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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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.

12:27 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

3 killed in Sloviansk as Russian forces continue missile strikes, Ukraine's presidency says 

From CNN's Tim Lister

Russian forces have continued missile and aerial attacks against targets in the Donetsk region, where the Ukrainian military says there are "battles along the entire front line."

The Ukrainian president's office said Tuesday that "there was an air strike on Sloviansk [overnight]. As a result, at least three people are dead and six were wounded. The school and seven high-rise buildings were damaged. Rescue work is underway, the number of victims and injured is being clarified."

Sloviansk, a major target of the Russian offensive, has seen an uptick in indirect fire from Russian forces using missiles and aerial attacks.

In the neighboring Luhansk region, 90% of which is now under Russian control, the president's office said that "the main efforts of the Russians are now focused on establishing control over Severodonetsk." It said that they were continuing attacks on several neighboring towns and two civilians were killed. 

Ukrainian troops are still in Severodonetsk, but Russian forces control part of the city. Up to 15,000 civilians remain in the city, which is without power and water.

Elsewhere, there were additional Russian attacks across the border into the northern Sumy region by both aircraft and artillery, the presidency said.

12:13 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

German economy minister: Europe’s "strength and determination" suffered during "wrangling" over new sanctions 

From CNN's Inke Kappeler in Berlin  

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said Tuesday that Europe’s “strength and determination has certainly suffered” during the "wrangling" between the European Union member states over the new sanctions against Russia agreed by the bloc on Monday.  

“It's a compromise, and perhaps we live in a time when too many compromises not only cloud but destroy clarity in the end. I’m certainly not happy about that,“ Habeck said during a news conference in Berlin. 

Habeck accused Hungarian leader Viktor Orban of “ruthlessly” persevering his “own interests" during the negotiations of the sixth package of EU sanctions against Moscow.  

The minister said there was a confusion between a short-term perspective of one's own country and a long-term observing of principles which could only be embraced globally.  

“I am irritated, and this is the polite way of putting it — how Viktor Orban can intervene so deeply that you ruthlessly just play poker for your own interests,“ Habeck said.   

The big goal of this time for Europe is to achieve unity as an economic region, the minister stressed. 

 “Europe has to reinvent itself,” he said. 

12:09 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

Why foreigners are now paying a lot more at Hungarian gas stations

From CNN’s Ivana Kottasová in London

A notice stating the Hungarian government's ruling that cars with Hungarian tags may buy fuel at government-capped prices, while cars with foreign number plates will have to pay market prices,  at a gas station in Budapest, Hungary on May 27,
A notice stating the Hungarian government's ruling that cars with Hungarian tags may buy fuel at government-capped prices, while cars with foreign number plates will have to pay market prices, at a gas station in Budapest, Hungary on May 27, (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

The Hungarian government won a major concession from the European Union on Monday, securing a near-total exemption from the bloc’s ban of Russian oil imports.

The exception will help the populist government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban keep prices at Hungarian gas pumps in check – but only for Hungarians.

Starting last Friday, the government introduced a system of dual pricing at gas stations across the country. While the price of petrol is now capped at HUF 480/liter ($1.30 per liter or $4.92 per gallon) for Hungarians, foreign drivers filling up in Hungary are now paying a lot more.

The Hungarian government first imposed price restrictions on fuel and some basic food items in November, in an attempt to soften the impact of rapidly rising prices on voters ahead of a key general election in April.

Blaming “petrol tourism” for the move, the government announced Friday that the lower price will only be available to vehicles with Hungarian license plates.

Prices at pumps in neighboring EU countries have been significantly higher for months, and drivers in some border regions have been taking advantage of the Hungarian policy. Last week, prices were hovering around 1.80 euros ($1.93) per liter in Slovakia, Croatia and Austria, and around 1.60 euros ($1.70) in Romania and Slovenia, according to the European Commission.

Cars wait in line at a gas station in Budapest, Hungary on May 27,  where cars with Hungarian plates may buy fuel at government-capped prices, while cars with foreign number plates pay market prices.
Cars wait in line at a gas station in Budapest, Hungary on May 27, where cars with Hungarian plates may buy fuel at government-capped prices, while cars with foreign number plates pay market prices. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

Gergely Gulyás, who heads the Hungarian prime minister’s office, said in a news conference last week that the fuel freeze “ensures the best prices in Europe.”

“But due to a high level of abuse, starting [Friday], only cars with Hungarian registration plates will be allowed to fill up at gas stations with the reduced price,” he said.

The leaders of the European Council announced on Monday that the European Union had agreed to ban 90% of Russian oil imports by the end of the year as part of a package of sanctions against Moscow over its unprovoked assault on Ukraine.

Orban has refused to support a Russian oil and gas ban, calling the EU "irresponsible" for putting the economies of its members at risk.

Rather than risk Orban vetoing the whole package of sanctions, the EU agreed an exemption would be made for the southern segment of the Druzhba pipeline. The northern segment of the pipeline serves Poland and Germany, which have agreed to the embargo. The southern part goes to Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic.

CNN’s Boglarka Kosztolanyi contributed reporting to this post.

11:44 a.m. ET, May 31, 2022

Danish energy firm Ørsted confirms Gazprom will halt Russian gas supplies beginning tomorrow

From CNN's Robert North

Danish energy firm Ørsted has confirmed that Russian state energy giant Gazprom will halt gas supplies starting on June 1 after Ørsted refused to pay for gas in rubles. 

"At Ørsted, we stand firm in our refusal to pay in rubles, and we’ve been preparing for this scenario, so we still expect to be able to supply gas to our customers,” said Mads Nipper, group president and CEO of the Danish firm.

Ørsted warned on Monday that it could be cut off, adding that preparations to minimize the risk to wider supplies include filling up its gas storage facilities in Germany and Denmark.

“Since there is no gas pipeline going directly from Russia to Denmark, Russia will not be able to directly cut off the gas supplies to Denmark, and it will thus still be possible for Denmark to get gas. However, this means that the gas for Denmark must, to a larger extent, be purchased on the European gas market. We expect this to be possible,” according to the firm.

Around 4% of Denmark’s total energy consumption comes from Russian gas, according to European think tank Bruegel.

Finland, Poland and Bulgaria have already been cut off from Russian gas supplies after refusing to pay in rubles. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in March that "unfriendly" nations would have to pay rubles, rather than the euros or dollars stated in contracts. 

1:36 p.m. ET, May 31, 2022

Video shows Ukrainian helicopters resupplying Azovstal while plant was under siege

From CNN's Tim Lister, Victoria Butenko and Olga Voitovych 

Image from a video that has been released showing Ukrainian helicopters flying supplies into the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.
Image from a video that has been released showing Ukrainian helicopters flying supplies into the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. (Ukrainian Defense Intelligence)

Video has been released of Ukrainian helicopters flying supplies into the Azovstal plant in Mariupol even as it was under siege by Russian forces.

The video was shot aboard a Mi-8 helicopter and shows the aircraft flying low across countryside and then along the Mariupol shore before a brief shot of supplies being offloaded.

A social media channel affiliated with Ukrainian defense intelligence that distributed the video said the missions had been carried out by Ukrainian special forces.

Another channel that published the video said: "This unique special operation was carried out by specialists of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense and the Azov Regiment. 16 Mi-8 military helicopters loaded with the necessary equipment flew to the defenders of Mariupol blocked by Russia on Azovstal."

"There were 7 such missions in total. Each time, helicopters successfully delivered food, drinking water, medicines and ammunition to the defenders of the city to a depth of more than 100 kilometers [from Ukrainian-held areas]," the channel added.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky referred to the previously undisclosed missions on May 20.

"Unfortunately, a large number of people died, our pilots. Absolutely heroic people who knew that it was difficult, that it was almost impossible to fly to Azovstal and bring there medicine, food, water, pick up the bodies of the wounded," he said.

"A lot of things were happening that no one could officially comment. There were no air corridors to Azovstal due to Russia's powerful deployed air defenses," Zelensky said.

The president added that "we lost a lot of pilots" who flew to the plant.

11:52 a.m. ET, May 31, 2022

Russia's economic development at stake through 6th round of EU sanctions, Germany says

From CNN’s Inke Kappeler 

EU's decision on the sixth package of sanctions will affect Russian economic development and prosperity, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said during a press conference Tuesday following an extraordinary European Council meeting.

"The sanctions have a clear objective, to get Russia to end this war and withdraw its troops and come to an agreement with Ukraine on a reasonable and fair peace,“ Scholz said in Brussels.

About 90 percent of oil imports to Europe is covered by the embargo. An exception for pipeline oil being delivered to some countries in Europe enabled a joint agreement, Scholz explained. "This was important because the transitional measures that these countries have to take have not been able to be finalized so quickly,“ he said. 

Germany and Poland are continuing their efforts to become independent of Russian oil by the end of the year, the German chancellor said.

A Europe-wide gas embargo is not yet within reach as many countries will remain dependent on Russian gas much longer than Germany, Scholz said. "Germany is rapidly becoming independent of gas imports by constructing infrastructure to enable gas imports from other countries with ships,“ he said. "Some investments will be made very quickly, so we hope that there will already be significant changes at the turn of the year, but some things will take longer. But one thing is pretty clear from my point of view: Many countries will need longer than Germany." 

The German chancellor blamed Russia for the looming food crisis. "The responsibility clearly lies with Russia and its president,“ Scholz said. 

Germany is working on a weapons exchange with Greece so that the country can send its tanks from former Warsaw treaty to Ukraine which will be replaced German infantry fighting vehicles, Scholz announced.