June 29, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Elizabeth Wolfe, Jason Hanna, Sophie Tanno, Caolán Magee, Ivana Kottasová, Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt, Matt Meyer and Tori B. Powell, CNN

Updated 12:01 a.m. ET, June 30, 2023
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6:47 p.m. ET, June 29, 2023

Biden administration could approve sending controversial cluster munitions to Ukraine soon, officials say

From CNN's Natasha Bertrand

The Biden administration is strongly considering approving the transfer of controversial cluster munition warheads to Ukraine, multiple people familiar with the matter told CNN, as the Ukrainians struggle to make major gains in their weeks-old counteroffensive.   

"These would undoubtedly have a significant battlefield impact," a US official told CNN.

Officials told CNN that a final decision is expected soon from the White House, and that if approved, the weapons could be included in a new military aid package to Ukraine as soon as next month. 

Ukrainian officials have been pushing the US to provide the munitions since last year, arguing that they would provide more ammunition for Western-provided artillery and rocket systems, and help narrow Russia's numerical superiority in artillery. 

But the US had been reluctant to provide them because of the risk they could pose to civilians, and because some key US allies, including the UK, France, and Germany, are signatories to a ban on cluster munitions — weapons that scatter "bomblets" across large areas that can fail to explode on impact and can pose a long-term risk to anyone who encounters them, similar to landmines. 

The Ukrainian counteroffensive launched earlier this month, however, has not made as much progress as US officials hoped it would by this point, with Russian lines of defense proving more well-fortified than anticipated. 

And it is not clear whether the heavy amount of artillery ammunition the Ukrainians have been expending day-to-day is sustainable if the counteroffensive drags on, officials and military analysts said. 

Cluster munitions, which the US has stockpiled in large numbers since phasing them out in 2016, could help fill that gap, officials said. 

Administration officials also believe they have managed to alleviate some allies' concerns about the US transferring the munitions, officials said.

The US official noted that the weapon would not be a new capability for Ukraine. Both the Ukrainians and the Russians have used cluster bombs since Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022, and more recently, Ukrainian forces have begun using Turkish-provided cluster munitions on the battlefield. 

5:16 p.m. ET, June 29, 2023

Ukrainian military calls on civilians to leave Sumy border region

From CNN's Mariya Knight and Josh Pennington

A woman walks a dog past a building destroyed by Russian shelling, in Okhtyrka, Sumy Region,  Ukraine.
A woman walks a dog past a building destroyed by Russian shelling, in Okhtyrka, Sumy Region, Ukraine. Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Future Publishing/Getty Images/FILE

The Ukrainian military has advised residents of the northern Sumy region's border area to leave their homes in light of increased Russian shelling.

Serhiy Naiev, commander of the Joint Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, encouraged residents to evacuate, saying, "The Sumy direction remains the most dangerous in the Northern operational zone."

"The enemy fires with artillery, mortars, multiple rocket launchers. While I was in one of the settlements, I personally convinced an elderly family to leave urgently, because there was imminent danger. I call on all citizens who live in the border areas of Sumy region to leave," Naiev said on Telegram.

Earlier Thursday, the armed forces published images of damage to property in the border area of ​​the Sumy region, saying there is constant shelling from Russian forces.

The Sumy regional military administration said there was no threat of Russian invasion. "We have not observed any attack groups along our border. No enemy offensive actions have been observed," it said.

However, it added, “Russia's shelling of our border has not stopped for a single day. The intensity and number of attacks is only increasing. The shelling is carried out daily, twenty-four hours a day, using various types of weapons — from machine guns and mortars to air strikes.”

The Sumy region lies 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the border with Russia and was one of the first cities to have been attacked as part of the Russian invasion in February 2022. 

5:40 p.m. ET, June 29, 2023

Prigozhin-owned social media network to close

From CNN's Josh Pennington and Mariya Knight

A social network created by one of Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s companies said it will cease operations on Friday.

"The YaRus social network will suspend operations on June 30,” the network said on Telegram.

"After careful analysis of the current situation we have been convinced that this is the only possible solution," it continued.

Prigozhin, who called off his private military fighters' march toward Moscow on Saturday, has a wide variety of media interests. 

YaRus has been a large aggregator of news and social content in Russia and boasted some 70,000 pieces of content per day.

The company operated a popular mobile app and said it had more than 11 million users, though few were actually registered.

It’s unclear what will happen to Prigozhin’s other media interests, which include the RIA/FAN news agency. 

5:40 p.m. ET, June 29, 2023

Russian general is not being held in a Moscow prison, official says

From CNN's Josh Pennington

A Russian official has said that Gen. Sergey Surovikin is not being held in a pre-trial detention center in Moscow, as some independent media and blogs have suggested.

Questions have swirled in recent days around the Russian air force commander's whereabouts and whether he potentially played a role in Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin's short-lived mutiny.

The Public Monitoring Commission has received "a lot" of inquiries from Russian and foreign media outlets asking about reports that Surovikin is in custody, Alexei Melnikov, the commission's executive secretary, said on Telegram Thursday. 

“My response is: He is not in Lefortovo or any other pre-trial detention facility," Melnikov said, referencing the notorious Moscow prison where suspects accused of espionage or other crimes against the state are often held.

"I don't even want to comment on the nonsense about 'an underground detention facility in Serebryany Bor,'" the Russian official added, referencing another apparent rumor.

5:41 p.m. ET, June 29, 2023

Russian Gen. Sergey Surovikin was secret VIP member of Wagner, documents show

From CNN’s Matthew Chance in Moscow 

Gen. Sergei Surovikin is seen in a frame from a video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on November 9, 2022
Gen. Sergei Surovikin is seen in a frame from a video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on November 9, 2022 Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP/FILE

  

Documents shared exclusively with CNN suggest that Russian Gen. Sergey Surovikin was a secret VIP member of the Wagner private military company. 

The documents, obtained by the Russian investigative Dossier Center, showed that Surovikin had a personal registration number with Wagner. Surovikin is listed along with at least 30 other senior Russian military and intelligence officials, who the Dossier Center said are also VIP Wagner members. 

Surovikin has not been seen in public since last Saturday, when he released a video pleading for Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin to stop his insurrection. His whereabouts have since remained unknown.

Surovikin is a decorated commander of the Russian Air Force and became nicknamed “General Armageddon” for his ruthless tactics bombing cities in Syria.

Wagner has not answered CNN’s request for a response. It is unclear what Wagner’s VIP membership entails, including whether there is a financial benefit. 

Surovikin was known to have links with the mercenary group, but the documents raise questions about the closeness of senior members of the Russian military and Wagner. 

During Prigozhin’s short-lived rebellion, Wagner fighters were able to take over the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, facing virtually no resistance from the Russian army.  

8:08 p.m. ET, June 29, 2023

Former US Vice President Pence calls it an "open question" whether Putin is in full command of his military

 Pence speaks with CNN's Erin  Erin Burnett in Kyiv on Thursday, June 29, during a surprise visit to Ukraine. 
 Pence speaks with CNN's Erin Erin Burnett in Kyiv on Thursday, June 29, during a surprise visit to Ukraine.  CNN

It remains to be seen whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has complete control of his troops at this time, former US Vice President Mike Pence said during a visit to Ukraine on Thursday.

Responding to a question from CNN's Erin Burnett, Pence called it an "open question" whether the Russian president has full command of his military.

Pence said the Wagner private military group — which led a stunning, if brief, armed rebellion against Kremlin leadership last weekend — "are understood to be some of the most elite forces in Russia."

"Now they've been dispersed," Pence continued, "they're being invited back into the military."

"But I did hear today that they are decamping in Belarus along with their leader, who's now in exile," the former vice president said. "And, I must just tell you, that we don't know what we don't know about what's happening in Russia. But that's always true about Russia and Vladimir Putin."

Pence said “repelling Russian aggression” is in the United States’ “national interest” as other Republican presidential candidates question the amount of US aid for Ukraine.

“I know there's debate, both in my party and around the country, about American involvement here, but I really believe that the majority of the American people understand that we are the leader of the free world and standing for freedom and supporting those that are fighting for their freedom is always the American cause,” he said. 

The GOP presidential candidate visited Kyiv and three other cities and villages north of the capital city on Thursday. He also met with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and received a briefing from Ukrainian officials on the current security situation in the country, according to one of his advisers.

More context: Prigozhin was last spotted leaving the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don Saturday, after abruptly calling off his troops’ march on Moscow.

He released an audio message Monday, explaining his decision to turn his troops back. The Kremlin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed on Saturday that Prigozhin agreed to leave Russia for Belarus.

Lukashenko said he brokered a deal that would see Prigozhin exiled in Belarus without facing criminal charges. According to Lukashenko, the Wagner chief arrived in Belarus Tuesday. While there are no videos or photos showing Prigozhin in Belarus, satellite imagery of an airbase outside Minsk showed two planes linked to Prigozhin landed there on Tuesday morning.

The full interview with Pence will be broadcast on Out Front with Erin Burnett at 7 p.m. ET

CNN's Ivana Kottasová, Jo Shelley, Veronica Stracqualursi, Anna Chernova and Sophie Tanno contributed to this report.

3:46 p.m. ET, June 29, 2023

NATO should have a plan for Ukraine membership to maintain its credibility, experts say

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

Flags flutter outside the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on April 4
Flags flutter outside the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on April 4 Johanna Geron/Pool/Reuters/FILE

At the upcoming NATO summit, members must discuss a pathway to membership for Ukraine if the US-led alliance wants to maintain its credibility, experts say.

“No one expects for Ukraine to be invited to join NATO at Vilnius,” says Christopher Skaluba, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a non-partisan think tank. But the success of the summit will depend on whether allies find a way to make progress on providing Ukraine with conditions it needs to meet and a timeline for accession, he added.

“It has to be something measurable. Some sort of criteria, timeline, things that Ukraine needs to accomplish,” he said.

Many allies support this step in order to make progress on the 2008 Bucharest declaration, where NATO first welcomed Ukraine’s wish to accede to the alliance, but the lag appears to be in Washington, according to John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine.

“Alliance unity is important. The White House has hidden behind that to push for the least ambitious outcome even though I suspect there’s probably a solid majority of allies now who want something more ambitious than that,” he said.

While Herbst said he hopes NATO will release a joint statement addressing Ukraine’s eventual succession, he is not betting on it.

Skaluba says he worries a lack of consensus on this issue “will begin to signal concern about whether that solidarity we saw behind Ukraine for the last year and a half is in fact a question.”

5:50 p.m. ET, June 29, 2023

Prigozhin’s rebellion may solidify chances of NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s tenure, expert says

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is seen during a press conference at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on Wednesday, June 28.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is seen during a press conference at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on Wednesday, June 28. Yves Herman/Reuters

The political chaos in Russia could strengthen the chances that NATO Secretary-General Jen Stoltenberg may be asked to stay for an additional term, says Christopher Skaluba, director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a non-partisan think tank.

“The stakes are now higher with Russia and political chaos such that keeping a steady hand like Stoltenberg is probably more attractive than it was a week ago,” Skaluba said.

Stoltenberg's tenure extension was already a possibility. CNN had earlier reported that it appears likely that the 31 NATO members will be unable to unite behind a candidate to be the alliance’s next secretary-general and Stoltenberg will be asked to remain in the job for an additional year. The former Norwegian prime minister has already extended his tenure once and has served in the role since 2014.

Although there are a number of prospective candidates, including Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, sources said there is a growing chance that there will not be an agreement on who should take over during what is a critical period for the alliance as the war continues in Ukraine.

Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s insurrection will sharpen the rhetoric as allies debate on further response to Russia, retired US Ambassador John Herbst says.

“Those who are very concerned about Kremlin aggression and they believe strongly in a stronger NATO response and Western support for Ukraine will see this as a sign for more urgent action,” he explained, adding that others who have been hesitant and concerned about Russian escalation and the dangers of instability in Russia “might take the Prigozhin mutiny as one more caution about being too tough on Russia as we support Ukraine.”

Some context: The matter of Ukrainian membership in NATO is one of several issues leaders will tackle when they meet in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius in mid-July. Also up for discussion is the issue of a successor for Stoltenberg and new defense spending commitments.

1:51 p.m. ET, June 29, 2023

After the short-lived mutiny, questions swirl over top Russian commander and Prigozhin

From CNN's Ivana Kottasová, Jo Shelley, Anna Chernova and Sophie Tanno

Sergey Surovikin, left, and Yevgeny Prigozhin
Sergey Surovikin, left, and Yevgeny Prigozhin AP

One is known as “General Armageddon,” the other as “Putin’s chef.” Both have a checkered past and a reputation for brutality. One launched the insurrection, the other reportedly knew about it in advance. And right now, both are nowhere to be found.

The commander of the Russian air force Sergey Surovikin and the Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin have not been seen in public in days as questions swirl about the role Surovikin may have played in Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny.

Kremlin has remained silent on the topic, embarking instead on an aggressive campaign to reassert the authority of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Here’s what we know about the two men in the spotlight.

Why is everyone talking about Surovikin?

Surovikin has been the subject of intense speculation over his role in the mutiny after the New York Times reported on Wednesday that the general “had advance knowledge of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plans to rebel against Russia’s military leadership.” The paper cited US officials who it said were briefed on US intelligence.

Surovikin released a video last Friday, just as the rebellion was starting, appealing to Prigozhin to halt the mutiny soon after it began. The video message made it clear he sided with Putin. But the footage raised more questions than answers about Surovikin’s whereabouts and his state of mind – he appeared unshaven and with a halting delivery, as if reading from a script.

Asked about the New York Times story, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “There will be now a lot of speculation and rumors surrounding these events. I believe this is just another example of it.

On Wednesday, the Russian-language version of the independent Moscow Times cited two anonymous defense sources as saying that Surovikin had been arrested in relation to the failed mutiny. CNN has been unable to independently verify that claim.

A popular blogger going by the name Rybar noted on Wednesday that “Surovikin has not been seen since Saturday” and said nobody knew for certain where he was. “There is a version that he is under interrogation,” he added.

A well-known Russian journalist Alexey Venediktov – former editor of the now-shuttered Echo of Moscow radio station – also claimed Wednesday that Surovikin had not been in contact with his family for three days.

But other Russian commentators suggested the general was not in custody. A former Russian member of Parliament Sergey Markov said on Telegram that Surovikin had attended a meeting in Rostov on Thursday, but did not say how he knew this.

“The rumors about the arrest of Surovikin are dispersing the topic of rebellion in order to promote political instability in Russia,” he said.

Adding further to the speculation, Russian Telegram channel Baza has posted what it says is a brief interview with Surovikin’s daughter, in which she claimed to be in contact with her father and insists that he has not been detained. CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of the recording. The commander of the Russian air force has not been seen in public since overnight on Friday when he issued the video.

And what about Prigozhin? The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that Western officials believe Prigozhin planned to capture Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and top army general Valery Gerasimov. When asked about the report, two European security sources told CNN that while it was likely Prigozhin would have expressed a desire to capture Russian military leaders, there was no assessment as to whether he had a credible plan to do so.

Prigozhin was last spotted leaving the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don Saturday, after abruptly calling off his troops’ march on Moscow.

He released an audio message Monday, explaining his decision to turn his troops back. The Kremlin and the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed on Saturday that Prigozhin agreed to leave Russia for Belarus.

Lukashenko said he brokered a deal that would see Prigozhin exiled in Belarus without facing criminal charges. According to Lukashenko, the Wagner chief arrived in Belarus Tuesday. While there are no videos or photos showing Prigozhin in Belarus, satellite imagery of an airbase outside Minsk showed two planes linked to Prigozhin landed there on Tuesday morning.

Read more here.