May 23, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Aditi Sangal, Andrew Raine, Amy Woodyatt, Hafsa Khalil, Ed Upright and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 12:27 a.m. ET, May 24, 2022
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1:29 p.m. ET, May 23, 2022

US troops based in European area of operations increased 30% compared to before Ukraine war, US general says

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

There are currently about 102,000 US troops based in the European area of operations, which is a 30% increase from the number of US troops stationed in the European area of operations before the war in Ukraine began, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a news conference at the Pentagon after the conclusion of the second Ukraine Contact Group meeting on Monday. 

“The United States military had about 78,000 in EUCOM, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Space Force. In a few short months, we bolstered that by over 30%. So this morning, we've got roughly speaking 102,000 US troops in the EUCOM area of operations in many, many countries,” Milley said.

The US has increased its troop presence on the ground, at sea and by air since the war in Ukraine began, Milley added. 

“At sea, we have over 15,000 sailors in the Med and the Baltics, on 24 surface combatants and force subs, up from six surface combatants back in the fall,” Milley said. “In the air, we have currently 12 fighter squadrons and two Combat Aviation brigades, and on the ground we have two corps, two divisions, and six Brigade Combat Teams, along with a variety of enablers.”

CNN reported last week that the US is expected to keep 100,000 troops stationed in Europe for the foreseeable future.

1:14 p.m. ET, May 23, 2022

US defense secretary: 20 countries "announced new security assistance packages" after Ukraine meeting

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin gives opening remarks accompanied by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on Monday, May 23.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin gives opening remarks accompanied by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on Monday, May 23. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Denmark has agreed to provide Ukraine with a Harpoon launcher and missiles to “help Ukraine defend its coast,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said at the conclusion of the second Ukraine Contact Group meeting hosted by Austin on Monday. The second contact group meeting was held virtually. 

The Czech Republic also agreed to send “substantial support” to Ukraine including “a recent donation of attack helicopters, tanks and rocket systems,” Austin said at a press conference at the conclusion of the meeting.

Overall, 20 countries “announced new security assistance packages,” after the meeting, Austin said, including “donating critically needed artillery ammunition, coastal defense systems and tanks and other armored vehicles.”

“Others came forward with new commitments for training Ukraine’s forces and sustaining its military systems,” Austin added.

A total of 47 countries participated in the contact group’s second meeting, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said.

Secretary Austin will host the third meeting of the Ukraine Contact Group in person in Brussels on June 15, Austin said at the conclusion of the second virtual meeting of the contact group Monday. 

“I will convene the Contact Group for our third meeting next month and will gather in person this time, on June 15, in the margins of the NATO defense ministerial in Brussels,” Austin said. “Of course, it won't be a NATO event, but we want to keep up the, up, keep up the tempo of these meetings and I wanted to use my travel to Europe to ensure that we're building on our momentum.”

12:24 p.m. ET, May 23, 2022

Ukrainian refugees can exchange hryvnia for euros in Germany

From CNN's Inke Kappeler in Berlin

Banknotes worth 200 hryvnia each are seen in this photo illustration.
Banknotes worth 200 hryvnia each are seen in this photo illustration. (Mykola Tys/SOPA Images/Sipa USA/AP)

Ukrainian refugees in Germany will be able to exchange banknotes of their currency — the Ukrainian hryvnia — into euros from Tuesday without exchange rates, as agreed by the German finance ministry, German Federal Bank, the German banking industry and the National Bank of Ukraine.

"Refugees can exchange a total amount of up to 10,000 hryvnia into euros at participating German banks and savings banks,“ the German finance ministry said Monday in a press release.

"The exchange into euro will be carried out at the exchange rate announced on the Bundesbank's website. The exchange is recorded in an online application provided by the European Central Bank to ensure that the individual maximum exchange amount is not exceeded. In this process, the identity of each refugee of legal age who wishes to participate in the exchange is recorded and verified. The documents accepted are those used for opening a basic account by refugees from the Ukrainian war zone. The requirements of data protection will be respected,“ the ministry continued.

Germany will cover for exchange losses, it noted.

10:41 a.m. ET, May 23, 2022

Hear the moment missiles flew overhead during a CNN interview in Ukraine's Zhytomyr region

From CNN's Mariya Knight in Atlanta

At least one person has been killed in a Russian missile attack on Malyn, in the Zhytomyr region, west of Kyiv, according to the Ukrainian military.

Ukraine’s Air Command Center said Russian forces fired "naval-based cruise missiles" from the southeastern direction at infrastructure facilities in Zhytomyr on Sunday.

"So far I can't say anything more specific, except that the information about one victim has already been confirmed. The blow to Malyn is very similar to the one on May 20. There was a fire at the scene, it was extinguished literally just now, closer to 7 o'clock in the evening," said Vitaliy Bunechko, the head of Zhytomyr’s regional military administration.

Bunechko's comments were reported in a Telegram post by Ukraine's Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security.

The center added that its air defense units had destroyed four Russian cruise missiles.

Three missiles were destroyed by aircraft, and one by an anti-aircraft missile unit of the Ukrainian air force, they added.

See moment missiles flew over Zhytomyr during a CNN interview:

10:33 a.m. ET, May 23, 2022

Starbucks closes all its cafes in Russia

From CNN’s Alison Kosik

A Starbucks coffee shop alongside a mural of Georgy Zhukov, a Soviet general and Marshal of the Soviet Union, in Moscow, Russia, on March 27.
A Starbucks coffee shop alongside a mural of Georgy Zhukov, a Soviet general and Marshal of the Soviet Union, in Moscow, Russia, on March 27. (Vlad Karkov/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Coffee giant Starbucks says it has exited Russia and will no longer have a brand presence there, according to a press release on Monday. 

The coffee company says it has been operating in Russia for 15 years and has now closed its 130 licensed cafes in the country. Starbucks joins other companies like McDonald’s and Exxon Mobil in taking its business completely out of Russia. 

Starbucks says it will “support” its nearly 2,000 workers in Russia, including pay for six months and assistance for partners to transition to new opportunities outside of Starbucks. 

This comes after Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said in March that it had suspended all business activity in Russia, including shipment of all Starbucks products. 

9:58 a.m. ET, May 23, 2022

Biden administration is considering sending US Special Operations Forces to protect its embassy in Kyiv

From CNN's Kylie Atwood and Barbra Starr

The United States Embassy to Ukraine stands closed on April 25, in Kyiv, Ukraine.
The United States Embassy to Ukraine stands closed on April 25, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The Biden Administration is in the early stages of potentially sending special operations forces (SOF) into Ukraine for the very limited mission of helping guard the US Embassy in Kyiv, according to several US officials. The idea of using SOF is in very preliminary stages and has not yet been presented to President Joe Biden for a decision, the sources said.

The embassy was re-opened last week after being closed for about three months.

For now, the embassy and its limited number of personnel are protected by State Department diplomatic security officials. The discussion centers around whether an increase in security is needed if the number of personnel increase, and whether SOF is best equipped to fulfill those requirements. 

US Marines typically guard US embassies around the world but in Kyiv, for now, there is a general agreement that the typical Marine Corps embassy guard personnel may not be suited to the uncertain security picture in Ukraine without additional forces, officials say.

The US doesn’t believe Russia would overtly attack the Embassy. But the concern is that Russia air defenses or missiles could inadvertently target the compound and the situation could dramatically escalate the officials say. US officials say Russia has a thorough understanding on an official basis that the US uses military personnel to guard its embassies around the world and any presence should not be viewed as escalatory. Still an introduction of US forces into Ukraine could raise concerns that it could lead to a perception of US escalation since President Biden has been adamant that US ground troops will not fight in Ukraine. 

The concern is if special operations forces go into Ukraine then the US must be able to provide a rapid means of getting them and embassy personnel out of Ukraine in a crisis. Currently the only options are vehicle or rail transport to the border.

For now, there is no appetite at the Pentagon to provide air support such as helicopters or fixed wing transport. If that was done, it could rapidly escalate the US military footprint because of the need to then provide potential rescue and reconnaissance forces if a US pilot was to go down.

The WSJ first reported that special operations forces are being considered for embassy security.

9:55 a.m. ET, May 23, 2022

Convoy of vehicles leaving Russian-held territories blocked, Enerhodar mayor says

From CNN's Maria Kostenko

Dmytro Orlov, the mayor of the southeastern Ukrainian city of Enerhodar, claimed Monday that a column of vehicles leaving Russian-held territory had been blocked by Russian forces. 

"As of now, it is impossible to leave the temporarily occupied territories - from Melitopol and Enerhodar towards Zaporizhzhia," Orlov said in a statement on Telegram. "For unknown reasons, no transport is allowed through the enemy checkpoint in Vasylivka. There is a queue of more than 400 cars."

CNN could not immediately verify Orlov's statement. Orlov said the vehicles were heading on the route from Zaporizhzhia, a Ukrainian government-held city that has been a destination for civilians fleeing Russian-held parts of southeastern Ukraine.

10:17 a.m. ET, May 23, 2022

Putin: Russia "withstanding the impact of sanctions" despite gloomy forecasts

From CNN's Uliana Pavlova and Nathan Hodge

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, meets with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on May 23 in Sochi, Russia.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, meets with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on May 23 in Sochi, Russia. (AFP)

The Russian economy is "withstanding the impact of sanctions," President Vladimir Putin said Monday, despite a gloomy economic outlook for the country following the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

"Despite all the difficulties, the Russian economy is withstanding the impact of the sanctions, and withstanding it quite well," Putin said in a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. "This is according to all the main macroeconomic indicators."

"Yes, it's not easy. Everything that happens requires special attention from the economic bloc of the government. On the whole, these efforts are having a positive effect," he added.

Russia's Central Bank said in late April the Russian economy is expected to shrink by 8 to 10% in 2022, noting a decline in economic activity in March after the imposition of international sanctions on Russia. Earlier the same month, the World Bank predicted that Russian GDP would shrink by 11.2% in 2022.

9:54 a.m. ET, May 23, 2022

US defense secretary holds virtual meeting on Ukraine with more than 40 countries

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin gives opening remarks at a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at the Pentagon, Washington D.C, on May 23.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin gives opening remarks at a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at the Pentagon, Washington D.C, on May 23. (Alex Brandon/AP)

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin welcomed more than 40 countries to the second Ukraine Contact Group meeting, held virtually, on May 23, almost three months to the day since the war in Ukraine began.

Austin thanked the defense ministers from the other 40 nations for attending and highlighted the progress made since the first contact group meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany last month, spotlighting Australia, Canada and the UK for military equipment they have provided to Ukraine since that meeting.

Since last month’s contact group meeting, Australia and Canada “committed to providing M777 Howitzers, and in just four weeks, all those systems have been delivered to the Ukrainians,” Austin said. The UK also “delivered brimstone missiles and a new short-range defense system,” and “many countries have pushed hard to stand up important new training missions, and we’ve watched these efforts make a real difference in real time,” he added. 

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, the deputy commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces and Ukraine’s defense intelligence representative joined the virtual meeting. Four new countries also joined the meeting who were not in attendance at Ramstein last month: Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Ireland and Kosovo. 

Austin said he knows the other defense ministers on the call “understand the threat that Russian aggression poses to European security and to the rules-based international order that keeps us all secure.”

“Ukraine’s cause has rallied the free world. Since Russia’s invasion on the 24th of February more than 40 of our allies and partners from around the globe have stepped up to provide critical security assistance to help Ukraine defend itself, and today we’re honored to have defense leaders from 44 countries with us, as well as representatives from NATO and the EU,” Austin said.

Today’s contact group meeting will “begin with presentations by Ukraine and US military leadership on the situation on the ground,” Laura Cooper, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, said. Session one will “begin with a battlefield update on the current fight, how Ukraine is leveraging international donations, and Ukraine’s immediate combat requirements,” she added. 

Session two of the meeting will focus on “participating ministers” who “will announce progress made on donations,” to Ukraine, and session three will focus “on capabilities and coordination with a review of how we are meeting Ukraine’s priority requirements and overview of the international deconfliction and coordination cell and updates by ministers,” Cooper added.