward.”  

The official pointed to a “powerful statement of unity” from the G7 countries standing against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at this week’s summit, including sanctions and the announcement of a joint effort to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16 aircraft — efforts that were “spearheaded” by US national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

Asked about the possibility of China playing a role in ending Russia’s war, the official said the US hopes Chinese President Xi Jinping views this week’s summit as a signal of “resolve.” 

“We would hope that President Xi and the (People's Republic of China) extract from what they’ve been seeing here … is that there’s an awful lot of resolve to continue to support Ukraine, as the G7 continues to say, for as long as it takes, and that China could have a meaningful role in helping end this war,” the official said. 

Biden is also expected to have a trilateral meeting with South Korea President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida early Sunday afternoon local time. The official called the relationships a “priority” for Biden. The leaders will discuss security, economics and other topics.

Remember: The G7 comprises the world’s most advanced industrialized democracies: the US, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and Italy. Tokyo has also invited several other rising economic powers and regional players to the meetings.

3:51 p.m. ET, May 20, 2023

Pope entrusts cardinal with Ukraine peace mission

From CNN’s Delia Gallagher and Barbie Latza Nadeau in Rome

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi speaks at the opening of the inter-religious meeting "The Cry of Peace" in Rome on October 23, 2022.
Cardinal Matteo Zuppi speaks at the opening of the inter-religious meeting "The Cry of Peace" in Rome on October 23, 2022. Remo Casilli/Reuters

Pope Francis has entrusted Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, the Archbishop of Bologna and President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, with leading a peace mission to address the war in Ukraine, according to the Holy See press office.

The mission is aimed to contribute "to an easing of tensions in the Ukraine conflict, in the hopes that this can initiate paths of peace, something never abandoned by the Holy Father," Matteo Bruni, the director of the office, told journalists Saturday in the statement.

The statement added that the Vatican is still looking into how and when Zuppi will undertake the mission.

3:51 p.m. ET, May 20, 2023

How the battle for Bakhmut unfolded over the past few months

From CNN's Darya Tarasova, Sugam Pokharel, Thom Poole and Rob Picheta

Ukrainian soldiers fire a self-propelled howitzer towards Russian positions near Bakhmut on March 5.
Ukrainian soldiers fire a self-propelled howitzer towards Russian positions near Bakhmut on March 5. Libkos/AP

Over the early part of 2023, the routes into the eastern city of Bakhmut had gradually come under the control of Russian forces, and the battle for the city turned into an inch-by-inch grind, with Ukrainian forces repelling dozens of assaults each day.

Rather than drive directly toward the city center, Wagner troops sought to encircle the city in a wide arc from the north.

In January, they claimed the nearby town of Soledar, and later took a string of villages and hamlets north of Bakhmut, making Ukraine’s defense of the city increasingly perilous.

But even as Moscow’s troops closed in and most residents fled through dangerous evacuation corridors, a small group of Ukrainian civilians remained in the ruined city. Before the war, around 70,000 people lived in Bakhmut. As of March, it stood at less than 4,000.

The battle has been likened to the kind of fighting seen in World War I. Pictures from the area showed soldiers wading through mud with trees mangled by artillery fire.

Now, after months of brutal fighting, the head of Russian private military group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, claimed Saturday that his forces have taken complete control of the city, while a top Ukrainian defense official said her country's troops were holding on to Bakhmut's westernmost edge.

2:11 p.m. ET, May 20, 2023

In pictures: Ukraine's unsung heroes – the "Iron People"

From CNN's Kyle Almond and Jelle Krings

Dmitrii Prishedko and Victor Bondar operate an evacuation train heading from Pokrovsk, Ukraine, to Lviv, Ukraine.
Dmitrii Prishedko and Victor Bondar operate an evacuation train heading from Pokrovsk, Ukraine, to Lviv, Ukraine. Jelle Krings

The evacuation trains began in the morning, just hours after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Overnight, railway workers became rescue workers. Tens of thousands of refugees were pouring into train stations from Ukraine’s east.

Photojournalist Jelle Krings spent about a week at one station in Lviv, watching those first trains come in.

“That’s when it hit me how courageous these men and women were for going back into the war zone and sacrificing their safety and their opportunity to leave the country in order to help others,” he said.
Railway workers look to repair a stretch of tracks that was damaged by shelling the day before.
Railway workers look to repair a stretch of tracks that was damaged by shelling the day before. Jelle Krings

Since the Russian invasion began, Krings has been documenting these unsung heroes in a photo series he calls Iron People.

“It’s what railway workers have been generally referred to before the war, because it refers to their strength and iron will and, of course, the iron that you recognize on a railway track,” he said. “But it’s also a certain characteristic that people see in these railway workers. After the war, it has become a way to also refer to their courage and stepping up and keeping intact this incredibly important institution.”

Ukraine’s railway system, with nearly 15,000 miles of tracks, is the 12th-largest in the world. It has become an essential lifeline during the war, helping millions of Ukrainians find safety.

“It’s hard, but you have to do your job to get all these people out,” said Viacheslav Anatoliiovych Chumak, who has been working for the railways since 1996. “It’s our duty.”
Inside an evacuation train, families travel in a carriage reserved for children with special needs. They were heading to Chop, a Ukrainian city near the Polish border.
Inside an evacuation train, families travel in a carriage reserved for children with special needs. They were heading to Chop, a Ukrainian city near the Polish border. Jelle Krings

Krings explained that there are two basic ways that the railways have been indispensable for Ukraine in this war.

The first is, of course, the evacuation effort. At least 10 million Ukrainians — almost a quarter of the population — have been forced to flee their homes, the head of the United Nations’ refugee agency said in March. Most of them have been internally displaced; others have found refuge in nearby countries such as Georgia, Poland and Romania.

But the railway system has also made a huge impact on the battlefield, and in different ways, Krings said. There’s the logistical value, transporting massive military equipment to help in the war effort. And then there’s a more subtle benefit.

“Ukraine’s a huge country, and (the railway) is being used for military personnel to be able to travel around and go back to their families between their trips to the front lines,” Krings said. “This has been a huge morale booster."

Ukrainian serviceman Dima and his newly wedded wife, Veronica, are married during Dima’s break from the front line.
Ukrainian serviceman Dima and his newly wedded wife, Veronica, are married during Dima’s break from the front line. Jelle Krings

You can read more here.

1:50 p.m. ET, May 20, 2023

Ukraine’s military says it's still fighting for Bakhmut

From CNN’s Yulia Kesaieva, Andrew Carey and Sugam Pokharel

Ukrainian troops are engaged in heavy fighting with Russian forces in and around the long-contested city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, Kyiv's military said in its daily update Saturday.  

“Heavy fighting for the city of Bakhmut continues. In addition, during the day, the enemy conducted unsuccessful offensive actions in the direction of Bila Hora,” it said, referring to a village to the southwest of Bakhmut. Ukrainian forces have succeeded in regaining small pockets of territory there in the last fortnight.

Competing claims: Earlier Saturday, the chief of the Russian private military group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, claimed his forces have taken complete control of Bakhmut after months of brutal fighting.

CNN could not independently verify Prigozhin’s claim, and Ukrainian officials have disputed it, saying they are still holding territory on the western edge of the city.

6:13 p.m. ET, May 20, 2023

Analysis: If the battle for Bakhmut is over, the city didn't leave either side with much of strategic value

Analysis by CNN's Sam Kiley

Smoke rises from buildings in Bakhmut on April 26.
Smoke rises from buildings in Bakhmut on April 26. Libkos/AP

Senior Ukrainian officers have, for at least the last seven months, questioned the military imperative behind their orders to hold the eastern city of Bakhmut.

Russia's private military company, Wagner, now claims to completely control the city, though Ukraine has partially disputed the report, saying it clings to a portion of the city's western edge.

If the fight for Bakhmut is indeed drawing to a close, it brings an end to a brutal, grinding campaign that dragged on for months.

Every single senior Ukrainian officer I have spoken to since October last year said the city has no strategic value. Some questioned even the morality of continuing to defend it, in the face of intense Russian attacks.

Others recognized the symbolic importance of taking a stand — particularly as it became such a focus of media attention — and a test of political will in Kyiv, where President Volodymyr Zelensky committed his country to an indefinite defense of it.

Once famous for producing the best sparkling wine in Ukraine, Bakhmut is now notorious, and described by fighting men on both sides as the "meat grinder."

Ukrainian forces are now, from a military perspective, likely to be in a stronger position than they were before their withdrawal from the center of the town.

They control significant territory on Bakhmut's northern and southern flanks, and the high ground to the west. Meanwhile, everything in what remains of Bakhmut — and that’s almost nothing — is now a free-fire zone for Ukraine.

Russian attempts to invest it with troops will make Putin's soldiers easy targets for Ukrainian artillery and rocket attacks.

In short, Wagner's declared "victory" in the small Ukrainian city may be pyrrhic — won at too great a cost to be worthwhile.

2:00 p.m. ET, May 20, 2023

Wagner claims to have seized the city of Bakhmut. Here's what else you should know

From CNN staff

According to Wagner, the battle for the city of Bakhmut has come to an end, as the Russian private military group claims its forces have taken complete control of the long-contested city in eastern Ukraine.

CNN could not independently verify Wagner's claim, and a message from a Ukrainian defense official partially disputed it, saying Kyiv's troops still hold a small part of the city.

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed his forces will hand control of Bakhmut to the Russian military on May 25.

The city can be viewed largely as a symbolic target for Moscow, though it also provides important road connections to other parts of the Donetsk region: eastward to the border with Luhansk, northwest to Sloviansk and southwest to Kostiantynivka.

Here's what else you should know in a day of major developments for the war in Ukraine:

G7 summit: G7 members are meeting in Hiroshima, Japan, where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a surprise attendee. The G7 comprises the world’s most advanced industrialized democracies: the US, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and Italy. Tokyo has also invited Australia, South Korea, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, all rising economic powerhouses and key Asian regional players.

At the summit, leaders decided on a plan to counter Moscow and agreed to "support Ukraine for as long as it takes in the face of Russia’s illegal war of aggression." The G7 also called on China to press Russia to "immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw its troops from Ukraine," and stop its military aggression.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also met with Zelensky at the summit, where he assured his country will do “everything we can” to find a resolution to the war in Ukraine. It was the first time the two met since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, which Modi has not outright denounced, despite sending humanitarian aid.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov characterized the decisions made at the G7 summit as cynical ploys to hold back Russia and China.

On the ground: Russia launched another “massive drone attack” at Kyiv during the early morning hours Saturday, marking their 11th airstrike this month, the city's military administration said.

Meanwhile, Russian troops in occupied Mariupol, a city in Ukraine's southeast, are receiving backup after explosions rocked a Russian base there Friday, a local Ukrainian official said.

Military aid: Zelensky thanked the United Kingdom's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak for the leadership he says the UK has shown building an international coalition to help Ukraine procure F-16 fighter jets. Russia's deputy foreign minister denounced the coalition, warning Western countries of “enormous risks for themselves" if Ukraine is provided with F-16 fighter jets, Russian state media TASS reported Saturday.

12:49 p.m. ET, May 20, 2023

Zelensky says Ukraine is coordinating on weapons, air defense and fighter jets with allies after G7 talks

From CNN’s Sugam Pokharel in London and Yulia Kesaieva in Kyiv

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky attends the G7 summit in Hiroshima on Saturday, May 20.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky attends the G7 summit in Hiroshima on Saturday, May 20. Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday that his government is preparing “new joint steps” with its allies in response to Russia’s war. 

“We are coordinating our positions with our partners and preparing new joint steps. Defense: weapons, air defense, fighter jets. We engage as many countries and leaders as possible for the sake of Ukraine. The peace formula. Long-term programs to support Ukraine. Finance and economy,” he said in his daily video speech after holding meetings with several leaders on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan.  

Zelensky said he held separate meetings with leaders of the United Kingdom, Italy, France, India, Germany and the European Commission. 

The Ukrainian president also said he submitted Ukraine’s 10-point peace formula to the participants of the Arab League Summit on Friday. 

"And we will do everything to ensure that the world's involvement in our peace initiative is as high as possible," he added. 

Zelensky mentioned India in particular, saying that he believes the country "will take part in the restoration of the international order based on the rules that are obviously needed by all free nations." 

Zelensky met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday, the first in-person meeting between the two since Russia’s invasion began in February 2022. Modi – who has so far refused to condemn the invasion – said India would do "everything we can" to help end the war.

CNN's Simone McCarthy contributed reporting to this post.

12:47 p.m. ET, May 20, 2023

France’s Macron meets with Zelensky at G7 summit  

From CNN’s Xiaofei Xu in Paris 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 20.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 20. Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

French President Emmanuel Macron met with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, Saturday. 

The French president tweeted a video showing him holding a meeting with Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials. 

Macron can be heard in the video saying it was “a very good idea” that Zelensky went to Saudi Arabia to attend the Arab League summit before coming to the G7 summit.

Zelensky arrived at the Hiroshima G7 summit on Saturday aboard a French government plane.