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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7:14 a.m. ET, May 21, 2022

It's 2 p.m. in Kyiv. Here's what you need to know

Smoke rises above the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 20.
Smoke rises above the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 20. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

After nearly three months of brutal fighting in the besieged port city of Mariupol, Russia says it has taken control of the Azovstal steel plant. Meanwhile, Russia has turned off its natural gas supplies to Finland after the country said it wants to join NATO, and at least six people have been killed in Russian attacks on the city of Severodonetsk, local officials say.

Here are the latest developments:

  • Russia claims steel plant control: For weeks, the Azovstal steel plant has been the last holdout of Ukrainian resistance in the otherwise Russian-occupied city of Mariupol. On Friday, Russia claimed the last Ukrainian fighters had surrendered — which, if true, marks a symbolic military victory for Moscow. Ukraine has not yet confirmed this, and CNN is unable to independently verify the claim. It comes after a Ukrainian commander at Azovstal ordered soldiers to preserve their lives and stop their defense of the city. Meanwhile, Ukrainian families anxiously wait to hear from loved ones leaving Azovstal.
  • Severodonetsk deaths: At least six people have been killed in Russian attacks on the city of Severodonetsk in Ukraine’s Luhansk region in the past day, the head of the regional military administration said Saturday. The dead include two people sheltering in a school basement.
  • Evacuations blocked: Russian forces continue to prevent people from evacuating the Kherson region into Ukrainian-controlled territory, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Saturday, accusing Russia of "terror tactics." Villages there are on the verge of a humanitarian crisis, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said. 
  • Russia turns off the tap: Russia halted natural gas exports to Finland on Saturday, according to a statement from Finnish state-owned energy firm Gasum. Russian state media outlet TASS confirmed the export halt, citing "non-payment" as the reason for Russian firm Gazprom’s decision to cut supplies. Gazprom has continued to demand European countries pay for Russian gas in rubles.
  • US aid to Ukraine: US President Joe Biden has signed a $40 billion Ukraine aid bill, a White House official has confirmed. The bill was flown to Seoul after the Senate passed it in the hours after Biden departed Washington for his trip. Biden is in South Korea for his first Asia trip as President this weekend, and will head to Tokyo on Sunday.
  • American troops in Europe: 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.
7:16 a.m. ET, May 21, 2022

Biden signs $40 billion aid package to Ukraine while in Seoul

From CNN's Kaitlan Collins

US President Joe Biden speaks during a press conference in Seoul, South Korea, on May 21.
US President Joe Biden speaks during a press conference in Seoul, South Korea, on May 21. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Joe Biden has signed the massive $40 billion aid package to Ukraine, a White House official has confirmed.

The bill was flown to Seoul after the Senate passed it in the hours after Biden departed Washington for his trip. 

Biden is currently attending a state dinner with the South Korean president. He signed the aid package off-camera earlier Saturday.

8:16 a.m. ET, May 21, 2022

"Lots of blood": Civilians describe dangerous journeys to escape Russian-held territory

From CNN's Tim Lister and Sanyo Fylyppov in Lviv

As thousands of Ukrainians continue to flee Russian-occupied parts of southern Ukraine, they run a gauntlet of harassment by Russian troops, sometimes coming under fire.

More than a dozen people have spoken to CNN at length about their harrowing journeys out of the Kherson region, which has been under Russian control since the beginning of the invasion in late February. They also tell of the unexplained disappearances at night, the climate of fear and the acute shortages that led them to flee.

Ukrainian officials said Friday that the Russians have now blocked exits from Kherson to areas controlled by the Ukrainian government and are trying to send everyone who wants to leave to Crimea.

They say the Russians have intensified patrols and increased the number of checkpoints.

Several people have been killed and many more injured when their convoys became stranded in what's known as the "gray zone" between Russian and Ukrainian lines.

At least two convoys were marooned for days around Davydiv Brid, a village set in rolling farmland where the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia meet.

One column was fired on a week ago: A man was killed and several people injured. This week, at least three people were killed and many more injured in the village when a convoy of about 100 civilian vehicles was fired on, according to witnesses.

Read more here:

5:28 a.m. ET, May 21, 2022

Kherson evacuations still blocked, Ukrainians say, warning of deepening humanitarian crisis

From CNN's Maria Kostenko in Chernivtsi and Olga Voitovych in Kyiv

A Russian military truck painted with the letter Z travels on a road in the Kherson region on May 19.
A Russian military truck painted with the letter Z travels on a road in the Kherson region on May 19. (Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian forces continue to prevent people from evacuating the Kherson region into Ukrainian-controlled territory, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Saturday, accusing Russia of "terror tactics."

Villages there are on the verge of a humanitarian crisis, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said Saturday. 

Kherson has been occupied by the Russians since early in the invasion of Ukraine, and Russians have been allowing Ukrainians who want to flee only to go to Crimea, which Russia occupied and annexed eight years ago. 

Ukrainians in the region have told CNN about critical shortages of medicines, and Russian harassment, disappearances and violence against people who have remained.

Convoys of cars trying to leave the area have been blocked for days at a time and sometimes fired upon.

The deputy head of the Kherson regional council, Yurii Sobolevskyi, said Saturday the Russian occupiers’ "organizational incompetence and criminal actions … are driving the Kherson region into a deeper humanitarian crisis."

He said Ukrainian local governments were refusing "to collaborate with the occupiers," which was creating a leadership vacuum.

The Russians trying to govern the occupied territories "do not know how to solve the problems of communities; their interests are limited to 'collecting taxes' and redistributing property and other assets," Sobolevskyi charged.

4:43 a.m. ET, May 21, 2022

At least six killed in Russian attacks on the Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk, says Luhansk regional official

From CNN's Yulia Kesaieva in Kyiv

At least six people have been killed in Russian attacks on the city of Severodonetsk in Ukraine’s Luhansk region in the past day, the head of the regional military administration said Saturday.

The dead include two people sheltering in a school basement, Serhiy Hayday said, adding that three people had also been wounded when Russians fired on the school.

"Two people died on the spot, three more were hospitalized. Two killed and one wounded are members of the same family," Hayday said in a statement on Telegram.

Residents of Severodonetsk had been hiding since the beginning of the war, according to Hayday.

Two women were killed by Russian shelling in Lysychansk and Privillia, and a man and a woman died near their house in Severodonetsk, he said, without specifying how they died.

The Russians "have thrown all their forces and efforts into the assault on Severodonetsk and cutting off the Lysychansk-Bakhmut route, so that we can’t evacuate people, deliver the humanitarian aid or deliver any supplies or ammunition to our defenders," the official added.

Luhansk is one of two regions of Ukraine that has been partly controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014, along with Donetsk. The latest phase of the Russian invasion includes attempts to take full control of the regions.

"Fighting is currently taking place on the outskirts of Severodonetsk," Hayday said, asserting that Ukrainian forces had repulsed 11 enemy attacks. He said Ukrainian defenders had destroyed Russian tanks, artillery systems and combat vehicles in the fighting, and shot down two Russian drones.

A cooling tower at the Azot nitrogen ammonia plant in Severodonetsk caught fire during a Russian attack, Hayday said, but the fire was extinguished and did not spread.

He said about 1,000 people were in the plant’s bomb shelters, and said authorities have tried to provide these people with everything needed: Generators, water and humanitarian aid.

"Thank God, there are not many chemical substances there, as Azot was not working to its full capacity, as it used to during Soviet times. But anyway there are the remnants of chemicals, which are hazardous and highly explosive," he warned.

3:04 a.m. ET, May 21, 2022

"From one hell to another": Ukrainians hear from loved ones leaving Azovstal

An APC from the Donetsk People's Republic militia accompanies buses with Ukrainian servicemen to the penal colony in Olenivka after they left the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine on Friday May 20.
An APC from the Donetsk People's Republic militia accompanies buses with Ukrainian servicemen to the penal colony in Olenivka after they left the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine on Friday May 20. (AP)

For weeks, Ukrainian fighters inside the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol have fought off Russian advances, allowing civilians inside to evacuate during rare breaks in the near-constant bombardment.

On Friday, Russia claimed the final defenders inside had surrendered — placing the sprawling steelworks, and the city, under Russian control. Ukraine has not confirmed this claim, and CNN cannot independently verify the number of Ukrainian forces left inside the plant.

But videos posted online appear to show the remaining fighters walking out of the steelworks — a day after a Ukrainian commander inside issued a video message ordering soldiers to preserve their lives and end their defense of Mariupol.

Those evacuees are now prisoners of war in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic — and some of their families are finally beginning to hear news of their loved ones.

"My husband wrote me two days ago. The situation is really hard and horrible," said Natalia Zarytska, whose husband was among the fighters in Azovstal.

"My husband is on the way from one hell to another hell."

Some context: Mariupol has been under siege for almost three months, with much of the southern port city under Russian occupation since mid-April. The last Ukrainian fighters have been sheltering inside the steelworks since then, alongside up to 1,000 civilians fleeing the fighting. Evacuations for civilians began on May 1.

2:22 a.m. ET, May 21, 2022

Finland's state energy company says Russia has stopped supplying it with natural gas

From CNN's Teele Rebane

A general view of the Gasum plant in Raikkola, Imatra, Finland on May 12.
A general view of the Gasum plant in Raikkola, Imatra, Finland on May 12. (Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia halted natural gas exports to Finland on Saturday, according to a statement from Finnish state-owned energy firm Gasum.

“It is highly regrettable that natural gas supplies under our supply contract will now be halted,” Gasum CEO Mika Wiljanen said.

The company had been preparing for such a situation and there would be no disruptions to its transmissions network, or gas supply in the coming months, he added.

Gasum will revert to gas supplies from other sources to service its filling stations, the statement said. 

Russian state media outlet TASS confirmed the export halt, citing “non-payment” as the reason for Russian firm Gazprom’s decision to cut supplies.

Russian energy in Europe: Gazprom has continued to demand European countries pay for Russian gas in rubles, after Russian President Vladimir Putin said in March that “unfriendly” foreign nations would have their supplies cut if they didn't make the currency switch.

In a statement Tuesday, Gasum rejected the proposed rubles payment scheme and said it would take Gazprom to arbitration over the issue.

NATO bid: Finland on Sunday formally announced its intention to join NATO, ditching decades of neutrality and ignoring Russian threats of possible retaliation in a bid to strengthen its security following the onset of the war in Ukraine.

Finland relied on Russia for nearly 68% of its natural gas consumption in 2020, according to the International Energy Agency.

But Russia’s gas exports account for just 3% of the Nordic nation’s total energy mix — which includes energy generated from biofuels and nuclear sources — according to data from Eurostat and the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Gas.

12:00 a.m. ET, May 21, 2022

It's 7 a.m. in Kyiv. Here's what you need to know

Russia claims it has taken control of the Azovstal steel plant in the besieged port city of Mariupol. Meanwhile, heavy fighting continues in eastern Ukraine, with Russian strikes hitting civilian structures.

Here are the latest developments:

  • Russia claims steel plant control: For weeks, the Azovstal steel plant has been the last holdout of Ukrainian resistance in the otherwise Russian-occupied city of Mariupol. On Friday, Russia claimed the last Ukrainian fighters had surrendered — which, if true, marks a symbolic military victory for Moscow. Ukraine has not yet confirmed this, and CNN is unable to independently verify the claim. It comes after a Ukrainian commander at Azovstal ordered solders to preserve their lives and stop their defense of the city.
  • Cultural center destroyed: A Russian missile destroyed a cultural building in the eastern city of Lozova on Friday, injuring seven people, including an 11-year-old child. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the strike "absolute evil, absolute stupidity."
  • US aid to Ukraine: A $40 billion Ukraine aid bill, which would fund military and humanitarian aid, is being flown to South Korea for US President Joe Biden's signature, according to a National Security Council spokesperson. Biden is in South Korea for his first Asia trip as president this weekend, and will head to Tokyo on Sunday.
  • American troops in Europe: 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.
  • German tanks and gas: A German defense ministry spokesperson confirmed that Germany will deliver the first 15 Gepard anti-aircraft tanks to Ukraine in July. Meanwhile, Germany also agreed on an energy partnership with Qatar — a key step to weaning the country off Russian energy supplies.
  • Chernihiv strike: A village in the Chernihiv region, north of Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, was hit by Russian missiles on Thursday, leaving many dead. Zelensky condemned it as "a deliberate and criminal attempt to kill as many Ukrainians as possible."
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.