May 21, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Jessie Yeung, Hannah Ryan, Luke McGee, Adrienne Vogt and Joe Ruiz, CNN

Updated 0413 GMT (1213 HKT) May 22, 2022
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10:37 p.m. ET, May 20, 2022

Russia claims it has control of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. Here's why that matters

Russia on Friday claimed its troops have "completely liberated" the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol — the final holdout of Ukrainian resistance in the otherwise Russian-occupied southern city.

CNN cannot independently verify that all Ukrainian troops have left the steel plant.

Ukraine is yet to confirm Russia's claims, which, if true, would mark a symbolic military victory for Moscow.

Here's what you need to know:

The siege of Mariupol: The strategically important port city was one of the first to come under Russian attack after Moscow's invasion began on Feb. 24. By early March, it had been surrounded by Russian forces, leaving residents facing dire shortages of food and water — and constant bombardment that hit a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians were sheltering.

The plant: By mid-April, most of the last Ukrainian defenders were fighting to hold Russian forces back from the Azovstal steel plant — which had also become a shelter for as many as 1,000 civilians, including some seriously injured who were stranded without medical care.

In late April, Russia claimed it had achieved the "liberation" of Mariupol — which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denied, saying soldiers were still resisting in the city.

Evacuation attempts: Evacuations of civilians from Azovstal began on May 1. On May 16, Ukraine's military said its forces had completed their "combat mission" at the steel plant, with hundreds of soldiers evacuated from the facility.

Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers evacuated from the plant were taken to a pre-trial detention center, while the severely injured were receiving medical treatment, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.

Ukraine said it expects to carry out an exchange of Russian prisoners of war for the severely injured soldiers.

The situation on the ground: If true, Russia's claim on Friday would suggest the entire city of Mariupol has fallen to Russian control after nearly three months of brutal fighting.

A spokesperson from the Russian Defense Ministry claimed the “last group of 531 militants surrendered" in the plant. Earlier, the Ukrainian commander of the Azov regiment had issued an order for soldiers to preserve their "life and health ... and stop defending the city."

Videos posted online appear to show the remaining Azov fighters walking out of the steel plant. CNN cannot independently verify the number of fighters left in the plant.

Russian gains: If confirmed, the fall of the Azovstal steel plant means Russian forces are in full control of Mariupol, paving the way for them to establish a land corridor between Russia and the annexed territory of Crimea.

The symbolic victory would also secure a key port on the Sea of Azov for Russia and release Russian troops to fight on the front lines of the war in the Donbas region.

9:08 p.m. ET, May 20, 2022

Russia claims it has "completely liberated" the besieged Azovstal plant in Mariupol

From CNN’s Darya Tarasova and Pierre Meilhan

An aerial view of damaged residential buildings and the Azovstal steel plant in the background in the port city of Mariupol, on Wednesday, May 18.
An aerial view of damaged residential buildings and the Azovstal steel plant in the background in the port city of Mariupol, on Wednesday, May 18. (Andrey Borodulin/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia claimed Friday that its troops have “completely liberated” the besieged Azovstal steel plant in the southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. 

In a statement, Russian Ministry of Defense spokesperson Major General Igor Konashenkov said that the “last group of 531 militants surrendered,” referring to the Ukrainian fighters who for several weeks had been resisting the Russian assault on the plant.

Earlier, the Ukrainian commander of the Azov Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Denis Prokopenko, gave the order to stop defending the city of Mariupol and issued a short video message from inside the Azovstal steel plant saying that the top military leadership had "issued an order to preserve the garrison soldiers' life and health and stop defending the city."

Konashenkov said the Azov Regiment commander “was taken out of the territory of the plant in a special armored car.”

New video posted online appears to show the remaining Azov fighters walking out of the steel plant. 

CNN cannot independently verify that all Ukrainian troops have vacated the steel plant.

9:03 p.m. ET, May 20, 2022

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

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. Although intelligence officials believe Putin is keenly sensitive to small shifts in public opinion, his ability to crack down on protests and control the media still helps insulate him against any significant popular uprising — leaving him free to prosecute the war on his own terms.

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8:56 p.m. ET, May 20, 2022

US likely to keep 100,000 troops in Europe for foreseeable future in face of Russian threat, US officials say

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman and Barbara Starr

The US is expected to keep 100,000 troops stationed in Europe for the foreseeable future unless Russia escalates and threatens Sweden and Finland or NATO members, according to multiple US officials.

The numbers could temporarily increase if NATO carries out more military exercises in the region, and the US could add additional bases in Europe if the security environment changes, the officials added.

The plans are being considered following Thursday's meeting of NATO's military chiefs in Brussels, the officials said. The military chiefs are making the recommendations to a NATO defense ministers meeting planned for June, and NATO leaders including President Joe Biden will meet in Madrid at the end of that month.

The US increased its overall force posture in Europe from about 60,000 troops before Russia's invasion of Ukraine to about 100,000 now, adding troops and military assets to countries along Europe's eastern flank to support NATO and to further deter Russia. The US contributed thousands of troops to NATO's Response Force, which was activated for the first time in NATO's history earlier this spring.

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