May 23, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Schams Elwazer, Christian Edwards, Ed Upright, Mike Hayes, Elise Hammond and Leinz Vales, CNN

Updated 12:02 a.m. ET, May 24, 2023
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4:04 p.m. ET, May 23, 2023

Russia says its jets intercepted 2 US Air Force aircraft in Baltic Sea

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova and Haley Britzky

Two US Air Force aircraft were intercepted by Russian jets in the Baltic Sea near the Russian border, the Russian Ministry of Defence said Tuesday. 

The Pentagon, meanwhile, downplayed the incident saying it was a “safe and professional interaction."

“On May 23, 2023, Russian airspace control over the Baltic Sea detected two air targets approaching the State Border of the Russian Federation,” the National Defense Control Center of the Russian Federation said in a statement on Telegram.

“To prevent violation of the state border of the Russian Federation, a Su-27 fighter from the air defense forces of the Baltic Fleet was taken into the air,” it continued. “The crew of the Russian fighter classified the air targets as two US Air Force B-1B strategic bombers and occupied the established air watch zone.”

The Russian MOD said the operation was carried out “in strict accordance with international rules for the use of airspace."

The Pentagon confirmed that there was an “interaction” between two of its B-1 bombers and the Russian jets.

“My understanding is that it was a safe and professional interaction with Russian aircraft. So nothing significant to report on that front,” Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a press briefing Tuesday. 

 

2:41 p.m. ET, May 23, 2023

Anti-Putin Russian group says attacking Belgorod was part of goal to liberate Russia

From CNN’s Yulia Kesaieva, Allegra Goodwin, Josh Pennington and Florence Davey-Attlee

An anti-Putin Russian group, which claimed to have crossed the border from Ukraine and attacked Russia’s Belgorod region, has said its goal is the “complete liberation of Russia."

The Freedom for Russia Legion called the attack in the Belgorod region a "peacekeeping operation" on Telegram Tuesday. It said the goal was to create a "demilitarized zone between Russia and Ukraine, to destroy the security forces that serve the Putin regime and to demonstrate to the people of Russia that it is possible to create pockets of resistance and successfully fight against the Putin regime." 

“These goals of the operation were successfully achieved,” it added.

The Legion, which is aligned with the Ukrainian army, also claimed it had destroyed a motorized rifle company of the Russian Army on Tuesday, destroying armored vehicles. CNN has not verified this claim.

It was not immediately clear whether the Legion claimed to have struck the Russian forces inside Russian or Ukrainian-held territory.

The Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK), a second anti-Putin Russian group that has also claimed to have been involved in cross-border attacks, posted videos to Telegram on Tuesday showing their fighters inside Belgorod region. CNN cannot verify when these videos were filmed but has geolocated them to the Belgorod region.

A caption to a video purporting to show RDK fighters riding a vehicle at a border point said, “The situation on the small but now our own little piece of our homeland is still disturbing, and it wouldn't hurt to clean it up.” 

3:13 p.m. ET, May 23, 2023

US embassy in Moscow "deeply concerned" about Russian court extending journalist's pre-trial detention 

From CNN’s Zahra Ullah and Anna Chernova

A newly installed direction sign "Donetsk People's Republic Square" is seen in front of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, Russia on June 22, 2022.
A newly installed direction sign "Donetsk People's Republic Square" is seen in front of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, Russia on June 22, 2022. Maxim Shemetov/Reuters/File

The US embassy in Moscow said it was “deeply concerned” by a Russian court’s decision on Tuesday to extend the pre-trial detention of American journalist Evan Gershkovich by three months. 

“We are deeply concerned by today’s Russian court decision to prolong the pre-trial detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich by an additional three months.  This follows last week’s denial of the Embassy’s request for a consular visit to Evan Gershkovich, marking the second time Russian authorities have unjustifiably denied consular access in this case,” the embassy said in a statement.   

“The United States strongly objects to Russia’s ongoing denial of consular access to Mr. Gershkovich.  We reiterate that the claims against him are baseless and call for Mr. Gershkovich’s immediate release,” it added. 

The Kremlin has so far not commented on Washington alleging Moscow of denying the embassy’s consular access to Gershkovich. 

When asked by CNN about this topic during a regular briefing with journalists earlier on Tuesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, “No, we are not dealing with this issue.” 

3:48 p.m. ET, May 23, 2023

White House reiterates that US reporter being held in Russia "shouldn't be detained at all"

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Michael Conte

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during a briefing at the White House on May 16, 2023 in Washington, D.C.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during a briefing at the White House on May 16, 2023 in Washington, D.C. Evan Vucci/AP

The White House is reiterating that American journalist Evan Gershkovich “shouldn't be detained at all” following news that the Wall Street Journal reporter’s pre-trial detention in Russia had been extended for three months.

John Kirby of the US National Security Council told CNN’s Kate Bolduan he was learning the news of that extension at that moment, saying, “I don't know if I have an official reaction by the White House on this except to say that he shouldn't be detained at all.”

“Journalism is not a crime. We've said this before. He needs to be released immediately. That is still President Biden's view. It's still the administration's view. And we're still going to work very, very hard to see if we can get him home with his family where he belongs. He should not be detained, certainly not extended,” he said.

The State Department called on Russia to immediately release him and the other detained American, Paul Whelan. Spokesperson Matthew Miller called the claims against Gershkovich baseless.

Kirby said the United States wants consular access to Gershkovich, which the Russians have denied two requests this month. He said these visits are important to talk to Gershkovich directly and see how he's doing.

“It's difficult to know exactly why they're denying it. It could be just, you know, spitefulness over — you know, antipathy towards the United States, antipathy towards the free press, or there could be some sort of legal excuse that they're trying to pin this on," Kirby said.

Miller also acknowledged that Gershkovich’s parents were present in Moscow, but said the US did not help them travel to Russia, as the State Department is advising US citizens not to travel to the country.

“Personally, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to see your child detained overseas, especially to be detained wrongfully, and so I'm certainly not going to criticize any parent for wanting to see their child,” Miller said.

12:13 p.m. ET, May 23, 2023

Counter-terrorism operation in Belgorod is over, regional governor says

From CNN’s Yulia Kesaieva in Kyiv and Uliana Pavlova

The counter-terrorism operation in the Russian border region of Belgorod is over, according to regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov.

“A decision has been made to cancel the legal regime of a counter-terrorist operation on the territory of the Belgorod region,” Gladkov said on Telegram Tuesday.

Earlier, the Belgorod governor said that there had been no new incursions by fighters crossing the Ukrainian border into the Borisovsky district of the Belgorod region.

“Reports are coming from the Borisovsky district: the village of Bogun-Gorodok, the farm Lozovaya Rudka and the village of Tsapovka. According to our information, there was shelling from the Armed Forces of Ukraine, there were [strikes],” he said on Telegram. 

“Some telegram channels are starting to interpret this information as the sabotage and reconnaissance group entry and trying to make people panic. There was no entry. The FSB, the Ministry of Emergency Situations and the Ministry of Defense do not confirm this information. The military is working,” he said.

Gladkov added that one civilian died as a result of cross-border fighting in the Russian region of Belgorod.

“Unfortunately, we have losses. A civilian from the village of Kozinka died at the hands of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Gladkov said on Telegram Tuesday. “Most sincere condolences to all family and friends. I know that his wife is in our hospital with injuries.”

The Russian Ministry of Defense also said the fighters who crossed from Ukraine into Russia’s western Belgorod region on Monday have been pushed back into Ukrainian territory.

Russia repelled the attackers using air strikes, artillery fire and military units, it said, adding: “The remnants of the nationalists were driven back to the territory of Ukraine, where they continued to be hit by fire until they were completely eliminated.”

Remember: On Monday, a group of anti-Putin Russian nationals – who are aligned with the Ukrainian army – claimed responsibility for an attack in Russian’s southwestern region of Belgorod, as Moscow said it was fighting a group of saboteurs there.

In a Telegram post, groups calling themselves the “Freedom for Russia Legion” and “Russian Volunteer Corps” said they had “liberated” a settlement in the Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine.

CNN’s Anna Chernova and Jo Shelley contributed to this post.

12:52 p.m. ET, May 23, 2023

Russian court extends Wall Street Journal reporter's detention by 3 months, state media says

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova

Evan Gershkovich stands inside a defendants' cage before a hearing in Moscow on April 18, 2023.
Evan Gershkovich stands inside a defendants' cage before a hearing in Moscow on April 18, 2023. Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images/File

The Lefortovsky District Court of Moscow on Tuesday extended the pre-trial detention of American journalist Evan Gershkovich for three months to August 30, Russian state agency RIA Novosti reported citing the court. 

"The court granted the investigator's request to extend the measure of restraint in the form of detention until August 30," the court said, according to the state media. 

Gershkovich, who has been designated as wrongfully detained by the US State Department, appeared in court in April to ask that his pre-trial detention be under house arrest rather than in jail. That appeal was denied, and he is being held at Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison.

The Wall Street Journal said it was "deeply disappointed" with the court's decision.

"While we expected there would be no change to Evan’s wrongful detention, we are deeply disappointed. The accusations are demonstrably false, and we continue to demand his immediate release," it said in a statement Tuesday.

CNN's Sharon Braithwaite contributed reporting to this post.

11:07 a.m. ET, May 23, 2023

NATO says training Ukrainian pilots on F-16s does not make it party to conflict

From CNN’s Alex Hardie 

Supporting Ukraine by training pilots on F-16 fighter jets “does not make NATO and NATO allies party to the conflict,” the alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday. 

Speaking to reporters in Brussels ahead of an EU defense ministers meeting, the alliance chief welcomed the decision by several NATO allies to start training Ukrainian pilots on F16 fighter jets.

“This is an important step that partly will enable us to then deliver fighter jets at some stage but also sending a very clear signal that we are there for the long term and that Russia cannot wait us out,” he said.

Stoltenberg continued to say that “the right of self-defense is enshrined in the UN charter. We help Ukraine to uphold that right. That is our right to help them protect UN law, international law, against the war of aggression. That doesn’t make NATO and NATO allies party to the conflict, but we are supporting Ukraine to defend themselves against a war of aggression, a brutal invasion by President Putin.” 

Some background: President Joe Biden informed G7 leaders Friday that the US supports a joint effort with allies and partners to train Ukrainian pilots on fourth generation aircraft, including F-16s, a senior administration official told CNN.

Following Biden's backing of Ukrainian pilots training to fly F-16s, Russia’s deputy foreign minister warned Western countries of “enormous risks” if Ukraine is provided with F-16 fighter jets, Russian state media TASS reported Saturday.

"In any case, this will be taken into account in all our plans, and we have all the necessary means to achieve the set goals," Alexander Grushko said.

CNN's Darya Tarasova and Natasha Bertrand contributed to this post.

10:35 a.m. ET, May 23, 2023

Part of Bakhmut still under Ukrainian control, top national security official says

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio, Frederik Pleitgen, William Bonnett and Svitlana Vlasova

Part of the beleaguered city of Bakhmut remains under Ukrainian control, the country’s national security adviser Oleksiy Danilov told CNN on Tuesday. 

“If they [Russians] believe they have taken Bakhmut, I can say that this is not true. As of today, part of Bakhmut is under our control,” Danilov told CNN Senior International Correspondent Frederik Pleitgen in an exclusive interview on Tuesday. “I can't say that all of it, but part of Bakhmut is still under our fire.”

Danilov went on to defend Kyiv’s decision to hold on to the city for as long as possible.

 “When it came to Bakhmut, these were decisions made at the strategic level. The defense operation was constantly under control at the meetings of the Commander-in-Chief's staff. We understood why we were doing it,” he explained. “In the Bakhmut direction, a large number of Russian soldiers were killed, not only the Wagner troops, but also special forces, airborne troops and representatives of other branches of the Russian army. A huge amount of equipment was destroyed, and they spent a huge amount of ammunition there.”

“It was our strategic defense operation, which was successful for us, given that we held the territory for 10 months, where we were destroying them every day,” he added. “They could not take Bakhmut for 10 months. What can they boast about?”

Some background: Wagner group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed this weekend that his troops had captured “all the territories they promised to capture, to the last square centimeter.” But Ukraine’s deputy defense minister Hanna Maliar said Ukrainian forces still occupy “a small part of the city,” but that fighting had “decreased” on Tuesday.

On the timing of Ukraine's long-awaited counteroffensive, Danilov said President Volodymyr Zelensky will have the final say.

“We are working according to our plan, we have it. We are clearly aware of when, where, how and what should start,” he said. “The final decision is up to the President, meeting of (the Commander-in-Chief's) staff.”

“When the decision is made, Russia will definitely feel it,” he concluded.

10:15 a.m. ET, May 23, 2023

Some Russians want to deal with country's dark side, Ukrainian official says after Belgorod incident

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio, Frederik Pleitgen, William Bonnett and Svitlana Vlasova

Ukraine’s top national security official told CNN that those responsible for the cross border-raid in Belgorod are Russians who want to get rid of the darkness in their country, denying any involvement from Kyiv.

“They are Russians, it is their country and they have the right to be there,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, told CNN's Frederik Pleitgen in an exclusive interview on Tuesday. “There are some Russians who are on the side of the light and who went to deal with the darkness that exists in Russia now.”

Danilov rejected accusations of Ukrainian involvement levied by Moscow against Kyiv and said the incident in Belgorod was solely a Russian matter.

“There are events happening there that are related to a sector that, in our opinion, should be commented on either by the supreme commander-in-chief, i.e. Putin, or by the Defense minister or someone else,” he said. “They are citizens of the Russian Federation.”

“If it was Russian guys who crossed the border, this is a question for the FSB, they have to protect this border, the military has to protect it,” he added. “I emphasize once again, this is a question for the Russians who are there today in the Belgorod region."

Remember: On Monday, Ukraine confirmed that the group behind the incursion was made up of Russian nationals. The attack was carried out by a group that was "part of the defense and security forces" in Ukraine but acting as “independent entities” in Russia, according to Andriy Yusov, a representative of Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency.