May 31, 2022 Russia-Ukraine news

By Helen Regan, Andrew Raine, Jack Guy, Hannah Ryan, Adrienne Vogt, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, June 1, 2022
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3:52 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

More than 23,000 Ukrainians have been authorized to come to the US under new program 

From CNN's Priscilla Alvarez

More than 23,000 Ukrainians have been authorized to come to the United States as part of the Biden administration’s streamlined process for Ukrainian refugees seeking to come to the US, according to the Department of Homeland Security. 

In April, US President Joe Biden announced “Uniting for Ukraine,” a program that provides a pathway for Ukrainians interested in coming to the US for a temporary period. 

The program requires Ukrainians seeking entry to the US to be sponsored by a US citizen or individual, which could include resettlement organizations and non-profit organizations. Applicants must also undergo rigorous security vetting and checks, including biographic and biometric screening, and complete vaccinations and other public health requirements, including receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, to be eligible.  

As of May 31, US Citizenship and Immigration Services has received more than 42,000 requests from applicants agreeing to support Ukrainians, according to DHS. More than 5,800 Ukrainians have arrived in the US under the program. After clearance, Ukrainians have some time to purchase a plane ticket and travel to the US. 

The Biden administration committed to accepting up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.

4:24 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

State Department: US remains concerned about Russian steps to control Ukrainian territory, especially Kherson

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Christian Sierra

Russian servicemen are seen on a roadside in the Kherson region on May 19.
Russian servicemen are seen on a roadside in the Kherson region on May 19. (Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States remains "concerned about steps Russia is taking to attempt to institutionalize control over sovereign Ukrainian territory, particularly in Ukraine's Kherson region," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Tuesday. 

Speaking at a briefing, Price said that "the Kremlin is probably weighing a few approaches, from recognizing a so-called People's Republic, as Russia forcibly did in Donetsk and Luhansk, to an attempted annexation, just as Russia did in Crimea."

"It's a predictable part of the Russian playbook, which is why we are continuing to sound the alarm now, particularly following Russian President Putin's unilateral decree that would fast track the issuance of Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens. Russia used similar tactics in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2019," he said.

"Russia is almost certainly failing to gain legitimacy for proxy governments in newly seized territories in Ukraine, as protests persist, and residents refuse to cooperate," Price added.

He continued: "Russia's initial objectives of controlling large swaths of Ukraine has been nothing short of a complete failure. The Kremlin probably views that forcibly holding Kherson would provide Russia a land bridge to Crimea, as well as gaining some kind of so called victory and attempt to justify Russia — to Russia's domestic audiences — [of] the thousands of lives Putin's war of choice has destroyed. We will continue to spotlight Russia's territorial designs in Ukraine as well as its ongoing aggression, just as we hold to account those who facilitate it, including with additional punitive economic measures."

2:59 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

Ukraine working on "UN-led naval operation” to export agricultural products, foreign minister says  

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy and Sugam Pokharel in London   

Ukraine is working on an “UN-led naval operation” with navies of partnering countries to ensure a safe trade route for exporting its agricultural products, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Tuesday.   

"Ukraine is working on an international UN-led operation with navies of partners ensuring a safe trade route with no security risks," Kuleba wrote on Twitter, without providing any further details on the operation.  

In the tweet, the foreign minister blamed Russia of playing "hunger games with the world by blocking Ukrainian food exports with one hand and trying to shift the blame on Ukraine with the other."   

During a phone call on Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky that Ankara places a “particular importance” on efforts to establish a safe corridor to export Ukrainian agricultural products by sea, according to a Turkish readout of the call.   

As far as Moscow's cooperation is concerned, earlier on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed that if Ukraine clears its coastal waters from mines, Russian naval forces will guarantee the passage of grain ships to the Mediterranean Sea.  

More background: On Friday, Zelensky said that 22 million tons of grain, accounting for nearly half of Ukraine’s grain export supply, is being held up by Russia's blockade of the main export routes through the Black Sea and Azov Sea.    

The Kremlin has repeatedly rejected the accusations that it has blocked grain supplies from Ukraine and has accused the West of actions that have led to this crisis.  

With previous reporting from CNN’s Isil Sariyuce, Anna Chernova and Anastasia Graham-Yooll  

3:59 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

US ambassador to UN: White House "clear from day one" it will only provide defensive weapons to Ukraine

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks to reporters at the United Nations headquarters on May 31.
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks to reporters at the United Nations headquarters on May 31. (Anthony Behar/Sipa USA/AP)

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said US President Joe Biden's administration has been "clear from day one" that they would only provide Ukraine with defensive weapons to fight Russia.

"We're not providing any weapons that will allow the Ukrainians to attack Russia from inside of Ukraine. And President Biden has been very clear on that, that we're not, we're not going to become a party to the war, but we will support Ukraine's efforts to defend its own sovereignty and territorial integrity," she said at a news briefing at the UN.

More context: Biden said Monday that the US "won't send anything that can fire into Russia." Ukrainians have repeatedly called for international partners to send them Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) to fight the war.

CNN reported last week that the Biden administration is preparing to step up the kind of weaponry it is offering Ukraine by sending advanced, long-range rocket systems, multiple officials say. 

3:53 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

Ukrainian official says Russians control "most of Severodonetsk"

From CNN's Tim Lister and Kostan Nechyporenko

Serhiy Hayday, the Head of Luhansk region military administration, says that Russian troops now control most of the city of Severodonetsk — but he has dismissed suggestions that Ukrainian troops in the area will be surrounded. 

"We are constantly communicating," he said. "There is an opportunity to maneuver, so the military is now calmly holding the defense in the positions they occupy now. The city at this stage has 90% of all houses damaged. Of these, 60% are almost impossible to restore. And all the critical infrastructure is completely destroyed."

Hayday said: "Now there is no possibility to leave Severodonetsk. It's very risky and the chances are very small to actually escape [unharmed]. Therefore, there is simply no point in risking people's lives."

Hayday added that the Russian goal was to surround all our troops. Of course, they would like to capture the entire Luhansk region much faster. Or just cut the route "Lysychansk - Bakhmut" or capture Severodonetsk as soon as possible. But they do not manage to capture the whole area."

If Russian forces gain control of Severodonetsk, the neighboring city of Lysychansk will be the only urban area of any size in Luhansk to remain under Ukrainian control. 

2:35 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

Zelensky welcomes new EU sanctions against Russia but calls the delay "unacceptable"  

From CNN's Niamh Kennedy in London  

(Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
(Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday welcomed the new European Union sanctions package against Moscow, but criticized the bloc for the gap of more than 50 days between the fifth and sixth round of sanctions.   

"It's more than 50 days since the fifth package of sanctions, this is unacceptable for us," Zelensky said while addressing a joint new conference alongside Slovakian Prime Minister Zuzana Caputova in Kyiv on Tuesday.  

More on the sanctions: The EU agreed to ban 90% of Russian oil imports by the end of the year, the leaders of the European Council said Monday.

Russian oil delivered by tankers would be banned, while an exemption will be made for the southern segment of the Druzhba pipeline, said Ursula von der Leyen — president of the European Commission — in a news conference.

The northern segment of the pipeline serves Poland and Germany — who have agreed to the embargo. The southern part goes to Hungary, Slovakia and Czech republic.

Von der Leyen said an exemption will be made for the southern segment, which accounts for 10% of imports on Russian oil.

1:02 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

Ukrainian official says most rural settlements around Severodonetsk have fallen to Russian forces

From CNN's Tim Lister and Kostan Nechyporenko

A Ukrainian official in Luhansk region has acknowledged that most rural settlements around the city of Severodonetsk have now fallen to the Russians.

"At the moment, the situation is such that almost all rural settlements around Severodonetsk are now not under our control. The home front remains just the city of Lysychansk," Roman Vlasenko, head of the Severodonetsk district administration, told Ukrainian television.

Lysychansk is just across the Donets river from Severodonetsk, but it's unclear how many bridges are still intact. 

Vlasenko's remarks suggest that the routes available for any withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Severodonetsk are narrowing. Resupply lines from the town of Bakhmut, which is also under frequent artillery attack, are tenuous, with persistent shelling. 

Evacuation of civilians from Severodonetsk has been suspended. 

Serhiy Hayday, the head of Luhansk's regional administration, said that a Russian air strike in Severodonetsk had hit a tank of nitric acid at a chemical plant and warned people in the city to stay in shelters. 

An officer in the Luhansk People's Militia, which supports Russian forces, says that Ukrainian forces are using bomb shelters and the city's industrial zone — a complex of heavy manufacturing plants — to resist.

Andrey Marochko, a lieutenant colonel in the militia, told Russian media that the Ukrainians are also using higher ground across the river to shell the militia.

"Nearby is the city of Lysychansk [which] is located on a hill and it is from there that the armed formations of Ukraine are firing at the city of Severodonetsk," he said.

Marochko claimed that the Ukrainians' main supply route from Bakhmut had been cut. "We control almost all logistics, but the enemy is trying in a roundabout way to supply this settlement by moving between forests on dirt roads."

The Ukrainian side has acknowledged that it has become more difficult to use the main highway from Bakhmut because of constant shelling, and that it is using other ways of reaching the cities at the frontlines.

12:49 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

Jailed Kremlin critic Navalny says he may face up to 15 years in prison on new charges

From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova  

Alexey Navalny is seen on the screen during his legal appeal, in Moscow's City Court, on May 24.
Alexey Navalny is seen on the screen during his legal appeal, in Moscow's City Court, on May 24. (Getty Images)

Jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny said Tuesday that he might face up to another 15 years in prison if found guilty of new charges for “creating an extremist organization.”  

“It turns out that I created an extremist group to incite hatred towards officials and oligarchs,” the Russian opposition leader said in an Instagram post.  

“For this, they are supposed to add another up to 15 years,” he said.  

In March, Navalny was sentenced to nine years in a maximum-security jail, after being convicted on fraud charges by the Lefortovo court in Moscow over allegations that he stole from his Anti-Corruption Foundation. The sentencing came while he was already serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence in a detention center east of the Russian capital after being arrested in February 2021 for violating probation terms.  

12:36 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

Pro-Russian official says operation in Severodonetsk "not as quick as we'd like"

From CNN's Tim Lister and Julia Presniakova

The leader of the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic (LPR), Leonid Pasechnik, says that the Russian operation to seize the city of Severodonetsk "is not going as fast as we would like."

Quoted by the Russian news agency TASS, Pasechnik said the "liberation of the city is complicated by the defense in depth of the Armed Forces of Ukraine."

He said one-third of the city was now under the control of Russian and LPR forces.

"First of all, we want to preserve the city's infrastructure as much as possible," Pasechnik said — although Russian bombardment of Severodonetsk has been responsible for much of the destruction.

Pasechnik alleged that the goals of the Ukrainian side are "opposite, so their tactics of hiding behind the civilian population has been actively used in Severodonetsk since the beginning of the military operation." 

Both sides report heavy fighting in the city itself, with several Ukrainian officials confirming that part of it is under Russian control.