July 2, 2023 Russia-Ukraine news

By Hafsa Khalil, Ed Upright, Maureen Chowdhury and Matt Meyer, CNN

Updated 12:17 a.m. ET, July 3, 2023
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5:15 p.m. ET, July 2, 2023

Wagner will suspend recruitment for a month in wake of armed rebellion, organization says

From CNN’s Mariya Knight

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private military company the Wagner Group is suspending its recruitment efforts for one month as it moves operations to Belarus, a Telegram channel affiliated with Prigozhin said Sunday. 

“Due to the temporary non-participation of Wagner PMC in a special military operation and moving to the Republic of Belarus, we are temporarily suspending the work of regional recruitment centers for PMC Wagner for a period of 1 month,” stated the Telegram channel, which is run by one of Wagner’s employees. 

Remember: It was Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko who reportedly brokered a deal for Prigozhin and his forces' to exit Russia after Wagner's stunning, short-lived rebellion against the Kremlin last week.

Up to that point, Wagner had played a key role in Russia's war in Ukraine, especially in the embattled eastern town of Bakhmut. With the insurrection and Prigozhin's apparent severing of a long-held alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, questions swirl about the future for the mercenary chief and other Russian officials with ties to his group.

On Friday, Lukashenko invited Wagner Group mercenaries to train his military during a speech dedicated to Belarus Independence Day.

In previous speeches, Lukashenko said Wagner had been offered some abandoned land inside Belarus as needed. 

4:15 p.m. ET, July 2, 2023

Russia has made some advances on the eastern front while heavy fighting rages in the south, Ukraine says

From CNN's Mariya Knight and Kostan Nechyporenko

Russian forces have gained some ground near the eastern Ukrainian town of Svatove, Ukraine's deputy defense minister said Sunday. 

“Fierce fighting is taking place there. The enemy is attacking Bilohorivka and Serebrianka,” the defense official, Hanna Maliar, said in a Telegram post, referring to two smaller villages south of Svatove. 

Why it matters: The eastern town, which is located in the Luhansk region, has long been regarded as a key target for Ukrainian forces. It is situated along key Russian supply routes, so any eventual recapture of the town would have important strategic implications for Ukraine. 

Elsewhere in the east: Maliar said “heavy fighting” continues along the entire eastern front line, with Russia attacking in several directions. The cities of Avdiivka, Marinka and Lyman are among them, Maliar said, echoing a report from the Ukrainian military Saturday.

While Ukrainian fighters are moving forward along the southern flank in the Bakhmut area, having “partial success,” Maliar said Russia has moved two air assault regiments to the northern flank and the fighting continues.

On the southern front lines: Maliar reported gradual advances of Ukrainian troops in the south, in particular in areas surrounding the cities of Berdiansk and Melitopol in southeastern Ukraine.

Troops are engaged in ongoing, heavy fighting, she said. Ukrainian troops are facing intense enemy resistance in these areas, as Russia mines the routes remotely and redeploys forces, Maliar added.

The Ukrainian military's General Staff said troops engaged in direct combat with Russian forces more than 28 times over the last 24 hours. It also said Russia has launched 11 missile attacks and eight strikes with drones during that period.

CNN cannot independently verify battlefield reports from either side in the conflict.

4:22 p.m. ET, July 2, 2023

Zelensky says he's afraid to lose bipartisan support in the US

From CNN’s Mariya Knight and Maria Kostenko

Zelensky attends a press conference in Kyiv on Saturday.
Zelensky attends a press conference in Kyiv on Saturday. Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he's afraid to lose bipartisan support from the United States, following what he called "dangerous messages coming from some Republicans."

Mike Pence has visited us, and he supports Ukraine. First of all, as an American, and then as a Republican,” Zelensky said in a news conference with Spanish media in Kyiv on Saturday. “We have bipartisan support. However, there are different messages in their circles regarding support for Ukraine. There are messages coming from some Republicans, sometimes dangerous messages, that there may be less support.” 

Zelensky said that regardless of who wins the next US Presidential election, maintaining bipartisan support is "the most important thing for Ukraine."

During the same news conference, Zelensky was asked if he fears for his own life, to which he replied that he thinks "it is more dangerous for Putin" due to the Russian president's growing number of international adversaries.

Some background: The topic of whether the US should continue aiding Ukraine against Russia's invasion has created a rift among the Republican party.

GOP presidential candidates are split into two camps: Isolationists, particularly former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who believe the US is too involved in supporting Ukraine’s efforts to fend off the Russian invasion; and hawks, including several former Trump administration officials, who argue for an even more aggressive posture toward Russia. Both sides are warning that if their positions aren’t heeded, a world war could follow.

CNN's Eric Bradner contributed reporting.

3:43 p.m. ET, July 2, 2023

This is where Ukraine's military says some of the fiercest fighting is taking place

From CNN's Maria Kostenko and Radina Gigova

Ukrainian servicemen ride armored personnel carriers toward Bakhmut on Saturday.
Ukrainian servicemen ride armored personnel carriers toward Bakhmut on Saturday. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

The most intense battles on the front line continue to be in areas within the cities of Bakhmut and Marinka in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military said Saturday. 

In Bakhmut, forces "continue to push the enemy on the northern and southern flanks," said Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesperson for the Eastern Grouping of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

The Russian military has conducted 415 recent artillery attacks and three air raids, he said. Troops engaged in active combat seven times during that period.

In the Marinka area — south of Bakhmut, near the city of Donetsk — Russian forces continue relentless attacks, according to Valerii Shershen, a military press center spokesperson. 

"This is the hottest spot," he said. "There were 15 combat engagements in the last day, most of them took place in Mariinka."

The city, which is now in ruins, has been on the front lines since the beginning of the invasion, with fighting at close-quarters among the rubble continuing almost daily.

Elsewhere on the eastern front: North of Bakhmut near the cities of Lyman and Kupyansk, Russia shelled Ukrainian positions 377 Russian times, launched three assaults and conducted 12 air raids, Cherevatyi said. 

"Russians are constantly shuffling personnel," he said. "Recently they have moved an airborne regiment from the Lyman sector to the north of Bakhmut, replacing it with territorial defense troops," he said. "The enemy is concentrating their best forces in the areas of our attack. Number one is Bakhmut right now."

The Ukrainian spokesperson claimed Kyiv's forces are taking dozens of Russian prisoners every week. CNN cannot independently verify claims on battlefield developments.

To the south of Bakhmut near the town of Vuhledar, Russian shelling has increased around frontline areas.

"They do not launch any offensive actions but increase shelling. The number of enemy infantry has increased as well," said Nazarii Kishak, commander of the machine gun unit with the 72nd Separate Mechanized Brigade.

And near Berdiansk, on the far southern end of the eastern front, "our troops continue to consolidate their positions at secured positions and carry out mine clearance. They are on high alert to continue the offensive," Shershen said. 

The entire front line in the south of Zaporizhzhia region is mined, he said. Russian forces have been "mining both manually and remotely, as well as with MLRS (multiple launch rocket systems)," he said. 

11:07 a.m. ET, July 2, 2023

Zelensky visits Ukrainian port city of Odesa and meets with wounded soldiers 

From CNN’s Eve Brennan, Kostan Nechyporenko and Svitlana Vlasova   

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a trip to Odesa, a major seaport hub in southwestern Ukraine on the shore of the Black Sea, where he met military commanders and visited injured soldiers in the hospital on Sunday.

“Today I am in Odesa, first of all, to congratulate our soldiers of the Ukrainian Navy on their professional day. To congratulate them and thank them for their courage, heroism, and the extraordinary results they have achieved and are still achieving for Ukraine,” Zelensky said in his daily address.

The Ukrainian president also said he heard a report from the commander of the Ukrainian Navy, Oleksiy Neizhpapa, and the commander of the Odesa Joint Forces Operation, Gen. Eduard Moskaliov.

The report covered the operational situation in the Black Sea, the defense capabilities of the Navy and their development strategies for both during the war and when it has concluded, according to a post from Zelensky's official Telegram account.

“The enemy will definitely not dictate the conditions in the Black Sea, and the occupiers will have to be as afraid of approaching our Ukrainian Crimea and our Azov Sea coast as Russian ships are already afraid of approaching our Black Sea coast,” the Ukrainian leader said.   

Zelensky also visited wounded soldiers in the hospital and presented them with state awards, he said.  

3:45 p.m. ET, July 2, 2023

US air defense units are being strained by global threats — including the war in Ukraine

Frim CNN's Haley Britzky

Patriot missile batteries from the 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery Regiment stand ready at sunset in Poland on April 10, 2022.
Patriot missile batteries from the 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery Regiment stand ready at sunset in Poland on April 10, 2022. Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Smith/U.S. Department of Defense

The US Army’s air defense units are among the most overworked in the US military, manning missile systems across the globe to provide around-the-clock deterrence against adversaries including Russia, North Korea, China and Iran.

As demands stack up with the war in Ukraine and other looming concerns, US military leaders have warned that the country's front line missile defense units could be stretched too thin.

A strain on personnel: The situation became so severe that in 2020, the service conducted a survey of air defense soldiers and families, and have recently been working to implement changes to offload some of the pressure those soldiers and their families are feeling.

The Army is offering $47,500 enlistment bonuses to attract more candidates for certain air defense jobs, including operating Patriot missile batteries, the advanced air defense system the US has provided to Ukraine.

It’s also embedded mental health specialists into air defense units around the world in an effort to address burnout.

The Army’s air defense branch is among the most frequently deployed branches of the service, with almost 60% of its total force deployed at any one time. On average, air defense soldiers were found to have less than a year at home after a year-long deployment.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, US air defense soldiers stationed in Europe have had to deploy with just hours’ notice to protect NATO’s Eastern flank and assist in training Ukraine.

Meanwhile in the Pacific, the US military is increasing its presence in the region to prepare for a possible future conflict with China. All of this is in addition to an ongoing mission in the Middle East, though the Pentagon has reduced some commitments in the region.

“We have been overworked and undermanned,” one senior Army air defense officer told CNN. They spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.

An urgent training mission in Ukraine: The need for a strong air defense has been on display as Ukraine works to thwart relentless attacks by the Russian military. This weekend, Russian forces used Iranian-made drones in overnight strikes on Ukraine's capital, but Kyiv's air defenses destroyed all the drones, according to city leaders.

For the US soldiers tasked with providing defense for partners, as well as training Ukrainians to operate their own air defense systems, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Master Sgt. Carlos Retana, a Patriot Master Gunner, led the US Patriot training for Ukrainians in Europe after they trained at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The training was unlike anything he’d seen in his 23 years in the Army, Retana told CNN. Ukrainian troops ranged drastically in age and military experience, and very real consequences hung over the training as US troops sought to teach their Ukrainian counterparts everything they know.

Retana said ultimately, the US trainers were “praying that what we did was sufficient” before sending trainees back to the front lines.

“At the very end, it was bittersweet — it was happy that the training was complete, and that (the Ukrainians) were successful,” Retana said. “But it was also a very worrisome and heavy burden to think they’re headed into the wolf’s den … to go fight.”

You can read more here.

8:22 a.m. ET, July 2, 2023

Poland to step up security on Belarus border, minister says 

From CNN’s Allegra Goodwin and Antonia Mortensen

Poland will send 500 police officers to bolster security along its border with Belarus, the Polish interior minister said Sunday.

“Due to the tense situation on the border with Belarus I have decided to bolster our forces with 500 Polish police officers from preventive and counter-terrorism units,” Mariusz Kamiński tweeted, adding the officers would join the border guards already guarding the frontier.  

The announcement comes after the Polish Border Guard said 187 people had tried to illegally cross into Poland from Belarus on Saturday. The border guard also said a Ukrainian citizen was detained for helping five Ethiopians to cross.  

The situation at the border has been tense in recent years as migrants hoping to travel deeper into Europe from Poland have attempted to cross, and has been complicated by the war in Ukraine.

A crisis erupted in late 2021 when thousands of migrants were stranded on the Belarus side of the Kuznica crossing for months in grueling conditions. 

Some context: Belarus has been a close ally to Russia both before and since the invasion of Ukraine last year, and has agreed to Russia's plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in the country. On Tuesday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that most of them had arrived.

Belarus previously had no nuclear weapons since the early 1990s, when it it agreed to transfer them all to Russia after gaining independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

7:36 a.m. ET, July 2, 2023

Zelensky says short-lived Wagner rebellion has diminished Russia's strength on battlefield

From CNN’s Mariya Knight and Maria Kostenko

A Wagner fighter walks past a tank in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24.
A Wagner fighter walks past a tank in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24. Reuters

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s attempted rebellion in Russia last week “greatly affected Russian power on the battlefield” and could benefit Ukraine's counteroffensive.  

“They are losing the war. They have no more victories on the battlefield in Ukraine, and so they are starting to look for someone to blame,” he said at a news conference with Spanish media that took place in Kyiv on Saturday. 

But Prigozhin’s rebellion could be beneficial in the early stages of Ukraine's counteroffensive, he added. 

We need to take advantage of this situation to push the enemy out of our land,” he said.  

Zelensky said the counteroffensive will not be done quickly because he values human lives and is strategic in where troops are deployed. 

“Every meter, every kilometer costs lives... You can do something really fast, but the field is mined to the ground,” he said. “People (are) our treasure. That's why we are very careful.” 

Zelensky also claimed 21,000 Wagner mercenaries have been killed in eastern Ukraine. He did not specify over what time period the supposed deaths took place.

“The most powerful group of Wagnerites was in eastern Ukraine,” Zelensky said.

“Our troops killed 21,000 Wagnerites in eastern Ukraine alone; 80,000 Wagnerites were wounded,” he added. “These were enormous losses for the Wagner PMC.” 

Neither side releases battlefield casualty counts, and CNN cannot independently verify Zelensky's claims.