May 24, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Sophie Tanno, Hannah Strange, Adrienne Vogt, Leinz Vales, Maureen Chowdhury and Elise Hammond, CNN

Updated 12:16 a.m. ET, May 25, 2023
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6:20 a.m. ET, May 24, 2023

"Highly organized, highly trained" Ukrainian army is one of the world's "strongest," Wagner chief says

From CNN's Mariya Knight

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russian mercenary group Wagner, claimed Tuesday that his men are the strongest fighters but acknowledged the Ukrainian army has also put up a fierce fight, particularly in the eastern city of Bakhmut.

In an interview with pro-Moscow blogger Konstantin Dolgov, Prigozhin said the Ukrainians are “highly organized, highly trained and their intelligence is on the highest level, they can operate any military system with equal success, a Soviet or a NATO one."

“Now I can judge it according to my own experience, I know how different countries fight [..] today Wagner PMC is the best army in the world, and after it of course I have to say it should be Russian army in order to be politically correct, but I believe Ukrainians today are one of the strongest armies in the world,” Prigozhin said.

Over the weekend, Wagner claimed it had taken all the territories they had planned to and would leave the front line in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, leaving the fighting to the Russian Defense Ministry.

Prigozhin has criticized Russia's military leadership several times in the past, including earlier this month when he blamed Russian defense chiefs for "tens of thousands" of Wagner casualties because they didn't have enough ammunition.

In the interview, Prigozhin said more than 10,000 Wagner troops had died in the battle for Bakhmut. And he admitted that Russia hadn't achieved much success in its goal of “demilitarizing Ukraine.” 

“In the beginning of the special military operation they (Ukrainians) had, say 500 tanks and now they have 5,000 tanks, and if only 20,000 people knew how to fight then, right now there are 400,000 people who know how to fight. So how did we demilitarize it (Ukraine)? It looks like we did the other way around, we militarized it,” he told Dolgov.

Attacks in Russia: Separately, when asked about cross-border incursions in Belgorod claimed by anti-Putin Russians this week, Prigozhin said: “Russian Volunteer Corps groups are shamelessly entering Belgorod region,” and Russian defense forces are “absolutely not ready to resist them in any shape or form.”

11:41 p.m. ET, May 23, 2023

Bakhmut's name will be changed, Russia-backed official says during visit

From CNN’s Yulia Kesaieva in Kyiv

Denis Pushilin speaks to journalists in Donetsk on July 13, 2022.
Denis Pushilin speaks to journalists in Donetsk on July 13, 2022. Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

The acting head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic visited the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut on Tuesday, saying it would now be known by its former Soviet name "Artemovsk."

“Bakhmut had the misfortune to be Ukrainian. Now it’s not Ukraine, it’s Russia. And it’s not Bakhmut — it’s Artemovsk,” Denis Pushilin said in a video posted on Telegram.

The video showed Pushilin walking the streets of the heavily damaged city in military uniform and putting up the flag of the Donetsk People's Republic on a building.

In the video, he also claimed that the capture of Bakhmut would open up a route for Russian forces to make further gains in Ukraine. 

Pushilin vowed that the “city will be renewed,” promising new homes, workplaces and schools.

8:52 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. 
8:51 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."

In a Telegram post Tuesday, the Freedom for Russia Legion called the attack in the Belgorod region a "peacekeeping operation." 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 Belgorod.

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.”